Medical School: Where Should I Apply?

by Hana Bakalli

So you’ve submitted your committee application, you’ve taken your MCAT and you’ve arrived at step 7 of the AMCAS primary application. Now, you’re probably thinking: “What’s this? Medical schools? You mean I have to narrow it down? Can’t you just send the application to all of them? I just want to get in somewhere, anywhere! How do I decide how many? Which ones?”

As someone who has spent the past year going through this process, I can say that there are many different elements to consider when finally deciding how many and which schools deserve your application.

Typically, a good strategy is to select a few “reach” schools, a large number of schools whose profiles you fit well, and a few schools you think you have a relatively high chance with. Realize that even if you feel you are the most amazing and fantastic applicant to have ever graced AMCAS with their primary application, you should still cast a wide net when applying.

In order to make a distinction between these three ‘types’ of medical schools, it is important to have a realistic view of how competitive an applicant you are for each school. This involves taking a hard look at your science GPA, MCAT scores, as well as clinical, leadership and research experiences.

The MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements) is a publication that lists extensive information on each medical school’s acceptance statistics, class profiles and admissions procedures — it can be a useful tool in determining whether or not you fit a certain school’s profile. However, most schools have this information on their websites, too.

“Reach” schools are the schools that, as their name implies, might be a “reach” for you. This could mean a school whose MCAT/ GPA averages are above your scores or a school whose profile you fit well but which takes a limited amount of out-of-state students. In either case, these schools should comprise only a small portion of your med school mailing list.

The bulk of your list should be made up of schools whose profiles you fit well and where you have a realistically good chance of getting accepted. In this range, people tend to apply to anywhere between two to 45 schools.

Even with a so-called “safety” school, there is no guarantee you will be accepted. However, it doesn’t hurt to apply to one or two schools where you feel you have an above-average chance of acceptance. For example, some state schools heavily favor in-state residents, and if you’ve gone above and beyond their requirements, you better consider applying.

Choosing how many schools to apply to depends on a variety of factors. Some prefer applying to more schools if they feel a part of their application is weak, but you may be limited by your financial means. Sending your primary AMCAS application costs $160 for the first school and $30 per subsequent school. After that, secondary application fees can run between $70 to $130. Simply sending your AMCAS application to 15 schools would cost $580. If the secondary applications were to cost an average of $90 then it would cost an additional $1350 to send those. If you want to apply to more schools, it is a good idea to save some money beforehand.

Before you begin the application to a school, make sure to do a thorough check of the school’s undergraduate course requirements. There are some schools that do not accept AP credit for the core science courses unless you take upper electives in the subject. Only apply to schools whose requirements you have completed or can complete before graduating. On a personal note, I made this mistake and ended up losing money by applying to a couple of schools whose requirements I could not possibly meet before graduation.

Applying to medical school is a personal choice since you’ll need to think about where you see yourself spending the next four years of your life. If you don’t want to have to fly home to see your family, then only apply within a certain driving radius of home. Maybe there’s a region of the country you’ve always wanted to live in or you’d like to try living somewhere more rural after four years in urban Pittsburgh. Whatever the case, take these factors into account when choosing schools.

Medical schools have commitments to different aspects of medicine. Some focus on primary care while others have robust global health programs and still others focus heavily on research. Look into what each school’s priorities are to see if they match what you are looking for in a medical school.

Most schools will follow the general pattern of having one and a half to two years of pre-clinical courses and two years of clinical rotations. However, there is variation in curriculum in the pre-clinical years. Some schools integrate various topics such as pathology and histology across body systems while other schools have separate blocks for these topics. Almost every school will have a mixture of traditional lecture and problem- based learning (PBL) where students are split up into small groups to solve and discuss medical cases. Certain schools will place an emphasis on one or the other and if you happen to have a preference, it would be useful to go to a school that matches it. Additionally, schools can range from very structured to unstructured in their pre-clinical curriculum, so apply to schools that fit your learning style. Grading systems in the pre-clinical years can be a concern as well; you can narrow down your choices to those with Pass/Fail systems only, if you prefer.

While it may seem like a daunting task, applying to medical school can be rewarding and exciting. Apply to a broad range of schools that fit your preferences, personality and interests, and hopefully a year from now you’ll be holding an acceptance to medical school – eager and ready to begin your journey to becoming a physician!