The Essential Guide to Choosing the Right Medical School for You
There are 17 medical schools in Canada, 130 in the United States and many more overseas. In order for you to differentiate each school, you should definitely have certain criteria and boundaries. Every person has their own set of values but if you know ahead of time what they are, it will make applying to and choosing a medical school to attend much easier.
This topic is not a new one and I have drawn from several sources to compile this post. There will be many similarities between choosing a medical school and choosing a undergrad institution. If you want more resources, I have provided several links at the end of this article.
The Most Important Factors to Consider when Deciding on a Medical School
- Student Life
Location, Location, Location – Nothing is more important to your well-being in medical school than location. In my opinion, where you attend medical school is the most important factor to consider. It will influence your academic ability, finances, education, and personal life. Medical school is a big change for most people and to begin your medical education in a new or familiar environment will make a difference.
I don’t think it matters too much which medical school you attend. Between a state school and an Ivy-league, every accredited medical school will teach you and prepare you for a career in medicine. Every student in the nation will take the same qualifying and board exams in the end. In the end, no matter which school you choose to attend you will still graduate as a doctor.
Friends, Family and Loved Ones – If keeping in touch with family and good friends is a high priority, you may want to attend a school close to home (in the same city or several hours driving distance). If you have lived at home your whole life and you are ready to see the world, this may be a good chance to change scenery. Likewise if you are married or in a serious relationship, living apart for four years will be very hard. Choosing a medical school is not only a personal choice but is a decision that affects the people around you. It would be wise to examine your current relationships and see how moving away or staying will affect them. After all, a happy personal life will be important for your well being and happiness in medical school.
Climate and Environment – Furthermore, location is the difference between walking to class through 3-feet of snow and waking up to beautiful west coast sunshine. Do you have a thing against rain, wind or humidity? Will you miss the mountains, oceans or beaches? Excellent climate shouldn’t make or break your decision but having to survive through 4 years of conditions you can’t stand can surely make it hell.
Urban City / Rural Area – Many people cannot stand living in a rural or small town setting. On the other hand, there are people who hate the big city life. Can you afford the cost of living in a metropolitan? Will studying in a remote place be too boring for you? These are questions people should ask. Not only will choosing the right city affect your personal life, your education will be affected by different patient demographics.
Finances – If you decide to live at home, you can definitely save a lot of money. If you do move away, could you see yourself living there after graduation? If so, you may want to buy a house or a condo as an investment.
Campus - Not all campuses are created equally. Some are in the heart of a bustling city and others are quiet and conductive to studying. When you visit and interview at a school, be sure to take a tour of the campus and make some mental notes about the surroundings.
International Schools - If you are planning to attend an International (Overseas) Medical School be sure you are aware of all the obstacles you will face. There will be many unique hurdles you will have to overcome, including limited clinical electives, competitive residency spots and many documentation issues, if you want to eventually practice Medicine in North America. Be sure you are aware of these issues because each year many foreign medical graduates find themselves in difficult positions.
Traditional vs. New Curriculum – Every medical schools can and will train you to become a competent doctor. The material you will learn is almost unanimously the same at every school. However, it would be to your benefit to choose a school where you can learn best. There are currently two schools of thoughts: (1) The didactic lecture-heavy traditional curriculum and the (2) “integrated” case / problem based learning (PBL).
There are strong supporters for both methods and my advice would be to figure out what works more effectively for you. If you are worried that your pre-clinical education will be compromised because of a school’s curriculum, know that in every class there are good and bad students regardless of the program. In the end, all learning is self-learning; so be responsible of your own education.
3 year vs 4 year programs - There are only two Canadian schools that have 3 year programs. Since both McMaster’s and Calgary’s program have classes throughout their summers, the total amount of class time is equivalent to a traditional 4 year program. However, there are pros and cons to completing a 3 year program.
With a 3 year program, your medical education is done faster and you begin “working” sooner. Obviously that’s one less year of tuition and one more year of earnings. Furthermore, a 3yr program would be beneficial for students who know what they want to do and cannot wait to begin.
However, there are also drawbacks to a 3 year program, including burn out and a less time for electives before the residency match . Since the program is accelerated, there are fewer chances for research opportunities normally done in the summer and not many chances to travel or take time off to pursue personal interests. Furthermore, many medical students do not know what field they would like to go into and many find that the extra year of school really gives them the time to think and help make that decision.
Clinical Experiences - As mentioned before, the location of your school will affect the clinical exposure you receive in 3rd and 4th year. A bigger school with a larger patient catch area will see many more rare cases and be involved in more projects. It’s important to speak to graduates of each school to see if they feel adequately trained for residency and likewise, current doctors who work with these graduates and can assess their clinical competence.
Grading System (Pass/Fail) – For some strange reason, there are still some schools that still use a letter grading system to evaluate their students. Obviously it helps differentiate the excellent students from the poor ones, but it also comes with a lot of unnecessary stress and competition. For me, Pass/Fail has been a huge blessing that decreases hostility and builds class cooperation. Though not a must-have feature, having P/F grading is a philosophy that I believe all schools should implement.
Research and Training Opportunities (MD/PhD) – Most schools will classify themselves as an academic research center or a primary care school. You may have an inclination for research, and in that case, finding a school that will help you pursue these interests and make it easy for you to do so (mentors, lab space, funding) would be another thing to think about. Furthermore, if a school is strong in certain areas of medicine you are interested, for example surgery, you will get a richer learning experience and possible networking chances in the field. Think a bit further or your eventual career and try to cater your current choices to fit your future dreams.
Flexibility – It’s also important to pick a school that has a curriculum that works for you. Do you need time off between summers? Is it important that there is free time for you, especially if you have other non-academic interests you want to pursue. Is it mainly classroom based learning, or does the curriculum allow lots of self-study time. Similarly, is there lots of online access to materials? For example, if you’re doing a concurrent masters in health administration or the likes, it would be important to pick a school that fits into your needs.
NOT IMPORTANT – Board Scores, Match Statistics into Competitive Specialties – A school’s average board score is not a good way to predict your future success. Like the MCAT, your USMLE scores are more indicative or your individual effort. Likewise, the number of graduates matched into Derms, Rads, ENT does not improve your chances either. Strong candidacy and continued efforts are the best indicators for match success, and that applies to all schools.
Scholarships and Financial Aid – Depending on whether you go to a private or public school in the States, the tuition difference can be astronomical. Is attending an Ivy League medical school worth the several extra tens of thousands of dollars debt? You should evaluate your own financial situation and decide on what’s best for you. Perhaps accepting that state school scholarship with a large financial package would be more valuable than any top-10 education. Graduating debt-free is something that shouldn’t be passed without much thought. When you’re working at near minimum wage as a resident, suddenly your perspective on money changes.
Reputation - There are rare cases where accepting a position at a top school may be to your advantage. If you plan on a career in academia, it may be worth it to pay the higher tuition for the extra research opportunities offered at these schools. The value of a “name” can be easily debated by both parties. Decide where you stand on the issue and determine what would be a reasonable price to pay. Whatever you do, don’t pay attention to News RANKINGS. They are almost always inaccurate and offer little of value on determining what school is right for you. (Read my thoughts on The Price of Prestige)
Assorted Money – As mentioned before, the city or town your medical school in, what type of place you decide to live on, what amenities and hobbies you have will factor into living costs. Each person is entitled to spend their money in whatever way they want, just make sure that your spending makes sense and whatever medical school you end up choosing fits in your budget. The last thing you would want is to be stuck paying off debts from twenty years ago.
4. Student Life
Class Size – Are you a person that enjoys small groups and getting to know everyone in your class, or would you prefer some privacy and a core group of friends to get by four years of medical school with. Again this is a non-essential preference much like traditional vs PBL. One of the things I enjoyed about medical school was the class unity and tightness that was absent during undergrad. I don’t think I would have had as much fun this year if our class had 100 more students. To each their own.
Facilities – How old or new are the buildings? What services are available to students? Is the gym nearby, is there a student lounge, how about study space and lecture theaters? Could you see yourself eating, studying, breathing and living in these buildings for the next four years? You do spend a lot of time in medical school so you might as well enjoy it.
Student Wellness – On the interview day or second-look day, were the students friendly and enjoying themselves? What were their experiences on what medical school was like? Remember to ask questions about things not advertised on the school’s website and brochure. Is there a life outside of the classroom? Are the students well supported; are there counseling services, maternity leave, and mentors for those who need them. Is the social scene conductive to studying and getting along? Trust your feelings and can you see yourself fitting in to this school.
NOT - Student Clubs, Attractiveness of Students / Teachers - Clubs you enjoy and good looking people are nice extras but they should not take precedence of the many more important factors. Plus, if there isn’t a club you like, you can always start one. You’ll find that there will be an abundance of “well-rounded” people that share many of your passions.
Relationships – Medical school is already stressful by itself. If important pre-existing relationships become strained because of your choice of school location, it may be time to reconsider your choices. Make sure your friends and family back support your decision. Talk to them to see their perspective. Remember that the sacrifice you make will be tolling to your physical and emotional health as well as to the relationships around you.
Gut Instinct - If you are still unable to decide which medical school to attend, listen to your heart. Most of the time, it knows what you want, even before you know it. Did you feel a certain vibe about the school during your interview about the people, the place, the curriculum? It’s important to record your impressions of each school you interview at as it will help you make your choices quickly. At the end, you want to pick the medical school where you can be your best. There is no point in trying to fit in at a school which you don’t feel comfortable about. Trust your inner voice. I have found many times that when it comes to complex and difficult decisions, your heart has an ability to simplify and accurately assess many factors.
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.
Each person will have a different set of values, wants and needs and it’s important to realize what may be a good decision for someone else may not necessary be the best for you. It is best to first set your own criteria and boundaries you want before going into the specific details. I would suggest starting with location, work your way down the list I have provided and assign values to them. Once you have your priorities, start weighing the pros and cons. of each school. Make a list and see what’s good and bad about each.
If you still can’t find a school right for you, trust your heart to make your decision. You have been accepted into a medical school, there is no wrong choice from here on.
Finally, applying for schools and deciding which school to attend is two different things. You should always apply to all the schools that you can see yourself attending. The more schools you apply to, the better your chances are for an acceptance letter. Deciding on the right one depends on which schools have accepted or rejected you. (See: How to Handle a Rejection Letter)
Often times, the school you loved will have rejected or waitlisted you and instead you will have an offer from another school further down on your list. In this case, I would suggest accepting their offer because “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” You applied to medical school to become a doctor. You may not have gotten into the school you wanted, but you do have an opportunity to pursue the career you wanted. And that is the bottom line, if you have an acceptance, or even multiple in hand, consider yourself lucky that medical school has chosen you.
Links / Sources
To all the readers from medhopeful.com, thanks for checking out this blog. If you haven’t checked out medhopeful.com yet, I highly recommend it. The site is run by a personal friend who is smart, humble and always willing to help others. There are a lot of great articles there especially regarding scholarships and university life (Josh won over $200,000 worth of scholarships and was accepted to UofT’s medical school after 3rd year) so go check it out!