Choosing Schools

I apologize for the long time between posts this time around – I’ve been very busy moving back to Oklahoma for my gap year, applying to medical school, and attending HOSA’s 40th Anniversary Celebration and 2016 International Leadership Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. It was wonderful seeing many of you in Nashville and I can’t wait for next year’s ILC in Orlando, Florida.
I mentioned that applying to medical school has consumed much of my time over the past month – I figured because it is fresh on my mind I should take the next few posts to recount some of what I’ve learned and am learning as I go through the process. I plan to do a four-part series on this topic, beginning with my first two installments concerning choosing the programs that are right for you (I will use the terms “school” and “program” interchangeably). I should note that a prerequisite to this first post is my article on the MCAT – that test consumes so much of the early application process that it could be included in this series as well! But I digress…
I’ve spoken with many people about choosing medical programs to which to apply, including doctors, professors, academic advisors, and current medical students. They’ve all echoed the same theme: apply only to programs where you fit in. This doesn’t, of course, make selection any easier, but tweaks the way that you’ll think about the programs to which you’re applying. This process may even lead you away from medical school – current trends in healthcare support the idea that nurse practitioners and physician assistants will become increasingly essential to the way that care is provided in the U.S., and these are tempting programs to the student who either isn’t sure that their stats will allow them to get into a medical school or who is looking to minimize the cost or time spent getting out of school and to their patients. Also as an aside, osteopathic (DO) programs are largely the same as allopathic (MD) programs (DOs can even take MD residencies) and are often easier to get into. Research all of these programs and pursue what’s right for you. I will be mostly talking about MD programs in this series, but I am personally applying to both MD and DO schools and all of what I’ve learned can be used to apply to both.
I recognize that for many people, this school selection process will be rather simple. If you live in a rural or smaller state, only one or two in-state programs may exist (if there isn’t a medical school in your state, it’s very likely that programs in an adjacent state will allow you to pay in-state tuition and fees). The cost difference between an in-state public program and any private or out-of-state public program is usually enormous (often times $25k+/year difference), thus many people make in-state public schools their top programs, and if they are confident in their academic performance may only apply to these. Note that out-of-state public schools often accept very, very limited numbers of out-of-state applicants and charge these students much higher rates (again, unless your states have an agreement because your state doesn’t have a school). Private schools typically don’t have any state-based admission bias. The MSAR is the tool you’ll use to gauge the state bias phenomenon, but the moral of this story is – apply to your in-state schools no matter what, and STRONGLY consider putting them at the top of your list! Your “state” is determined by legal residence, and is usually NOT changed by attending undergraduate college in a different state – even though I went to NYU, my state of residence is still Oklahoma.
This first step is all about math, and will seem rather cold. Begin by purchasing the MSAR. This is an ESSENTIAL database provided by the AAMC that contains application data from every allopathic (MD) school in the U.S. It costs $27 for a year’s access and allows you to see application and acceptance stats as well as basic information about each school. You can filter and sort the schools by various stats, and the two that we will look at first are typical matriculant (current student) GPA and typical matriculant MCAT score. These typical numbers are reported in percentiles (something you are used to if you have already taken the MCAT!). The 10th-90th percentiles are reported. If you are below the 10th percentile of GPA for a school, then that means if you were to be accepted, you would be in the bottom 10% accepted as far as GPA is concerned – not a good position to be in as an applicant. You should generally try to select programs where you are within the 10th-90th percentile for both GPA and MCAT – if you are below this, you likely won’t be accepted, and if you are above it, you can likely get into a better school. Use these two numbers to gauge your academic fit for a program. If you are applying to many schools, you should aim to select a “range”: a couple of schools to which you are reasonably sure you can get in, some schools where you think you have a good chance, and one or two schools where you think you might have a small chance. Remember that the cost of applying to each school is considerable.
At this point I’ll also mention another popular metric – the LizzyM Score. As a premed student you’ve likely stumbled upon, a forum for premed students. I don’t like to get on this site because it makes me anxious and I hardly ever learn anything concrete, but a user named “LizzyM” has created a formula which combines your MCAT and GPA to show you schools where it thinks you are competitive. If your GPA and MCAT are of a similar tier, this formula will show you a list of schools that should be very helpful. If, however, you have a high GPA and low MCAT score or vice versa, it won’t help you very much. Google “LizzyM” to find it.
Now that you have the tools to allow you to select schools where you’re competitive, let’s delve deeper into the MSAR data. The ither metric to look at initially is the number of applicants and matriculants. Let’s look at a public school – Rutgers in New Jersey. We can see in the MSAR that last year, Rutgers received 1,532 in-state applications and 2,332 out-of-state applications. They accepted 173 in-state students, and four (!!!!) out-of-state students. 2,329 people didn’t use the MSAR to make smart application decisions, and so wasted around $150. Let Rutgers be your reminder to look at the applicant/matriculant data! Make sure that every out-of-state school on your list accepts a large number of students from out-of-state.
Use the GPA, MCAT, and applicant/matriculant data to generate your preliminary list – you can literally “favorite” these in the MSAR and sort them in the same ways that you did before. A final note - several types of applicants may be competitive with less-than-ideal stats at their ideal programs (underrepresented minorities in medicine, those with extraordinary extracurriculars, or those who have overcome great hardships to pursue their education), but most others who do not lay in the 10th-90th percentile range will be better served by investing their time and money pursuing other programs. Consider researching the programs I mentioned near the beginning of this post.
I hope that this post has given you the tools you’ll need to begin looking at medical school programs that are right for you. Here, we focused on raw data – you can literally use a computer to create your initial list. In the next installment, however, we’ll be looking into the less cold, less definite ways to narrow your list down. Until then, feel free to email me with any questions at I’d be glad to hear from you.