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Accepted! How to Choose a Medical School

Congratulations! If you’re reading this post it means you’ve shined through the medical admission process and you now have the luxury of choosing which med school is best for you. Take a moment to remind yourself how hard you worked to have the privilege of making this decision.

We know that choosing a medical school (where you will invest your time, energy, and money over these next four years) can be very challenging for a multitude of reasons, so this article will highlight everything you should consider when making your decision.

You may have already started the process by painfully trying to recall the plethora of information spewed out at you during med school info sessions on interview visits, but that might have been months ago and you were likely too busy focusing on how to nail your actual interview (which you obviously did, nice job!).

This dilemma may lead you to consult resources like the US News & World Report, which rank medical schools based on quantifiable factors like MCAT scores & GPA of the entering class, research funding, and assessments by deans and program directors. For some, this may aid in your decision, but we all know that choosing the setting for the opening chapter of your career in medicine should depend on more than just numbers & statistics. What is intangible for these ranking systems is actually what is most essential in this decision — which school is the right fit for you?

Which medical school is right for me? Here are the six attributes to consider when comparing med schools:

1. Location, Location, Location.

Many medical students report that location was the main deciding factor in choosing their medical school, and there are plenty of reasons why.

Remind yourself that medical school does not happen in a vacuum. When you have some free time, you want to be able to do the things that make you happy outside of medicine. That’s why proximity to loved ones, climate, and accessibility to your favorite hobbies are important to consider.

Over the next four years you will be presented with countless challenges, interspersed with plenty of highs and lows. Ask yourself which location would allow for you to have the best social support system available to share these moments with.

If you have the opportunity to stay with family during medical school, strongly consider the potential benefits of saving on rent money and coming home to a cooked meal after a long night in the library or on the wards.

Alternatively, you may want to utilize this opportunity to relocate, explore a new city, and build new relationships.

Four years is a long time, and it is very common for students to match into a residency program in the same city or hospital as their medical school, so be sure to consider location when deciding on a school.

2. Cost.

Medical trainees tend to be poor financial planners, but that doesn’t mean you have to be one too!

If you’re like most US medical students, you will be paying for your own education, so you want to consider the cost of tuition as well as the cost of living at each medical school.

Many medical schools require that students have a personal vehicle to travel to clinical sites which may be many miles away from each other or from the main campus, which is an important expense to consider.

Financial Aid offices of each school should be able to provide you with the average student debt of their school’s graduates, and you can compare this to the national median.

If your preferred school’s tuition is making you nauseous, consider emailing them to see if they can offer you a financial package to compete with the lower tuition of your second choice.

3. Revisit your match list.

This may be of particular emphasis if you are considering a relatively new school, or if you want to go into a hyper-competitive specialty (ENT, plastics, neurosurgery, etc.). If so, you should look at the school’s recent match lists to ensure that the school has a good track record of placing students in your preferred specialty.

Likewise, if you want to do your residency at a particular program it would be helpful to see that the school has matched recent graduates in that program as this connection can help you tremendously in the future.

Additionally, take note of any disproportionate number of students entering a single specialty or primary care, and consider how this aligns with your interests.

If you don’t know what sort of specialty or program you will want to train in, that’s perfectly normal as most students don’t or will change their mind several times before the match.

Something every student should look out for when vetting a match list is the proportion of graduates continuing their training at the same institution. A typical percentage is between 20-30%. If the proportion is far lower than this it could imply that there’s a reason graduates wish to leave the institution, and if the percentage is higher you should be wary of the school having difficulty matching students to programs outside of their own system.

Either way, you should consider the strength of the home program as these are the attendings and residents that will be teaching you while you’re in your clinical rotations.

4. Curriculum.

This is becoming increasingly relevant as many schools are transitioning to a non-traditional curriculum format.

Traditional curricula consist of two years learning basic science in a lecture-style format, very similar to your experience in pre-med classes in college, followed by two years in the hospital on clinical rotations.

More modern and innovative approaches may involve greater emphasis on independent learning where your time in class is focused on collaborating in small groups to consolidate and apply knowledge to a case-based problem.

My medical school focused on the latter and I absolutely loved it, however there are many learners who would prefer to be told exactly what they need to know in a powerpoint and that’s perfectly fine as well.

At this point in your education, you should have a good idea about which modality would serve you best. If not, or if you still have questions about these newer approaches to medical education, ask your prospective schools if you can sit in on a lesson to give you a better idea. In either scenario, you should also look at what resources are available for students who may be struggling, and how the graduation and attrition rates compare to the national average.

Next, you should evaluate the role and responsibility of medical students during their clinical rotations. If you’re rotating through a public hospital with less resources the medical students may have a lot more hands-on responsibilities than their counterparts.

Also consider what sort of demographic and diversity of patients are typically seen in their hospital and how this aligns with your interests.

5. Your Passions.

In my opinion, one of the most important steps in choosing a school involves evaluating how well the school can accommodate the things you are passionate about.

What I mean by this is, if you’re goal is to be involved in basic science research during medical school, take a look at how much of the student body is involved in research during their attendance, ask if the school helps connect students with research advisors, if it offers research stipends, what sort of research facilities they are affiliated with, and how much NIH funding do they receive.

If research isn’t your thing and you are more oriented towards service and community outreach, ask about what opportunities exist to engage in these and if there is a student-run community clinic. The same goes for medical education, narrative medicine, medical humanities, etc. If you are interested in a particular subspecialty in which students don’t typically rotate through, ask about how much exposure or elective time is available during clinical rotations to engage in that specialty.

If you have a particular hobby that is important to you, you can also ask about clubs, intramural teams, and interest groups available at each school.

6. Speak with current students.

This list would be incomplete if I did not advise you to speak to current students about their experience at the school.

Often times seniors are the best to ask as they have been through the preclinical years, USMLE exams, clinical rotations, and the match process so they are most equipped to give you accurate information.

You can ask them why they chose the school, if they have any regrets or anything they would change about the school, how helpful the school was in preparing them for their board exams and the match process, how they get along with their classmates, what they do for fun, or anything else that comes to mind. Informal conversations are also best and most likely to offer authentic answers.

Remember that the relative importance of each of these is entirely unique to you. Consider which will be most essential for your happiness and well-being, because in my experience that is the essential ingredient in thriving during medical school.