Choosing your medical school

Choosing a medical school is a really hard decision because there is no wrong decision, really. No matter where you go, you’re going to come out a doctor. This is true, but I think this phrase gives people a false sense of security. The grinding does not stop when you step foot onto your medical school campus. The letters on your shirt may play a huge part in what residency you finally land. (Just a heads up, the grinding never stops.) I was given what I considered really good advice during my medical school interview process and I've passed it down to many of Emory applicants. I figured I’d jot it down for everyone.



There are really only two major criteria to consider when choosing a medical school.


[ 1 ] tier

Although you’ll get a fair medical education at any school, the higher you go, the more “who you know” seems to matter. It makes sense, the higher you go, the more competitive the application pool. So, when you’re an undergraduate you’re competing with everyone who will be accepted into medical school and everyone who won’t. When you’re in medical school applying for national leadership positions, grants, and residency you’re only competing with those who were competitive enough to make it into medical school. It’s a small community and having a well known institution or a well known physician on your CV makes a difference. I say tier because it doesn’t make much of a difference if you go to the “#1 medical school in the country” or the “#20 medical school in the country.” They’re in the same circle. Also, keep in mind that just because a name sounds fancy to the general public does not mean it’s a strong name in the medical field or that the medical school provides the best education. Top tier also doesn't necessarily mean private. There are plenty of top tier public schools - UMichigan, NYU, and UAB to name a few. Do your homework.


I want to emphasize that you should not pick a medical school off of name alone and you should definitely not decide where you want to learn to be a physician based off of US News type rank list - those rank systems are really pretty useless. You should pick a medical school based off of the opportunities the institution will provide you as a medical student (ie clinical experience) and for your long-term career goals. Since you have no idea what your long term career goals will be (even if you think you do), more well known programs are the safest option.


One way to evaluate school tier is to look at the school's match list - what specialties do their graduates go into? It doesn't matter so much where people go because most people choose their residency location for personal reasons, but the ability to match residents into competitive fields (even if you don't want to go into a competitive field) speaks highly of the school's reputation. Also, how many graduates match their first or second rank choice?


In the end, medical school is all self-directed learning, so the amount of time and energy you put into learning medicine will be the biggest determinant of your success -- which brings me to the second and most important factor --


[ 2 ] feel

Once you’ve selected your top tier schools, go with the school that feels the best. Plain and simple. Medical school is all self directed learning, so you will do your best where you feel the safest, strongest, and most valued. Different people will gravitate to different places based off of their personalities. Some people will thrive in a hyper competitive environment, while others will do their best work in a laid back, no pressure environment. I very much wanted to move to New York for medical school, but when I stepped foot on Emory's campus for revisited, I instantly knew that it was the place for me.


I truly, truly believe that you should not make huge life decisions only using your brain. Listen to your symbolic heart because it's that fake organ that will help you persevere in the hardest of times. Also, don't be afraid to choose a program for the wrong reason. So, you picked a school to be close to a boy and it didn't work out. Maybe that boy came into your life to lead you to that school. Follow your heart. You may not end up at your intended to be, but you'll end up where you're meant to be. (that last statement is obviously a personal mantra and not based off of facts)


Other factors to consider (in no particular order):

  • Clinical experience: How much are medical students actually allowed to do? This is important, but it's somewhat difficult to tell on interviews. There are some programs where medical students are really only allowed to shadow during their third year rotations. In general, the fancier the hospital and patient population, the less hands on experience you'll probably get. (disclaimer: i have only trained at one program, so my data on that last statement is weak) Tier is a good proxy for clinical experience. Programs that put out strong residents have better reputations and better match lists.
  • Diversity: racial, socioeconomic, gender, sexual orientation, educational background, etc -- How diverse is the patient population? This will affects the range of pathology you see and the range of cultural barriers you will learn to traverse. How diverse are your instructors? Who will teach you how to traverse those cultural barriers? How diverse are your classmates? This will affect your growth as a person. A desire to learn about people and how they live is essential to the practice of medicine. To my minority applicants, go where you are celebrated. Are there people who look like you in leadership positions? Will there be other people in your class that look like you? Maybe this doesn't matter to you at this exact moment, but it probably will - especially if you will be far from your family.
  • Grades: Most schools are getting rid of grading systems in the first two years. At Emory, the only grades we had came during our clinical rotations and it was wonderful. It allowed us to experiment with different studying styles and it encouraged camaraderie between students. People shared study documents all the time. That collegiality rolled over to the clinical years. It also allowed for life. Fall head over heels in love and neglect your studying for a week. Fall apart after a break-up. Have a hobby outside of medical school! Train for a race, play guitar, run a blog. Do research!
  • Distance from home - maybe it’s time for you to blossom and see a different part of the country, maybe it’s time for you to come closer to home, maybe this doesn’t matter to you at all
  • Research opportunities: Research is a necessity for competitive residencies. After a tough battle between two schools, Emory’s guaranteed 5 months of dedicated research time during the traditional 4 years was the thing that tipped me towards Emory. Otherwise, I would have probably had to take a year off to do research.
  • Ease of obtaining a second degree - do you want to get a MPH, MBA, or masters in clinical research during your medical school training?
  • Free perks - some schools give free iPads and travel stipends (cough cough, Cornell). I would have loved to have a travel stipend. Other schools provide you with subsidized housing in amazing cities. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not applying to Stanford for medical school because I will never be able to afford to live in Palo Alto otherwise!
  • Scholarship: free medical school is a BIG deal. Money can really complicate things because medical school is such a huge expense, but I don’t know if it’s worth training at a program that’s not the best for you (I'm sure there are plenty of more frugal individuals who would tell you the complete opposite).