FAQ: How Did You Decide How Many/Which Medical Schools to Apply To?

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Just prior to starting medical school I wrote an response to a frequent question, “How did you decide how many/which medical schools to apply to?”  Now that I’m in medical school I’m going to go ahead and amend this entry. To immediately answer the question: I submitted 20 primary applications, about 13 secondary applications, I was offered 8 interviews (by the way, all out of state). My budget only allowed for me to attend 5 interviews, I was accepted into all 5 (no wait listing), and I canceled the remaining interviews (3 interviews canceled) and I although I did complete the other secondaries I didn’t pay to submit them (the other 5 schools). On of May 15th, I became a Boston University School of Medicine student (BUSM).

How did you decide how many schools to apply to? — Primary Applications

There was a clear mathematical cut off based on how much money I did not possess, so at the very least I knew how many I could not afford. This sounds sort of silly, but its important to think about because it’s a rather expensive process (see my article “How Applying to Medschool Left Me With $3“). There are three phases of the application, if you’re not wait listed: 1) the primary, 2) the secondary, 3) interview. I saw a thread recently on SDN about someone planning on applying to ~100 schools (we can only hope they were trolling). But the whole process is pricey, so you better make sure you have money to follow through with each step.

People usually apply to about 15-20 schools if they’re average applicants, so I just went for that range as it worked within my budget, i.e. I applied to 20 schools during the primary. If you decide to DO schools as well, then you can easily see that 15-20 going into the 30’s. But, at the same time, I know people who’ve applied with 15 and did just fine (though she had stellar stats, intelligent, and is a great person to be around, a winning combination for medical schools).

How did you decide which schools to apply to? — Primary Applications

Before I was a premed I was applying to graduate school (I was accepted but didn’t go through with it, instead deciding to apply to medical school), so I during that time I already had some experience with “graduate level applications”. The process is rather different, that is applying for pure “research” graduate programs and a pure MD program. Most premeds will tell you it’s a “no-brainer”: go to the most prestigious program you can get into. In graduate school, say if you wanted to get a PhD in the field of electrophysiology, then picking X university because of it’s name wouldn’t be a sound strategy because A) you don’t know if that school has that program, and B) not all universities fund all research equally (it’s not all merit funding). I knew one guy who made the first mistake of applying to a school, writing in his personal statement how much he loved some type of niche chemistry technique only to find out that the schools he applied to didn’t actually have a program accepting students for such work. Anyways, long story short, the way I learned to apply to graduate schools was to spend a lot of time researching individual programs: going to their webpage, seeing how much I felt the program aligned with me, reading the school’s blogs. I didn’t use any ranking systems or any SDN advice/tricks (not to say there isn’t useful advice there, just not my groove). I just chose the hippy way — I used my heart and research in the hopes of finding a custom “fit”. Aspects of picking a medical school that were important to me were:

1) I first figured out if my potential acceptance be statistically astonishing or normal (I checked with the MSAR). This was really easy to check, just look at the GPA/MCAT of the class they accepted before, if I saw mine fit in there I figured statistically my possible acceptance wouldn’t sound so outlandish.

2) Grading system, I wanted pass fail. I’ve talked to medical students, and they’ve said they liked “pass/fail” because it made it ‘feel’ less competitive. And schools that have pseudo A,B,C,D (High pass, pass, low pass, no pass) grades were considered less desirable — though I did apply to some of them. I hate hierarchy, I know it will exist one day, but I want to delay it as much as possible. Personally, I just want to know how I’m doing I have no interest in stratifying myself against others in my class and I have this now at my current program. I’ve never attended another medical school, so I can’t compare my experience of difficulty to others, but in general getting that “P” is a lot tougher than you might assume.

3) I knew I had a modest research background and some unusual volunteer experiences, so I also focused on schools that had either (or preferably both) research and heavy community involvement as a sales point. Since BUSM had both of these aspects, it made them an easy choice when it came time to make my final decision. Currently, I’m involved in talks as I consider participating in clinical research this summer.

4) Location. Relocation was always part of my plan, but I wanted to live in a place where I wouldn’t need a car. Sure, I’ll be pretty busy in medical school, but I don’t want to be miserable about where I am for four years (it wouldn’t be fair to my classmates who DO actually want to be there). Right now I commute back and forth to school, through the rain and snow, with public transportation. As a student commuter, it’s been a lot easier on me as fewer things in live destroy the soul after a long day than hours at the wheel in traffic. As a bonus this lifestyle allows for me to do things like review flash cards, catch up on voicemail, or even pull off a little reading while on the train or bus etc.

5) Every [accredited] medical school will teach you medicine, but at least until congress allows for more dollars to go towards residency the positions are capped per year rather tightly. So, it’s important to think about how competitive you’ll be after you graduate. People take 4-5 years to finish medical school in the US, and the lion’s share of them will successfully match into a residency. As I’m a pragmatic person and the match disparity in non-US programs I focused on US programs only to keep my options the broadest later. Also, I did background research on each program more intensively if I received an interview: does this school have a match list at all, do people usually match locally, do I see people match into hospitals I’ve heard of? Knowing the match situation will give you a better idea of what type of candidates they’d prefer. I don’t think you can necessarily rate a school by their match list, but it gives you an incomplete snapshot of their situation/preferences. I wanted to know what percent of the class passed the USLME Step 1, and what percent of US seniors matched etc. I didn’t know the proper term until I was a medical student, but I was also looking into programs that are “safety net hospitals/networks”. I was also curious what type of interest groups existed in the programs, especially interest groups that mirrored my past experiences. Post graduate I was involved with prison education, now in medical school I’m part of the Physicians for Human Rights.

Of course none of this means the school necessarily generates success, if you invite ambitious people you’ll get ambitious results. During the secondary application I had a lot more time to research these types of topics, knowing these things also made interviewing easier because I genuinely did have questions.

How did you decide which/how many schools to apply to? — Secondary Applications

I didn’t complete all of my secondary applications. One program I just lost interest in entirely. The others, I either had enough interviews lined up by the time to comparable programs, so if schools were late sending me a secondary, it was likely they were lower on my priority list. I put higher priority on schools that made efforts to contact me directly and schools that screened my application — I knew if they had already screened me then I’d already got pass their “stats requirement”. I really got to know the schools more during this time, I data mined every piece of data the MSAR, I devoured every piece of publication I could find about the school — even in their local news. I really got to know each school that I finally put a secondary into, this also allowed for me to customize my secondary applications a lot. I’m sure this helped a lot, especially for an out of state applicant. I think the application process is a mutual selection, I don’t just want to get dropped into a medical school like a military draft — after all, what if our philosophies conflict? To learn more about the departments (this helped a lot for interviews) I already looked up some of the professors who’d be teaching my future classes, and looked up their research as well. When it came time to really think about the secondary application, I usually had enough random specific information about the school where it was rather easy to honestly praise each program.

Other than that, I did complete them as they came. It’s just that I got more selective about which ones I completed towards the end of my cycle, but I certainly gave priorities to schools that were already showing interest in me.

Interestingly, all of my work to personalize each essay only made it harder for me to select schools I’d be interviewing at, and finally make that life changing decision of where to matriculate. I never considered price, because medical school is expensive, I even turned down a full tuition ride to go to my dream school. I don’t believe in reincarnation so, this is my only chance to be a doctor, and I know I’ll pay it back. In the end, you just have to chose the program that “fits” you the most. =)

You can find me on twitter @doctororbust




2 thoughts on “FAQ: How Did You Decide How Many/Which Medical Schools to Apply To?

    […] ever algorithm you decide to go with while applying to medical school, make sure it’s pragmatic. You should […]

    […] To read more & find out how this student narrowed it down, check out the blog: FAQ: How Did you Decide How Many/Which Medical Schools to Apply To? […]

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