Strategies to Select the Right Medical School to Attend
Create a spreadsheet and rank schools if you’re having a hard time choosing between multiple institutions.
IF YOU HAVE interviewed at multiple medical schools and the acceptances are coming your way, you are now faced with weighing the pros and cons of each school. Every applicant uses various criteria to choose a program, and you have to determine which are the most relevant to you.
Let’s take a look at how to navigate the many considerations.
• Cost: Cost is a common consideration. For some, the principal factor may be comparing the cost of attending a private school with that of a state school. The tuition alone can be staggering, let alone the cost of living in a city such as New York or San Francisco. And don’t forget the cost of traveling back and forth from your hometown.)
This decision is highly personal and depends on such factors as scholarships, family finances and projected future earnings.
• Personal relationships: Perhaps you need to stay close to an aging parent with failing health, or you have a partner who can’t move to another city. Some of these relationships will thrive at a distance, while others will wilt.
Consider how your loved ones will deal with the extraordinary amount of time required for your studies. If the time commitment has already been a problem, don’t underestimate how the problem will increase when you’re in medical school.
For the foreseeable future, the time demands will only grow. There’s tremendous benefit in being with someone who can be happy on their own when you are busy.
Perhaps your loved one got accepted at only one medical school, and you have various options. Can the relationship last until you are both in clerkships, when each of you can take rotations in the other’s hospital?
Relationships can be difficult under the best of circumstances. That said, my physician friends and I believe that marrying the right person is more important than where you go to medical school. If you have a solid relationship now, do your best to preserve it.
• Status and history: For some, the pedigree of a school may be the most important consideration. Perhaps one of your parents attended – or wanted to attend – a particular school. There is nothing wrong with placing a high value on these reasons, but be sure to consider if the school is truly a good fit for you.
Some say that the status of the school is an advantage when you are applying for residency, assuming your United States Medical Licensing Examination scores and other performance markers are all equal. Most students expect older established schools to have great influence and networking power, but don’t underestimate what newer schools are doing to advocate on behalf of their students.
If you’re considering a new medical school, you may be wondering about the risks. If the school is so new that it cannot produce its board pass rate or demonstrate residency match results, there is some risk. However, my observation is that pioneer students want to prove themselves, and they do very well.
Generally, you will get greater personal attention and support in a new school and the faculty will expend greater effort to validate their curricular preparation.
• Match results: Outcomes of the match and the entire process of career advising are critical aspects to explore. Competition for residency slots has become more challenging as the number of graduates increases every year. Only primary care residencies have grown in recent years and this does not appear likely to change under the current federal regulations.
Make career mentoring a top priority in picking your school. Asking how many students went through the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program – abbreviated SOAP – in the past few years could be enlightening. SOAP is the process similar to a rematch for those who did not match with a residency program initially ranked.
Ask this question after you are accepted to a medical school, as you don’t want to inadvertently touch a nerve. Senior students are likely to know through the grapevine about the prior year’s SOAP results and might be willing to tell you.
It is hard to tell precisely how pleased students are with their match. Students are no longer required to disclose their first, second and third choices to faculty, and most schools would not even ask. Newer or smaller programs that are closely connected with their students may still receive this information voluntarily from residency applicants, which helps with future advising.
• The right fit: My final thoughts on medical school selection are: How do you feel about the program? How happy are the students? Does the teaching style fit with what you need to do your best?
Some students love freedom to explore, while others need very specific structure and clarity. Some schools may have more of an active political agenda that challenges the current health care model and, thus, attracts students of a similar mindset. Other schools may see that as a distraction and prefer to focus on the basics.
You may wish to add more criteria as you dive into the selection process. If the entire process feels overwhelming, create a large spreadsheet and rank each category from one to five. This exercise may help you see the medical school that best fits your needs.