How To Answer the Question, "How Many Medical Schools Should I Apply To?"

Updated: June 8, 2020

The short answer: There is no universally ideal number; rather, you need to consider each school's admissions statistics, mission statement, curriculum, student support, and other individual factors to maximize your chances of acceptance and focus your energy on what will work best for you! On average, applicants apply to 16 schools but you need to be more strategic. Ideally, you need to apply to 8-10 schools where you are confident you have a realistic chance of acceptance.

>> Medical School Acceptance Rates (US)

>> Medical Schools in Canada including Acceptance Rates. 

The long answer:

As someone considering medical school, you have a lot of choices in front of you. From your undergrad courses, to your extracurriculars and volunteer work, to the myriad other components that make you a strong candidate for medical school, to the medical schools themselves, every move you make may seem to lead to half a dozen additional factors to consider! Getting into medical school will be one of the most important moments in your life, and you want to make sure you do it right.

The initiative and drive you’ve shown to this point are surely impressive, and you may feel like you need to maximize your chances by applying to as many schools as possible. That’s a completely understandable perspective, but – unfortunately – not the one that’s ultimately in your best interest.

This blog will go over steps to take to determine how many medical schools you should apply to:

Start by building a long-list of medical schools

The right question isn't, “How many medical schools should I apply to?“

Working toward a short-list of medical schools

Conclusion

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Check out this video overview, before digging deeper into the details here:

So, how many medical schools should you apply to?

For all the time and money spent on applying to any and every medical school you can, you could be working much more strategically, maximizing your chances at schools where your application will be most competitive. So, asking the question, “How many medical schools should I apply to?” isn’t the best attitude for approaching the task ahead, and it’s not the best question to ask at this stage of your education. It’s certainly not the best for you and your peace of mind, and it’s not the best way to put forward your best effort for scoring that key place in a medical program.

There’s no magic number of applications that will work for everyone. If it were that easy to game the system, then a lot more people would have figured it out by now! Rather, you need to do some research about each school and program, to apply to the schools that make the most sense for you. Yes, this means some work, but certainly not more work than creating applications for every medical school under the sun! Here are our tips for creating a long-list of medical schools to apply to, and how to whittle that down to an ideal short-list of medical schools to apply to.

>>FREE PRE-MED VIDEO COURSE SERIES: "HOW TO MAKE YOUR MED SCHOOL APPLICATION STAND OUT"<<

Start by building a long-list of medical schools

Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR)

You’ll need to look at each school’s admissions requirements and then compare these to your own qualifications. The Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) is a database that will help you browse, search, sort, and compare information about many U.S. medical schools, and participating medical schools in Canada. Note that not all schools publish their information to MSAR, so you may need to review this information on the individual school websites.

In reviewing admissions statistics and considering which schools to apply to, you’ll need to look at and compare things like the following:

  • Your MCAT score versus the school’s median accepted MCAT, as well as the spread of accepted MCAT scores. If the lowest cumulative total MCAT score accepted last year was 509 and your is 507, then it’s unlikely your application will be given serious consideration, unless your application stands out in other truly remarkable ways. There are however, medical schools that don't require MCAT, this may be an opportunity worth considering. In a previous blog, we discuss what is a good MCAT score, you may want to consider re-writing the MCAT, review our blog to find out the MCAT test dates and release dates.
  • Your GPA (science and cumulative) versus the schools median accepted GPA. Again, if the lowest GPA accepted last year was 3.82, and yours is 3.7, it’s not likely that you’ll have a strong chance of acceptance.
  • Your coursework versus the required coursework (prerequisites for medical school). If you do not have, and do not have time to acquire, the necessary courses and pre-reqs, then you may not meet even the most basic qualifications for an offer of admission. It would not make sense to apply to such schools.
  • In-state/In-province versus Out-of-state/Out-of-province status. Most schools show strong preference (and have much lower medical school tuition) for students applying from within their state or province. Unless you have a very high chance of acceptance in an out-of-state/out-of-province school, it makes sense to focus your efforts where your chances are highest.

Though it's an unpleasant reality, remember: at this stage, they're looking for reasons to exclude applicants as much as - if not more so - than they are for reasons to include applicants.  One look at medical school acceptance rates makes this much clear. Thousands of students apply for a relatively small number of spots, and the application reviewers' short-lists need to be established quickly, so if there's a reason to set an application aside, they usually will. 

It is worth noting that using the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) database does require payment of a small fee, but this fee is generally much less than the cost of applying to a very large number of schools. So, using this tool will ultimately save you time, money, and headaches in the long run. Again, some schools make this data available on their websites, as well, so you can see if any of your long-list schools provide this information. In any case, in creating your short list of schools, use these tools to work smarter, not harder. You’ve got a lot of hard work in front of you, if you’re applying to medical school, so concentrate your efforts where they’ll be most effective.

Additional sources and considerations

After reviewing this information, you should be able to put together a long-list of possible schools. However, you’re not done yet! A tool like a medical school rank list and the related data are important, but there are other considerations besides standardized test scores, numerical data like GPA, geographic status, and basic pre-requisites. Using your long-list of schools where you meet such fundamental requirements, you’ll now want to look at each school’s mission statement, including any priority student categories. For example, if the school’s mission statement specifically mandates prioritizing candidates from rural areas, and you yourself are not from a rural area or have no experience in rural areas, it may not make sense for you to prioritize such a school in your applications. Ask yourself the common question, "Why do you want to be a doctor?" Do the schools your considering have the same priorities as you, in that regard? You’ll likewise need to consider your experiences and extra-curriculars as compared to the experiences and extra-curriculars of past successful students, too. For example, what percentage of accepted students had research experience? Does your own research experience stack up? What percentage had volunteer experience, and what kinds of volunteer experience did they have? Have you done similar work? What percentage had shadowing experience? And so on. Note that not all schools differentiate these in the same ways, but most will have some data about such activities for you to review.

On top of all that, there are yet other considerations to bear in mind, as you begin turning your long-list into a short-list. As you start narrowing your search, you’ll want to look at the actual curriculum, the school’s prioritized teaching and learning styles, advisory and mentorship opportunities, proximity or connection to local hospitals, and other components of the educational experience at each school, to ensure they align with your own needs. Not all medical schools operate identically, and education isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor! By this stage of your education, you likely know your needs and strengths better than others, and it doesn’t make sense to pursue a school that cannot support you and your educational needs effectively.

Check our our video on the secret to choosing the best premed school:

The right question isn't, "How many medical schools should I apply to?"

All of this ultimately means that the answer to the question, “How many medical schools should I apply to?” is going to be different for everyone. This isn’t a question with a simple, universalizable answer – quite the opposite! The point is to apply only to those schools where you have a realistic chance of gaining acceptance. Instead of asking, “How many medical schools should I apply to?” ask, “How many medical schools could I realistically gain admission to?” Yes, the “Ivy Leagues” are at the top of everyone’s list, and if you’re a contender for those schools, then that’s great. If your chances of admission at such schools aren’t high, however, that doesn’t speak poorly of you, your educational experiences to date, or the medical education ahead of you! There are so many fabulous schools with effective programs, and a solid, accredited program is better than no program at all, right?

Using the techniques and considerations above, it’s best to select 8-10 schools, and focus your application efforts there. Any more than 8-10 schools and the complexity, time commitment, and monetary commitment all become way more consuming than they need to be. Remember, while there may be a central application for many schools (e.g., AMCAS, OMSAS), sending your applications, transcripts, and standardized test scores to multiple schools is costly – even if not in terms of time, then certainly in terms of money.

As well, let’s say you go totally wild and apply to 30 schools and – in the supposed (and highly unlikely) “best case scenario” – you are asked to submit additional materials, like medical school secondary essays, to 20 of them. Well, now, you need to complete secondary materials for 20 schools, likely while also working on your current schoolwork and other commitments on top of that! That is a monumental and unnecessary amount of work, if your chances of acceptance aren’t high, as these secondary materials are likely going to be different for each school. This isn’t a quick copy/paste job! It can take hours to complete even one school’s secondary requirements, let alone double-digit numbers. All of this adds up, and the more secondary elements you’re required to complete, the less likely you are to excel in any of them, simply because you’ll be pulled in far too many directions at once.

Working toward a short-list of medical schools

A manageable short-list is one that contains a maximum of 8-10 schools. If you don’t come up with 8-10, you shouldn’t add more to the list just for the sake of having more. The only schools that should be on your list are those that you have a realistic chance of getting into, rather than spreading yourself too thin unnecessarily. Learning to manage your expectations, realistically evaluate your chances, and apply yourself in the areas that will yield maximum return is all part of the growth, professionalization, and maturation process you must go through as you work toward your goal of getting into medical school. Wherever you apply, there will be limited spaces, and there’s little sense in applying for already-limited spots when your chances of admission are slim.

There's no sugar-coating it - applying to medical school is a lot of work, regardless of how you do it. At this stage, with all the pressing commitments you already have, you need to ensure that you are working purposefully, intelligently, and pragmatically. Casting the widest possible net is none of these and usually amounts to more work, in the long run.

Conclusion

Start by looking within your own region, exploring programs in your own state/province, and reviewing the data and qualities outlined above, using MSAR and/or the school’s admissions website. Find those where you meet or – better – exceed the medians, in terms of MCAT scores, GPA, etc. Ensure you have all the prerequisite courses they require, and see if your profile matches those of accepted students. Review the structure of the program, the types of advising available, the instructor-to-student ratio, emphasis on lecture vs seminar vs clinical vs research work, and ensure all of these align with your own needs and wants. This is one of the most important decisions you’ve made in your life to this point, so make sure you get it right and focus the most effort where you’ll see the best returns.

How would you like us to help you get into med school? 



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