How to Choose a Medical School & Put Together a School List

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

Session 304

This will hopefully be the most in-depth look at what medical schools you should apply to. Putting together your school list is an important part of your app. So how do you create your medical school list?

Meanwhile, be sure to check out all our other podcasts on MedEd Media Network to help you along your medical school application journey!

[03:00] The Don’ts When Choosing Medical Schools

Don’t look at your GPA and MCAT scores. Sure you need to understand to understand the key schools you’re applying to but creating a full school list is the last thing you need to do. Why? Because it can be distracting. You can be tied up into so many details at such an early point in the process when you should only be focusing on personal statement, ECs and so much more.

Don’t think that you’re only applying to MD schools or only to DO schools. If you want to be a physician then apply to both since this increases your odds of getting into a medical school.

Don’t apply to more than 30 schools. The average number of schools students apply to is 14 for AMCAS (for MD schools) and 9 for AACOMAS (DO schools). This is outside of the public schools in Texas since they have a different application system. I personally don’t know the average for Texas schools but I’m assuming it’s around 9 as well. So how many schools do you need to apply to? Well, it depends on your budget and how many schools you want to apply to. It depends on how many secondaries you want to write or how many interviews you want to go to. Check out this medical school application cost estimator to help give you an idea of how much you might be spending when applying to medical schools.

So the average number of total schools you can apply to is around 23, but I wouldn’t really recommend applying to more than 30. Sure, it could be easy clicking all those buttons, but the hard work comes on the back end once all those secondaries start coming in. And you realize you don’t have enough time to write all those essays. That’s a waste of money especially if you have do not have the intention of filling out those secondaries since you’re overwhelmed with all the others.

Moreover, you have to understand that secondaries come in in one big rush (except for those schools that will screen their secondaries). But this is the scenario for the majority of the schools. And you’ve got to turn them around as fast as you can. It’s therefore recommended that you pre-write your secondaries. Another thing to consider is if you’re able to follow through with all those secondaries if you are invited for an interview. So there is a lot of what if’s when applying to that many schools.

[13:05] Narrowing Down Your School List

Most students look at their MCAT and GPA so they’re going to look at the MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements), an AAMC tool that you pay for. You sign up for an account there and then input your scores. Then you’d see that you fall short of the average scores on a particular school and you decide you shouldn’t apply since your score is below their average. However, that is not their average.

The number you’re looking at on the MSAR is the median number – half of the class is below it, half of the class is above it. If half of the class is below that number, why would you not apply if your number is below that median number? What this means is that half of the students who are already at that medical school have scores that are also below their median number. And when you’re looking at the median score, that’s doesn’t really matter.

[Tweet “”Do not use MCAT and GPA to narrow down your list.””]

Moreover, don’t assume that you can’t get into any of these schools for whatever reason. These schools are putting together a community of students they’re hoping will mesh together well for the next four years of their lives. So there could be something in your application that the admissions committee is looking for such as your background and experience. And who knows, you could get invited for an interview. Your chance of getting into a school that you don’t apply to is zero percent. But if you apply then it’s more than that.

[Tweet “”Don’t assume you can’t get into any school because there’s always, always a chance.””]

[17:10] Tiers and Safe Schools

If you’ve gone to SDN or Reddit, you might find that students talk about tiers in medical schools. That is a premed tier system. When you’re applying to residencies, medical schools will only matter a little bit. Instead, YOU matter. You, as the student, matter – board scores and your performance in your rotations and electives, not the school name.

Are there great medical schools? Sure. And they’re hard to get into. But are they going to teach you more than any other medical school? No. They may offer you more experiences and different exposure to things. Hence, don’t look at a list based on what are some high tiers or mid or low tiers. That’s just a premed thing so don’t worry about that.

[Tweet “”What you learn is on your own. Knowledge is a commodity. That knowledge is everywhere now with the internet. There are no tiers when applying to medical schools.””]

On that same count, there is no such thing as safe schools. Of course, you have to be realistic. You need to have some basis in reality and some level of competitiveness to assess your GPA based on all matriculants last year. Have some knowledge of that as you’re looking around and thinking through these things. But that shouldn’t be the end all and be all. Getting into a medical school is hard no matter what school you’re applying to.

[21:05] The Match List

The match for the medical school should have no bearing on whether or not you apply to that medical school. You might see schools and wonder why the match rate for a certain specialty is so high, but the question is why. Correlation, not causation. Is there an amazing attending physician at that medical school that gets a ton of people excited about it and writes amazing letters of recommendation? So you don’t really know the circumstances behind that match list.

The student, and not the school, matches. Your board scores, which is how well you do on your national board exams will determine your ability to rank. Your performance will determine if you will rank and match at these programs.

[Tweet “”The student, and not the school, matches… Your performance will determine if you will rank and match at these programs.””]

So don’t just look at the match list when choosing your schools and basing it on how popular the match rate of a certain specialty is. Again, you don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes that are dictating these numbers. What matters is your performance and your board scores.

[25:00] Beware of Tools Predicting Your Application Chances

There are tools out there that would predict your chances of getting into a medical school. If you do, look at it with a HUGE grain of salt.

[Tweet “”No tool will predict your chances of getting into medical school.””]

There is no tool that can predict your chances of getting into medical school, no matter what kind of information you give them. What it’s doing is showing you past data as to who got in last year or the year before that.

[26:04] Things to Consider When Choosing Medical Schools

[Tweet “”Don’t go to a great medical school. Go to a medical school that will make you great.””]


Where is it located? Is it close to family or far away? Or do you want to be away from them? Or do you want to be near them to get that support structure? So find a map of medical schools in the country. See where the medical schools are clustered around and find those areas where you want to be. Look at the weather.

Class Size & Curriculum

Are you looking for a more intimate relationship with your classmates? Or are you looking for a lot of opportunities to meet new friends? What’s the curriculum? Is it problem-based learning or systems-based? Be true to who you are to determine what you want and where you think you will thrive.

Residency programs

Data shows that about 75% of the students who go to medical schools thinking about a particular specialty will change their mind. So now let’s say you go through the process and pick your school based on the match list or access to a residency program. Then you get to a medical school and you start your required rotations in your third year and you realize it’s not what you really want and you want something else. But then the residency program of that specialty that you now like at that hospital is not really good. What do you do?

Again, when picking medical schools based on potential residency, don’t do it from a match list perspective. Instead, look at the proximities of that medical school to where those teaching hospitals and programs are.


Tuition would fall at the very end. In fact, tuition is really only there if you’re looking at multiple medical school acceptances. See if you can have financial aid packages and compare them. Try to pit them against each other so they can throw more money at you. But right off the bat, don’t use tuition as your basis for choosing medical schools.

[Tweet “”Don’t look at tuition until you have multiple acceptances.””]

[32:37] State Residency

If you’re a California resident applying to California public schools, there’s the in-state residency. And most public state schools will have preference for their in-state applicants. There are some private schools that have preference for their in-state applicants, but not all.

So if you’re a California resident applying to the University of Colorado, you’re at a lower chance of getting into Colorado because you are an out-of-state applicant. If you’re an out-of-state applicant, ask yourself why you’re applying to this public out-of-state school? Figure if you have ties to the state or the school. If you don’t have either of those things, why are you applying? Otherwise, you better have really solid stats.

[Tweet “”You better have really good stats for an out-of-state applicant.””]

Out-of-state tuition depending on where you go may take a year and it’s usually substantially more than an in-state. For most states, the state is subsidizing the in-state students. And as an out-of-state student, you are not being subsidized so you are paying the difference of what the state was paying for medical school. You’re not necessarily paying more for medical school but you’re just paying what the state was paying for the other students who are in-state.

All this being said, don’t apply to a lot of out-of-state public schools because the chances of getting into the school are generally a lot lower. Now, this is where the MSAR comes handy because it shows you the number of in-state applicants, out-of-state applicants, acceptance levels, etc. The MSAR is for the MD schools while the CIB (College Information Book) is for DO schools, but it’s not as data-rich as the MSAR.

[36:36] Q&A Portion

Q: How do you choose a medical school and how do you really have time to research?

A: You make the time to research for medical school.

Q: Are state schools easier to get into than out-of-state schools?

A: They’re not easier to get into but they give you preference if you’re an in-state applicant. Some schools have a rule that they will interview every in-state applicant.

Q: What are the different types of teaching styles that medical schools have?

A: There’s the traditional curriculum, system-based curriculum, problem-based learning, split classrooms, and more. So research what you like. Some schools have different tracks and they’d ask you which track you prefer.

Q: Should I do the TCOM early decision program?

A: Applying an early decision program is not advisable unless you have really good stats and very super strong ties to that medical school. Otherwise, it’s more of a risk than it is a benefit.

Q: How should those with children search out more family-friendly schools?

A: Go on to different forums and ask those questions. Find students at those schools and ask those questions.

Q: How should we consider the support and prep offered for Step 1 when choosing a school?

A: You don’t. The school may give you six weeks of prep or they may pay for different prep materials, great. But it’s you who are still going to prepare for Step 1. You can pay for those on your own too if you go to a school that doesn’t offer it. All schools are teaching for you to prepare for Step 1. Now, it’s up to you to learn it and integrate it, act on it, and execute it on test day.

Q: What’s a good strategy to shorten the list?

A: Residency, class size, location, curriculum, etc.

Q: How do you get scholarship money?

A: Hopefully, you get a financial aid package from a school. Then if you get accepted to another school that you really want to go to and they haven’t offered you any financial aid package, you can tell them that another school accepted you and offered you money. Ask the school then if they can match it or if they can do better. Just have an open and honest conversation with them.

Q: What is the most important quality for selecting schools to make sure it’s a good fit?

A: It’s hard to judge culture and fit just by reading a website and looking at the MSAR. Unless you go to a school and their open house and talk to students, it’s hard to understand what that fit will look like.

Q: Do you choose a school by ranking? What factors help you have the most success after?

A: 100% don’t choose a medical school based on U.S. News and World Reports Ranking. Majority of the data they use is subjective and the rest of that data has nothing to do with the quality of the medical school.

Q: Do medical schools have preferences for certain universities?

A: There are some schools that may have preference for specific students as they may want to train students for that area who will stay in the area and provide care for patients in that area. Think of all public schools that way. That’s why they have preference for in-state applicants. They want to train future physicians to treat patients in and around the area where the school is.

Q: Should you visit every school you think you may want to go to?

A: In an ideal world, yes. But realistically, you have no time to do that.

Q: What should you know about beyond the mission, curriculum, research opportunities, etc.?

A: This video will show you how to research these medical schools, where I will show you how to research on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Q: Going to a school where rotations are at a community health center?

A: DO schools generally have rotations set up at more community-based hospitals whereas MD schools are typically at these large urban academic medical centers. Should you choose your medical school based on that? It depends on the circumstances such as whether you have a family and you’d have to consider that you have to travel a bunch when doing rotations.

Q: Should you look at whether medical schools are nontrad friendly?

A: Medical schools are looking for students to create a community in their class. So it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re nontrad-friendly or not.

Q: Are there med school cutoffs?

A: Medical schools have cutoffs for GPA and MCAT scores. It is worthwhile to find out what those cutoffs so you would know whether your application will be filtered out.

Q: How do you get to NYU and get free tuition?

A: You work really hard as a premed student.

Q: Should you apply to pass/fail schools?

A: A lot of medical schools are pass/fail. They don’t rank their students as it’s part of when you’re applying to residencies and you get a dean’s letter which talks about who you are. It aggregates information from the feedback on your rotations. And a lot of times, they will give a ranking of you based on your peers. Some schools are going away from that to make medical schools less competitive. That said, some pass/fail schools still rank you. It won’t hurt you for residencies but they just have different ways of classifying who you are.

[50:50] Final Thoughts

Apply to medical schools or you get into 0% of medical schools you don’t apply to. You don’t know what the medical schools are looking for. Therefore, you should apply. Be realistic about everything, but apply. The worst thing that can happen is they tell you no. Don’t be scared of rejection.

Ultimately, you won’t know if you’re a fit to that medical school until you go on that interview. Try to ponder on this story of a student who had a school that was last on her list, and she left that interview with that school now being her number one choice after going to the medical school, talking with the students and faculty, and seeing the culture.


MedEd Media Network

Medical School Application Cost Estimator

MSAR (Medical School Admission Requirements)

Medical School Facebook Hangout

Here’s a video of how you can research medical schools!

Get the Podcast Free!

Subscribe in iTunes Google Play Music Subscribe to RSS

Leave us a Review and Rating!

Just like Yelp reviews or IMDB ratings help you choose your next restaurant or movie, leaving a 5 star rating and/or a written review is very valuable to The Premed Years. It allows us to be able to share our information with more people than ever before.

I am so incredibly thankful to those who have recently gone into our listing in iTunes to provide a five start rating and a written review of The Premed Years.

Subscribe and Download

iOS/Mac/Windows – You can subscribe to the show in iTunes. Or you could manually add the RSS feed to your aggregator.

Android/Mac/Windows – You can download DoubleTwist and use that to manage all of our past and future episodes

Please help us spread the word!

If you like the show, will you please take a moment to leave a comment on iTunes? This really helps us get the word out!