Choosing Schools Part 2

As promised, here is part two of my four-part series on applying to medical school. In the first installment, I discussed crunching the raw numbers to find schools where you’ll be academically competitive, and we also covered some in-state/out-of-state stuff. Now, I’d like to talk about the next step, which is much more holistic. Admittedly, this part of the selection process cannot be complete until you’ve interviewed (which will be covered in part four of this series), but it is essential to narrow your list as much as possible before applying so as to save money. A breakdown of cost:
AMCAS (common application): $160 for the first school, $38 for each additional school
Secondary application fee: Averages $100 per school
Interview: Gas money if it’s close, a flight and possibly lodging if it’s far
Application fees alone for 5 schools: $812
Application fees alone for 10 schools: $1,502
Application fees alone for 15 schools: $2,192
You get the picture. Each school runs ~$150 in fees even before interviewing costs, so not pruning your list adequately can be an expensive mistake. Let’s look at how to narrow your list. You likely have some sense of how to do this already. It gets at the heart of what everyone who I’ve asked has said - find a place where you fit in. Start on the school’s website – do you like where it’s located? Is it in the middle of a large city, or is it more suburban or rural? These not-academic factors that have nothing to do with the school itself are some of the most important, as along with being a student of the school, you will be a resident of the place it’s located. I would imagine that most medical students would tell us that the limited amount of time that they are able to spend away from their studies is very important to them, so choose where that time will be spent wisely. Also look at your connection to a place – is it within driving distance, or do you have friends or family there who will support you? Schools are selling you an education, but you are also choosing a life for at least four years.
The next thing to look at is the school’s culture. Often, you can find this stated succinctly in the mission statement. You will want to talk about this in any secondary application that asks about why you have chosen to apply to a specific school. Does a school place a particular emphasis on training primary care providers? Do they contribute substantially to research? Are they dedicated to providing medical care to underserved communities? Match these values to your own. I, for example, want to be involved in leadership and education in medicine, so I am applying to several schools that have large educational hospitals. I’ve also seen barriers to care for underserved communities firsthand in New York City, so I have applied to schools that place an emphasis on overcoming these barriers.
Then comes everything else. Maybe you want to study in New York City with an emphasis on research, but find out under the “student life” tab that the school doesn’t offer on-campus housing in NYC’s volatile housing market. Or maybe a school requires an undergraduate course that you didn’t take and can’t appeal. Or maybe the school’s financial aid abilities don’t fit your needs. Each school will do things a little differently, and by finding the “dealbreakers” that allow you to remove schools from your list, you’ll save yourself money that can go into interview costs or tuition.
I’d like to add in a note here about school “prestige” or “rank”. You can tell with a cursory glance at several rankings of medical schools that they are hardly definitive. There is some value, though, to a school’s name. Generally, the harder a school is to get into (the higher its typical GPA and MCAT scores are and the more people who apply to it), the more “prestige” it has. The general consensus seems to be dictated by the “match”, which I will detail in a future post and which decides where you will go for your residency after medical school. If you want to primarily practice clinical medicine everyday (especially primary care, emergency medicine, or internal medicine), you can likely go to whichever school is most financially practical for you and be fine performing reasonably well academically. If you’d like to go into a very competitive residency (dermatology, neurosurgery, etc.) or conduct high-level medical research & education, however, you need to either be at the top end of your class at a lower or middle tier school or consider applying to a top-tier school. Note that not all top-tier schools are private – UC schools come to mind.
I will end this post by describing the process that a hypothetical student might use to select schools. Hopefully by tracing the steps of a student you can see how I apply the tips that I’ve given in the last two posts. “HOSA Member Sarah” is from Arizona and wants to go to medical school. Her cumulative GPA is 3.7 and she got a 505 on the MCAT. Thanks to her participation in the Barbara James Service Award HOSA event, she has accumulated over 200 hours volunteering with underserved communities at a local clinic. She’s also been doing research the past two Summers at her college.
Sarah begins her search in-state. She buys the MSAR for $27 and sees that Arizona has two allopathic (MD) medical schools – U of A in Phoenix and U of A in Tucson. She’s between the 10th and 90th percentile for both GPA and MCAT score for both of these schools, and so they immediately go on her list. She’s also always loved the Los Angeles area and has family there, so she explores LA medical schools. The MSAR tells her that while there are five schools in the LA metro area, UC Irvine and UC Riverside barely accept any out-of-state students. UCLA and USC accept some out-of-state students, but are also very competitive. Sarah checks to make sure they have on-campus housing – they do, so they go on the list. Loma Linda University adheres to religious principles that Sarah doesn’t share, so she ultimately removes it from the list.
Sarah is reasonably confident in her ability to get into U of A Phoenix or U of A Tucson, which will provide her with easy access to family and friends and afford her an in-state tuition that is almost $15,000/year cheaper than any of her options in California. She does wonder if her extensive Barbara James volunteer work, collegiate research experience, and interviewing skills learned in HOSA might get her into an even more competitive school, though, so she decides to apply to UCLA and USC along with U of A Phoenix and U of A Tucson for a total of four schools.
As you can see, the factors that go into school selection are varied and depend on each person. As a student who has studied in New York, I ended up applying to around 15 schools. This sounds like a lot, but I reached for some top-tier schools where I may not get interviews and will be able to offset the cost of traveling for the interviews I do get by staying with friends. Every person is different and will have a different number and geographic distribution of schools. So find your schools and get started. As always, if you have any questions about choosing medical schools, you can email me at