How To Choose Which Medical Schools To Apply To

Last Updated on June 23, 2022 by Laura Turner

Since you’ve committed to applying to medical school, it’s time to choose which schools you would potentially want to attend. This can be daunting. There are novels of information and statistics on each medical school, but I’m going to break it down for you in one guide.

The MSAR Is Your Best Friend

If you can only use one resource for evaluating medical schools, it should be the MSAR: Medical School Admissions Requirements. This is THE database. The MSAR is an online resource available through AAMC for $28 on their website. It has information on every US and Canadian accredited allopathic medical school. AAMC updates each school’s statistics every year, so you’ll have the most up-to-date information at your fingertips.

About the Ads

The MSAR contains almost all the information you could want for each medical school. It has GPA and MCAT statistics for both in-state and out-of-state applicants. There’s information on schools’ tuition costs, financial aid, deadlines, application evaluation, class sizes, other degrees, contact information, letters of recommendation, transcript requirements, secondary application, interview information, and so much more. I’ll break down how to use the MSAR in the next section.

How to Use the MSAR

​After you purchase the MSAR, on the left side you will see the area where you can filter through the database of medical schools by the criteria listed. When using the GPA and MCAT filter, be sure to choose a reasonable range that’s not too broad or too specific. For example, if you scored a 517, I would recommend beginning with a range from 515-520 to start narrowing down your schools. A good rule of thumb is to choose schools where you fall between the 10th-90th percentile. It’s in your statistical interest to avoid schools where you fall in the bottom 10th percentile or the upper 10th percentile. You should only consider those schools if you have an incredibly unique aspect to your application (statistically most people don’t) or if you really love the school. As you progress with choosing your schools, you can expand that range as you please.

Once you click on a school, you come to their page. From here, you have your table of contents on the left and your quick statistics on the main page. As you scroll down, you’ll have information on the admissions department, school mission statement, and special programs. Most the information is self-explanatory. Be sure to note each school’s requirements and recommendations (a.k.a. required). A key portion is the GPA and MCAT statistics at the Acceptance Data tab. Depending on your application status, you will want to choose in-state or out-of-state to view the data. Some schools (mainly public schools) have higher acceptance standards for out-of-state applicants than in-state ones. In addition to numerical data, you’ll find information on the school’s interview, campus life, local area, and other details. Take your time with each school and be sure to visit their website for more information.

Organizing MSAR Data

Because there’s so much information, it can be easy to be overwhelmed with all that data. However, you can get the information you need effectively by knowing what you want and staying organized. For example, I wanted a quick guide on the schools I was interested in, with links to the school’s MSAR page. I created an excel sheet like the one below.

As you see, I prioritized certain criteria because I value them over other aspects of medical schools. However, you may choose what you believe is important; everyone is different. You can create a more comprehensive guide. I would always include GPA, MCAT, tuition, LORs, and specific requirements for a school (like CASPer). Be sure to always link the medical school profile at the end. If you can’t be bothered with Excel, you can also use OneNote, Evernote, Word, or any other organization service, including pen and paper if you’re feeling retro. Be sure to keep it organized, accessible, and continually updated.

Taking a Step Beyond the MSAR

I believe it’s important to have a holistic view of a medical school, which means the MSAR is not enough. From a school’s website to speaking with students and faculty, there are so many ways you can learn about a medical school.

Website Bonanza 

Each school’s website is an accumulation of what they want you to see about their school. From their data points to clubs to mission statements, there’s a boatload of information on each school’s website. Getting this information will certainly help you write secondaries as well. For now, you don’t need detailed notes on every bit of the school, but having a general idea will help you choose which schools you want to attend.

When parsing through a website, I begin with the mission statement to understand what is important to each school. Some schools focus on community engagement, whereas others are research oriented. At the grad-school level, these mission statements are critical to what opportunities are easily available at the school. You’ll always be able to conduct neurodevelopment research, but it will be much easier at a school that focuses on that rather than on community engagement.

Next, I’ll look at extracurriculars and research. Almost every school has a community health clinic and an outreach education program. They’ll usually have diversity/culture clubs, sports and wellness activities, and specialty interest groups (i.e. peds, ER med, etc.). It’s up to you to decide what’s important. Often clubs might have their own page on a school’s website; it would be a good idea to take a glance. The biggest mistake I see at this stage is taking too deep of a dive into a school’s website. You’ll have time to dig deeper when you’re writing secondaries.

Investigative Journalism

To get the best idea if you want to attend a school, I would try to speak with students and faculty from that school. If you know people who attend those schools, it’s a good idea to ask them for their insights. Be sure to ask them what they like/don’t like, what they wish the school had, what life is like as a student, etc. Although the curriculum is important and should be a focus, I also focus on what the campus atmosphere is like. If collaboration between classmates is important, a “gunner”-filled school would be miserable for you. If you can, visit the campus. Some schools will allow you to stay with a student for a night and explore campus, classes, and the local area. Medical students will give you a perspective you won’t find on a school website (plus it’s good to make connections).

In addition to students, speaking with faculty is a potential option. This can be intimidating but will give you additional insight into the school and a connection to admissions. The key to this avenue is having smart questions. You don’t want to waste the time of a busy faculty member, especially if they’re on the admissions council. You want to get a feel for the opportunities present at the school and the atmosphere of campus. There are a couple of ways to get in touch with faculty. One is through cold emailing; you have access to the admissions’ email from MSAR. Be sure to introduce yourself, say why you’re interested, what you want to know, and if you want to visit campus. Another way is to meet them at school fairs. Some medical schools will visit undergrad campuses, work locations (like the NIH), or local venues. Keep an eye out for these fairs; they’re an easy way to meet faculty.

The Other Stuff

With insight from students and faculty, you should incorporate your own feelings about a school in the decision process. Can you see yourself there for 3+ years? Although you can often leave for away rotations in your 3rd/4th year, you’ll most likely stay on the medical school campus for your preclinical years. How do you feel about the location and surrounding areas? Knowing your preference for rural versus urban environments can make a big difference in how you’ll feel if you attend that school. What is the cost of living in the area? Don’t forget to include cost of groceries, gas, utilities, and other adult-life things. You don’t have to be averse to expensive locations if you are able to plan your finances. Finally, every school has unique challenges and benefits. The best way to learn about them are by talking to students who attend the school.

The Advanced Metrics

Beyond those qualitative measures, there are a couple of quantitative schemas to compare schools. There are two main algorithms that are used by many pre-meds. They allow you to compare yourself with other applicants and medical schools. Remember: these are user-generated algorithms. They are not official by medical school admission committees, and they are not steadfast rules to applying to schools

The first is LizzyM, a simpler algorithm that considers GPA and MCAT. Each metric is given a certain weight: GPA*10 + Pre-2015 MCAT. You can plug in your numbers into the website. Specific information can be found on the website. You can compare yourself based on historical applicants’ data. The benefits of LizzyM are its simplicity, large amount of data, and school list generation based on your LizzyM score.

The second is WedgeDawg, a more complicated algorithm that weighs your entire application. There is a guide on this SDN post. It takes your extracurriculars, numerical statistics, and background data to give you a score that you can use to compare yourself to schools. You’ll need the guide on the forum post to input your data on the WedgeDawg website. You’ll receive a WARS score that allow you to compare yourself with other applicants and see which schools fall in your range. The benefits of this algorithm are its holistic approach, increasing popularity amongst the pre-med community, and clear school lists with a tier system.

Both these systems break down with DO applicants, as they are primarily used with historical MD candidate’s data. They are not perfect and neither claim to be. They also don’t easily consider multiple GPAs (undergraduate vs. graduate programs GPAs). LizzyM is often too simplistic and WedgeDawg can be slightly daunting to use at first. Both require honest self-evaluation to provide you with the best information possible. I recommend using them as a guide to see where you stand and what schools fall within your application level. I would use both, as it does not take much time. However, if I could only use one, I recommend using WedgeDawg as it takes a more holistic approach to your application.

What to do From Here?

Not everyone can apply to 35 schools, so it’s time for you to make your final list. To figure out how many schools you can afford to apply to, use the SDN Application Cost Calculator to find out how much applying will cost. I have a few recommendations that apply to most applicants. First, consider DO schools if your statistics don’t make the cut. DO schools offer a unique experience and often have a lower threshold for entry. I recommend strongly considering DO schools if you’re in that statistical group. Second, apply to all your in-state schools. Generally, they will be easier to get into due to in-state bias and will often be cheaper than private and out-of-state schools. Third, if this is your first application, I recommend applying to schools you can see yourself attending. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to 5-10 schools if you can afford to apply for more nor to apply to every school under the sun. In general, I usually recommend around 15 schools for your first application cycle if you can afford to. If you don’t make it the first time, then you should expand your application list as you can financially. As always, don’t be afraid to ask for advice from friends, family, and people you respect.

Be sure to always determine if a school is a good fit for you. If you’re interested in research, look for schools that specialize in research. On the flip side, if your application does not have much research, you may find yourself having a harder time applying to research-focused schools (like JHU and Emory). If you want to look far ahead, you can look at a school’s residency match list to see what most of the students specialize in. Use your judgment wisely and always ask for help.

You’re going to spend four years in a high stress and professional environment unlike anything you’ve seen before. You might as well enjoy it.

How I Choose My Schools

Here’s a short summary of the thought process behind choosing my schools. I began with my GPA and MCAT, looking at any school that I fell within the middle 80%. I began to narrow it down to schools that were focused on community impact with some interest in research, particularly in oncology, pediatrics, and global health. I narrowed it further for schools that had MPH degrees, both dual-degrees and associated degree programs. At this point, I was around 40 schools and I knew I could afford to realistically apply for 10-13 schools. I narrowed my list a bit further to include schools that were urban and had collaborative campus environments. I primarily learned about those last two criteria by talking to students who were currently at the school. From here, I had around 20 schools. I narrowed it down to 10 schools by making tiers of schools based on how much I would like to go there. Every school in the bottom tier were there either because I believed they were a “safety” school (no such thing with medical schools) or I could barely see myself attending. At the end, I had four state schools and six out-of-state/private schools. I was passionate about each school and was able to spend time to polish each secondary essay.

An Alternative Method: 

If you are a big fan of Wedgedawg or LizzyM, there is another way you can go about choosing your school list. Initially, you find a list of about 40 schools where you hover within the middle 80% on the MSAR GPA/MCAT metrics. Then you filter those schools based on your three most important criteria (mine were location, cost, and prestige), by now you should have a list of about 25 schools. Next, go use your advance metric of choice (LizzyM or Wedgedawg) and find the schools that overlap between your personal list and the generated metric list. Finally, if there are too many schools in this overlap, you can continue to filter based on other criteria.