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Choosing a Medical School

By Ovninder Johal
Graduated from UCLA; previously Berkley Review MCAT instructor; currently a medical student at University of Arizona– Phoenix

For many individuals, applying to medical school is a process that begins long before they open the AMCAS website. Applicants today know how complicated the process is, and they plan accordingly. They carefully select their classes and work hard so that they can maintain a high GPA, they take MCAT prep courses and spend months studying to achieve the best score that they can, they engage in research, and they volunteer countless hours to round out their application. They do all of the right things to gain admission, but oftentimes they overlook a key fact: you don't apply to medical school, you apply to medical schools. After you have completed all of the prerequisites, taken all of the exams, and written your personal statements, you are left with a simple but daunting question – where do I send this? How many schools, what kind, and then which ones? This article details a series of steps intended to help you examine yourself and your prospective institutions, with the ultimate goal of tailoring your list of schools to maximize your chances at a successful application cycle. It opens with a qualitative analysis of yourself as an applicant and concludes with a simple six-step plan encompassing the key elements to consider when choosing your prospective schools.

Step 1: Find out where you absolutely cannot apply.
Step 2: By the numbers, find out where you are competitive.
Step 3: Refine based on region.
Step 4: Polish by looking at mission and fit.
Step 5: Consider Secondary length.
Step 6: Double-check everything.

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Part 1: Considering Yourself

What Have You Accomplished?

The process of selecting schools begins with looking at yourself – how competitive are you as an applicant, and what are you looking for in a prospective school? This evaluation begins with two very important numbers, your undergraduate G.P.A. and your MCAT score. Perhaps more so than any other factors, these two metrics determine your eligibility for admission to any particular school. The AAMC, the governing body that administers the MCAT and manages your primary application to U.S. M.D. schools, has published a table plotting an applicant's cumulative G.P.A. and MCAT score against the historical likelihood of such an individual being accepted to a U.S. M.D. granting school. This table can be found at:

AAMC Table 24

Comparing yourself against the information presented in the table should give you a sense of where you stand. Based upon your numbers you can get an idea of how ready you are to apply (if you have a moderate to high likelihood of acceptance), and if you should consider finding ways to improve your grades or test scores (if your chances aren't quite where you would like them).

After you have looked at the hard numbers, it's time to consider your accomplishments during your undergraduate years or beyond. As any physician or school administrator will tell you, though the numbers are important, they aren't everything. Admissions committees want to know that you have seriously considered the commitment that you're taking on. They want to see what makes you special and what factors have driven you to pursue a life as a physician.
As such, part of being a competitive applicant is having varied clinical experiences that show you understand what it is like to practice medicine in a variety of different settings [1]. In my personal opinion, it is beneficial to divide your clinical exposure across a number of different specialties, being sure to include primary care. Hundreds of hours in an ED or with a surgeon is impressive, but that same number of hours spread over a variety of fields can show a more balanced and realistic view of medicine as a whole.

Beyond your clinical experience, non-medically related efforts are also very important. Non-clinical volunteering shows interest outside of the field and increases your appeal as an individual by showing a broader level of consideration and experience. Many schools also look for research experience, and its inclusion in your application can boost your potential for acceptance. Even if you are not particularly interested in researching, having the experience under your belt and then deciding upon it in an informed manner makes you appear to be a better candidate than someone who simply says no to the idea. Additionally, don't discount your hobbies and interests. As some of our own SCOPE members have detailed when writing about their experiences interviewing, and as the Tulane University secondary application shows, medical schools like to see what makes you unique. If you are passionate about something, be it cooking, travelling, sports or anything else, demonstrate it in a way that shows you can channel your interest into being a better physician. A person with diverse interests is more able to relate to their classmates and their patients, and as such is more desirable to many schools [2].

What Do You Want?

Having looked at what you bring to the table, the second half of considering yourself is examining what you want to accomplish during medical school. Not all schools are the same, and knowing what you want is key in considering where you will be happy, where you will be best suited, and where you are most likely to be accepted. Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • What specialty or type of medicine are you interested in practicing?
  • Do you only want an M.D. degree, or are you also interested in D.O. schools? Are you considering foreign options?
  • Are you only interested in patient care, or do you think you may want to go into academic medicine? (Do your interests lie more towards just taking care of patients, advancing the field of medicine, or a mixture of both)
  • Are you interested in participating in research during medical school?
  • How do you learn best? Do you think you would prefer a traditional lecture-based curriculum or a newer problem-based learning system?
  • What sort of location are you looking for? Do you want to stay in state or close to your home? Do you need somewhere far from any distractions, or are you comfortable in a big city?
  • Are you interested in working with a particular ethnic or social group? (e.g. working in rural locations or with the underserved).
  • Are you considering pursuing multiple degrees? (M.D./Ph.D., MPH, MBA, etc.)

Figuring out the answers to these questions ahead of time will help you choose the institutions that are best suited to advancing your goals and getting you where you want to be.

Part 2: Considering and Choosing Individual Schools

How Many Schools?

One of the biggest factors in promoting a successful application cycle is applying to a large and broad range of schools. From your self-analysis in Part 1, you should have a good idea of how competitive you are as an applicant. In general terms, a stronger applicant can afford to apply to fewer schools, whereas a less competitive applicant is behooved to apply a little more broadly. The number of schools any given individual applies to ranges between 15 and 50, with many experts recommending about 30 individual applications [3].

Which Schools?

By far the most useful tool in selecting schools to apply to is the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR). Published by the AAMC, the MSAR is a compendium of information about every M.D. granting school in the United States. The publication provides information about each school's mission, interests, average accepted student demographics and statistics, regional acceptance rates, and requirements for admission. Available in both print and electronic formats, it can be an invaluable resource in the admissions process.

Once you procure a copy of the MSAR, you may want to do a little bit of math to help yourself wade through the mass of information presented. The LizzyM score is a metric popularized by the Studentdoctor.net community that offers a quick and easy method of comparing yourself to the average matriculant profile for a given school. Though this is by no means a guarantee of acceptance or interview, it does make beginning the selection process a little bit easier. The score is obtained by the formula:

LizzyM Score = [(Average Cumulative G.P.A.)*10] + (Total MCAT Score) – 1

If your personal LizzyM score matches or exceeds the average LizzyM score for a matriculant at a given school, you may have a good chance of being accepted there. Conversely, if your score is far below a school's average, you may be better served devoting more time and effort applying elsewhere.

The Six-Step Process

Having armed yourself with the information available in the MSAR, your knowledge of your LizzyM Score, and your own insight into your motivations, you are now ready to actually choose the schools you want to apply to. There are many ways to go about the business of doing so, but we believe the following six-step process to be one of the easiest and most comprehensive.

Step 1: Find out where you absolutely CANNOT apply.

For various reasons, each applicant will have certain schools where they simply do not have any reasonable chance at acceptance. Identify these first. Factors to consider are:

  1. Age of the last accepted MCAT. The generally accepted rule is that an MCAT score is valid for 2-3 years, but each school sets its own guidelines. Identify those institutions that will not accept your score and cross them off your list.
  2. Regional Acceptance: Some schools only accept U.S. citizens and residents, others only residents of their states or nearby regional territories. Look at school descriptions to help weed out the schools where you are ineligible.
  3. Course Requirements: Each school sets its own course requirements, and you may not meet the requirements for each specific school. Find out where you are ineligible to choose whether you want to apply, or whether you can meet or circumvent their requirements before you matriculate.

Step 2:By the numbers, find out where you are competitive.
Having weeded out the impossibilities, use your hard statistical data to compile a rough list of schools where you are competitive.

  1. Make the bulk of your selections institutions where you match or exceed the average matriculant's MCAT, G.P.A., and LizzyM
  2. Don't be afraid to include a few reach schools. If you really want to go somewhere, even if it is statistically out of your reach, go for it. Especially if you feel the softer parts of your application fit well with that school's mission/values.
  3. I would recommend at least one quarter to one third of your list be schools where you are well above the average GPA/MCAT/LizzyM for a matriculant to the program.

Step 3:Refine based on region.
From your list of numbers based choices, start looking at regional acceptance rates. Many schools will have a heavy bias toward in state applicants, or applicants from a specific region. Look at the percentage of out of state applicants vs. number applied vs. number matriculated. If a school only interviews and accepts a tiny portion of OOS applicants, reconsider if there is a specific draw that is making you apply there.

  1. If a school passes this test and still seems oddly favorable to out of state students, go directly to their website and read their admissions policies. An example is UND, who statistically accept many OOS students. Their website shows that they only draw from a few neighboring states.

Step 4:Polish your list by looking at mission and fit.
Having run the numbers and checked your regional chances: Polish your list further by comparing your desires and strengths to the school's values and attributes.

  1. The AAMC has a good list of questions to ask yourself about each school. AAMC Suggested Questions
  2. If you're strong on research experience but have little clinical experience, don't only apply to schools that are dedicated mainly to primary care and who have relatively little interest in research. (Info can be found in MSAR and US NEWS rankings)
  3. Vice Versa: if you have lots of clinical experience and want to go into primary care, but have little experience with research, reconsider applying to a research powerhouse that demands research from each of its students.
  4. If you are heavily invested into working with or serving with the underserved, focus on schools that match those drives and motivations.

Step 5:Consider Secondary Length
Writing secondaries is a HUGE undertaking. If you can add a few schools with short or essay free secondaries, and you can afford it, go for it. If schools require pages and pages of essays, think long and hard before designating them to AMCAS.
Step 6:Double-check everything.
Go to the website for each school on your compiled list, and confirm that everything you believe about them is true. You'll be revisiting these sites when it comes time to write your secondaries, so go ahead and bookmark them now to save time later.

Closing Thoughts

The above processes and ideas are not a foolproof method to choosing the schools you want to apply to; we only hope that they may furnish you some guidance and direction along the way. Like the entire premedical experience, and the practice of medicine itself, school selection is an intensely personal and individualistic journey. Whatever methods you choose to use, be humble, stay dedicated, and keep your prospects open. Time spent here can save money and frustration later on.

Best of luck!


Footnotes and References

Footnotes and References



1 Freedman, Jessica, The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions. (Lexington: MedEdits Publishing) 36.

2 Freedman, Jessica, The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions. (Lexington: MedEdits Publishing) 40.

3 Freedman, Jessica, The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions. (Lexington: MedEdits Publishing) 74.


Freedman, Jessica. The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions. Lexington, KY: MedEdits Publishing, 2011. Print.

AAMC's Organization of Student Representatives,. "Selecting a Medical School: Thirty Five Questions I Wish I Had Asked." . American Association of Medical Colleges, n.d. Web. 12 Aug 2012.  AAMC Suggested Questions

Association of American Medical Colleges,. "Table 17: MCAT Scores and GPAs for Applicants and Matriculants to U.S. Medical Schools, 2000-2011."  Applicants and Matriculants Data. AAMC, 11 September 2011. Web. 12 Aug 2012.  AAMC Table 17

Association of American Medical Colleges,. "Table 24: MCAT Scores GPA Grif for Applicants and Accepees to U.S. Medical Schools, 2009-2011 (aggregated)." Applicants and Matriculants Data. AAMC, 01 January 2012. Web. 12 Aug 2012.  AAMC Table 24

2011-2012 Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR). 2011-2012. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Medical Colleges, 2011. Print.


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