How to Decide Where to Apply to Medical School

If you, like myself, have ventured far into the pre-med track, chances are you have heard the saying “back in my day, I applied to three medical schools and got accepted into two”. Unfortunately, those days are long gone, and this new era of modern medicine has cultivated an application arms race where a respectable GPA and MCAT no longer equates to automatic admission. This is where I aim to help, as I have made countless mistakes both in my undergrad years and in the application process itself. I hope that learning from my pitfalls will give you the knowledge and resources necessary to become a successful applicant. This will not only save you money in costly application fees, but also the countless headaches that come with navigating the unexpected landscape of this application process.

 

There are over 150 medical schools in the United States, how do you decide which ones to apply to?

For my first blog post, this will be the question that I explore. But before we go into details, I wanted to briefly outline the application process for those who might be unfamiliar. This process consists of a primary application (common app), a secondary application (specific to individual schools), and an in-person interview for a handful of selected applicants. I will be writing a detailed post on the specifics of the application timeline, but for now we will jump ahead and focus on the general statistics of the cycle.

In 2016, there were a total of 53,042 applicants applying to MD schools for an available 21,030 spots. If all things were equal, 39.6% of MD applicants will be admitted somewhere, and 60.4% will be rejected. As for DO schools, there were 20,720 applicants for an available 6,592 spots, which accounts for a 31.8% acceptance rate and a 68.2% rejection rate. Again, that’s based on the premise that all pre-med are applying equally, which as we all know would be a false assumption. So why does that matter? I’m priming you with these numbers to reiterate the competitive nature of this cycle, but also to bring up the point that where you apply will matter a great deal in your respective outcomes.

 

Let’s start off by clearing the air of a common misconception: If you don’t attend a prestigious medical school, you won’t become a successful doctor.

When asked by family or friends where I want to attend medical school, my favorite answer tends to be “wherever I can get in”. I prefer this as opposed to listing off all 15 schools I applied to, but it also holds an element of truth. The universal fact is that you simply need one acceptance to break the barrier of entry. But what some don’t realize is that compared to other professional degrees such as MBAs (business) or JDs (law), where you go for medical school matters a whole lot less. Elite companies and law firms will only recognize degrees earned from top tier schools, whereas students from prestigious medical schools are not guaranteed a residency slot. They still have to earn it. Now there’s definitely a correlation between top medical schools and their student’s success, but an MD or DO degree from any accredited school in the US will adequately prepare you for your board exams (either USMLE or COMPLEX), and your board scores, along with your choice of specialty, will play a much larger impact on your lifestyle, income, and overall happiness.

My point here is to not get distracted by the medical school rankings. You obviously want to attend the best possible school, but in today’s society, where rankings are obsessively talked about, this only add another layer of unnecessary competition. Think of why you’re going into medicine. For most of us, we want to better the lives of our patients, maybe fix our healthcare system, and do some real good in this world. Where you attend school won’t change any of that. Is this application process extremely competitive? Yes, but I believe you can get there in a collaborative manner. For this reason, I will always try to incorporate positive, realistic encouragement on this blog, not unnecessary competition. If that sort of stuff motivates you, go to SDN.

 

How to choose a medical school: In other articles, you’ve probably encountered factors such as tuition, geographic locations, and whether or not the school is a good fit. But let’s be honest, if you’re anything like myself, my personal breakdown would probably come out to be 10% tuition, 5% geographic location, and 85% whether or not I have a realistic shot. That’s not to count out these other factors, because your graduating debt will definitely play a huge impact on your future. But as a pre-med who has put in countless hours and effort to get to this point, factors such as location and cost plays an almost trivial role in whether or not you will actually attend if you were granted admission.

So what criteria should you be looking for? Listed below are some of the questions that I found useful while putting together my list. I will first talk about some of the key components, then bring up a couple useful resources, and then wrap it up with my personal strategy for picking schools. Here it is:

  1. Is the school public or private? (More on this below)
  2. Are my stats (GPA/MCAT) on par with the school?
  3. What is their Out-of-State Matriculant Percentage (OSM)?
  4. What is their class size/ interview pool/ applications received?
  5. Does the school have a specialty? (Primary care, research, dual degrees, etc)
  6. Grading system: Pass/fail or standard grading?

 

Public vs Private: Although there’s about 144 MD schools in the US, over half of them are public schools. With some exceptions, many public schools receive funding from the state, and are therefore required to reserve a certain portion of their medical school class for in state (IS) applicants only. A few examples that come to mind are Texas and California. Both are considered “unfriendly” towards Out of State (OOS) applicants, and Texas even has their own application, TMDSAS. In contrast, most private schools are generally friendly towards OOS applicants, again, with some exceptions. The upside of being on an even playing field (so to speak) is counterbalanced by the downside that is the magnitude of applications that the schools receive. George Washington, for example, received almost 15,000 applications last year. This equates to over a quarter of all MD applicants that are applying to the same school. With DO schools, most of them are private, and are thus generally friendly towards OOS applicants. This table gives the complete breakdown on the OSM percentage of all accredited DO schools in the US. When applying, it’s a good idea to start from your home state school(s), and then look for OOS private schools and public schools that are also OOS friendly.

Note: Always take caution when you think that you have found an OOS friendly public school. I’m from Seattle, so I’ll use University of Washington as an example. UW has a class size of about 250. According to MSAR, about half their matriculants are out of state (~125), which seems extremely high. However, here’s the catch: UWSOM reserves 200 of its class for applicants from the WWAMI region (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho), since UW is the only public school in this area. So in reality, if you’re not from the WWAMI region, you’re competing with 6000+ other applicants for 50 true OOS spots. That’s less than than a 1% acceptance rate.

 

MSAR (Medical School Admission Requirements): The MSAR subscription is definitely one of the best school research tool that you can use in picking out MD schools. Coming directly from the AAMC, it includes a breakdown of all the school’s admission statistics, including the 10th-90th percentile ranges for their applicants & matriculant’s GPA/MCAT stats. This is a solid indicator in determining where you stand in comparison to other applicants. That’s not to say you don’t have a shot if your stats fall outside these bands, but from a purely statistical point of view, it’s generally a good idea to have the majority of your schools fall within this range.

The average MD applicant sends out between 15-16 apps, therefore it’s a good idea to include on your list 3-4 stretch schools, 7-10 competitive schools, and 2-4 undershoot schools. Other MSAR features allow you to sort by state, see the residency specialty choices of the recent graduates, and includes an in-depth breakdown of applications received, interviews granted, and class sizes. In summary, applying without MSAR is like taking the MCAT without doing any practice exams.

The DO equivalent of MSAR is the Osteopathic Medical College Information Book provided by AACOM. This online handbook is completely free to download. I have not used this resource personally, but if you have and would like to give input, please email me and I will include it in this post. The average DO applicant sends out between 8-9 apps, and a similar breakdown should also be used.

 

Medical School Directory (MSD): The MSD is a platform that I have created in order to help you browse and pick out schools. I recommend using the MSD map as a supplement to MSAR. One advantage of MSD is that it has information on both MD and DO schools in the same place. It can also be used as a link hub for all medical schools. When you hover over a school map marker, it will show you the average matriculant GPA/MCAT, the degrees offered by school, and the out of state matriculant rate (OSM). By clicking on the map marker, it will take you to the individual school’s website, where you can find information on requirements regarding letters of recommendations (LORs), pre-reqs, and the school’s mission statement. For those who are interested in dual degrees, this is also a great tool to quickly filter out the schools that offers said program. Again, I will go into excruciating details regarding admission requirements and LORs in a future post.

 

Grading System: In my opinion, this is a crucial element that often gets overlooked. Many schools are switching over to a pass/fail grading system in order to reduce unnecessary stress and competition within their classes. I recently interviewed at Tulane School of Medicine, and learned that the Tulane med students place a  huge emphasis on collaboration and helping fellow classmates. This element appeals to me not only for its mental and emotional value, but also because I believe it’s more representative of the teamwork aspect of medicine. Information about a school’s grading system can be found on MSAR (for most schools), or on the school’s website.

 

How I compiled my list: Now it’s time to put everything together. I compiled my list of schools by breaking it down into two stages. In the first stage, I relied on the first three questions mentioned above and gather a list of schools within my stats range that were at least somewhat-friendly towards OOS applicants (>50% OSM). Either MSAR or MSD can be a great tool for this. This preliminary round narrowed my list to about 30 schools, since I was applying with a subpar GPA.

In the second stage, I went through all the schools again, but this time in meticulous detail with regards to questions 4-6. Most of my schools were private, but I was also on the lookout for public schools that received lower amounts of applications (less competition) that were also somewhat OOS friendly. These latter questions also helped me prioritize the schools I preferred more, which then determined the order and urgency of secondary apps once they came around. Keep in mind that this stage will be very different for everyone, depending on what it is that you’re looking for in a medical school. For me it was a dual degree program. For you, it could be primary care, research, rural settings, underserved populations, etc.

 

This is all the information I have for you as of now. Always remember that this admission process is definitely one of the most challenging aspects, because once you’re in, the schools will do all in their power to keep you there and to make sure that you succeed. If you have any questions regarding the post, or have any general input, please feel free to email them to themedicalschooldirectory@gmail.org.

 

To wrap up this post, I shall leave you with a list of 10 private schools that are considered extremely friendly towards OOS applicants (>75% OSM).

 

  • George Washington (DC)
  • Georgetown (DC)
  • Tulane (New Orleans, LA)
  • Rush (Chicago, IL)
  • Creighton (Omaha, NE)
  • Dartmouth (Hanover, NH)
  • Brown Alpert (Providence, RI)
  • Quinnipiac (North Haven, CT)
  • Tufts (Boston, MA)
  • Duke (Durham, NC)