Deciding on Where to Apply to Med School?

Male college student taking notes on medical school admissions.

It’s not always easy deciding on which medical schools one should apply. According to recent data from the American Association of Medical Colleges, the average number of schools an individual applicant applied to was 15 in 2014. Acceptance rate for the 49,480 students that applied to U.S. medical schools in 2014 was 41 percent, a slight drop in rate of acceptance from 2013. This percentage – the lowest it’s been in a decade – reflects the increasing number of applicants and limited number of seats each school has.

Simply put, more people are applying to med school today than ever before.

The number of schools you apply to really depends upon your qualifications and the level of competitiveness of the medical schools to which your applying. With careful research, it may be possible to apply successfully to a smaller number of schools. If you’re not sure where you stand with your chances, then applying to a large number of schools (15 or more), though a costly investment, may be your best bet.

The factors below are general considerations you should have in mind when putting together a reasonable list of medical schools on which to apply.

1. State Residency Status

Determine your state of residency. Many medical schools only consider applications from in-state applicants or admit a very small number of highly qualified out-of-state residents.

Each medical school has a set of requirements that must be met in order for a student to claim that he/she is a resident in a particular state. There is not one specific law or rule that applies to all states and all schools. Two schools in the same state may determine residency in different ways. For instance, some schools may use driver’s license information or tax information and others may use high school graduation and parent’s tax information. Some universities state that students cannot become residents until they have spent one year in a state without being a full-time student.

Call each of the schools where you think you may be eligible for in-state status and ask what criteria they use to determine whether an applicant is an in-state or out-of-state student. You may select only one state as a legal residence on your application.

Once official residency status is determined, make a list of medical schools that are either in the state where you are a resident, or that accept a reasonable number of out-of-state students. Statistics for the number of applicants and the number of accepted in-state and out-of-state applicants can be viewed here (PDF).

2. GPA/MCAT and Prerequisites

Try to determine the mean GPA and mean MCAT for the schools on your list. The best thing to do is buy or borrow a hard copy of AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements for U.S. and Canadian MD programs (also available online in searchable/sortable database format for a fee) or for DO schools, AACOM’s Osteopathic Medical College Information book. AACOM makes available DO school information for free online, although in the form of an individual PDF for each program.

Also, try to determine the acceptance rate for the schools to which you are applying. If you meet the GPA and MCAT means but learn that 20,000 applications are received and only 250 are accepted you will know not to rely heavily on being accepted at that particular school. Be realistic and apply to schools where you have a reasonable chance of gaining admission.

Regarding prerequisites, each medical school has a set of required courses. Although most course requirements are covered by completing 1 year each of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics, some schools may have additional requirements. For example, some programs require 1 semester of biochemistry. Before you apply to a particular school check to see if you have met or will be able to meet the academic requirements for that school.

As a general rule, students who have a weakness in their application (i.e. a lower GPA or a lower MCAT score) should apply to medical schools in states with multiple medical schools, as well as their own state schools. When selecting these schools pay careful attention to the number of out-of-state applicants that the school accepts and to the acceptance rate.

3. Cost

It’s usually not a good idea to consider the cost of a medical school when deciding where to apply. Students with weaker academic records may only be accepted at costly private medical schools. Students with stronger academic records should wait until an offer of financial aid has been made before concluding that a medical school is too expensive to attend. Applicants have the right to hold two or more acceptances until final financial aid offers have been determined. Cost should be a factor in deciding between two offers but should not be considered in determining where to apply. Often the costlier private medical schools have private funds that may be distributed to accepted applicants.

The cost of AMCAS and AACOMAS applications can be prohibitively expensive for some. Both AMCAS and AACOMAS offer fee waiver programs for students who would otherwise be unable to apply without a waiver. Each has completely different criteria to qualify and terms & conditions. For example, AACOMAS will waive the fee for up to 3 schools – anything more than that you will be responsible for the standard fee.

4. Emphasis, Innovation and Prestige

You may wish to attend a medical school that is noted for a particular specialization or training emphasis. However, remember that all programs teach students the same basic subjects and that students specialize during their residency training which follows graduation from medical school.

Some medical schools offer curricular innovations that will make them attractive to certain applicants. For example, a curricular innovation that’s become relatively common is called Problem-based Learning or PBL. This learning method was developed by McMaster University during the 1960s, but has been modified by institutions like Harvard and now employed by many medical schools across the United States. PBL basically teaches foundational medical courses using case studies and involves students in independent learning and group work rather than the standard lecture and laboratory format.

When applying to elite medical schools, applicants should apply to more than one of these top medical colleges. Each of these extremely competitive schools looks for a slightly different mix of characteristics among applicants. It is common for an applicant to be accepted at Harvard but not at Yale or vice-versa. Applicants who hope (and have a realistic chance) to attend a prestigious medical school are encouraged to apply to at least five or six schools in this category to maximize their likelihood of acceptance.