Choosing a Medical School

Medical schools choose students, but students should also choose the school.

Choosing a Medical School

Some students have their top medical school chosen before even attending undergrad. Maybe because that’s where their parents attended or simply because that school was always part of a dream. Other students remain focused on simply becoming a doctor, completely forgetting or ignoring a choice of medical school.

Well, wether you’re just starting to map your future medical career or trying to figure out which  schools to apply, there are things to consider when choosing a medical school. These considerations should be internally focused for you, as a students, but also externally focused as to how you related to the school itself.  The following discusses factors such as grades, MCAT scores, mission, learning environment, and location to determine where you should apply to medical school.

Grades & MCAT Scores

Most premedical students are aware that grades and test scores are simple quantitative factors used to evaluate applicants.  These numbers are used prematurely in the application process to determine an applicant’s potential for success in medical school. Note that although good grades and high MCAT scores don’t guarantee someone is fit to be a physician, they are relatively decent indicator of intelligence and/or academic success.

Earning decent grades is a fundamental part of preparing for medical school. Of course, “decent” here is used as a term relative to the grades of the applicant pool of the school to which you are applying. What does this mean? It means that grades too low or too high could negatively affect your chances of admission. The AAMC offers access to the MSAR online, which provides a statistical distribution of GPAs for each of the allopathic schools in the U.S. Essentially,  applicants are statistically more likely to be accepted to schools in which their GPAs fall within two standard deviations of the mean GPA of the school.

The same information is available from the MSAR concerning MCAT scores for each school, itemized by subject. Similar rules apply to MCAT scores as your GPA. Outliers have a statistically reduced chance for admission.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply to schools where you don’t fall into the normal distribution. All it means is that you should keep your expectations realistic. Balance your dreams with realism while staying determined to reach your goals.


If you apply to a particular medical school, it should be for a good reason. Give yourself the benefit of reading and learning about the schools to which you’ll apply. Find and attempt to develop a full understanding of the school’s mission. Then ask yourself, ” what is my mission?” If you find that the two don’t coincide with one another, not only will you be a poor fit for the school, but you’ll be less likely to be happy with your decision to attend that school. Here are a few major trends in medical school mission statements that you should consider:

Research. There are many schools that pride themselves in having a history of dedication to medical research. Keep this in mind if you apply to a school that lists research as it’s top priority. If so, you may want to consider the value of attempting to participate in research as an undergraduate student. Have your researched published as a premed is likely to have more weight at these schools.

Locally-oriented. Public medical schools usually enjoy the benefit of being funded, in part, by the state in which it’s located. Some states even place restrictions on the in-state population, where schools can only accept a limited number of applicants from out of state. Furthermore, other schools, may simply place a higher priority on in-state applicants, making admissions more competitive for the non-resident applicant pool.

Rural and underserved. With a continuous shortage of physicians throughout the country, many institutions are seeking to fill the gap that exists in rural or under served areas. This doesn’t mean that it’s imperative that you are from these kinds if areas, but some schools actually factor this into the selection process. If you want to attend schools with this mission, you should probably make serving these areas a primary concern.

Status and prestige. Unfortunately, this concept exists in all highly regarded professions. In recent years, status and prestige have become less of a goal to many medical schools. The goal of any medical school is to produce outstanding physicians that will serve the healthcare community. Any medical school or doctor will tell you, if you’re only in it for the prestige or status, you may want to consider other career options.

Ethnic/Religious. There are medical schools that exist in this country to overcome historic barriers to the medical profession. Their goals are to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine, in order to fill the needs of their respective communities. For those of you who were curious, no, you aren’t getting a minority scholarship. The same applies to schools with strong religious affiliations.


Consider the location of the medical schools to which you will apply. In addition to the considerations above, distance from home could be a deciding factor. The application process and distance between yourself and family could potentially provide unpredictable barriers to your medical education.

Applying to medical school is already expensive. Costs of applying include the application fees, secondary application fees, and interview costs. Most schools expect applicants to provide their own transportation and lodging if they are invited for an interview. Those costs add up if you are invited for more than one interview. In the end, it could cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per interview, which could be more money than you have or are willing to spend.

The same costs of travel continue with attending medical school if accepted. Imagine the costs of returning home for the holidays or for a family emergency. If finances are an immediate concern, this may not be a sacrifice some are willing to make. Also, costs of living could be higher or lower than those of your home town. Be sure you’ve adequately researched the community to which you may eventually move so you can be certain you’ll enjoy your decisions without regret.

Learning Environment

Finally, most premedical students are unaware that there are different methods of instruction in medical school. When choosing a medical school, you should also consider the school’s approach to learning. Most schools maintain a traditional classroom environment, where lectures are supplemented by engagement. There has been a recent trend in alternative methods of learning, such as problem-based learning.

Problem based learning is an augmented form of independent study. In medical schools that utilize problem based learning, students spend the majority of their time studying and problem solving independently. At varying frequencies, the students meet as a group to help one another with the current material. The study sessions are often guided by a faculty member, who does little more than facilitate learning.

Consider which learning environment suits you best. Do you learn more when lectured or by studying in isolation? This is a question you would surely want to answer – as the methods of instruction at medical schools differ, so would your experiences.


There’s much to consider when choosing a medical school. It’s more than numbers and prestige, more than money or contentment. You’ll encounter many difficult tribulations in your quest to become a physician, so just make every attempt to prepare yourself for anything. If you’re just beginning down the premed path, keep these thoughts in mind as you progress. If you’re getting ready to submit your application, take a second to reflect on the perfect medical school for you. The information included here is only a guide, intended to incite thought and meditation on a decision that is likely to affect the rest of your life.

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