Here's how to choose the "right" med school for you.
They say the best medical school for you is the one that lets you in. A small wedge of students will be selected and ranked highly by nearly EVERY school. These students have extraordinary grades, near perfect MCAT scores, plenty of demonstrations of professionalism and ethical acumen, as well as research qualifications. They are the one percent.
If you see yourself in this description, you will likely have your pick of schools. You will become a competent physician basically anywhere in Canada, the U.S or Europe if you follow the application instructions perfectly and demonstrate conviction through your answer to the question: "why do you want to be a doctor?" It's really about the bigger learning picture.
First let’s talk about the ‘one percent’ group, and then we’ll move into specific tips for the rest of us.
If you are a member of the ‘one percent,’ these are the top five questions you must ask yourself when it comes to assessing offers:
1. Does the institution have research or professional development opportunities in your area of interest?
Exceptional students are coveted resources by research labs around the world. If you know you want to work in a sub-specialized area of medicine, these opportunities will be keys to positions in elite residency programs such as Harvard’s program in Medicine-Dermatology.
2. Is the curriculum appropriate for your learning style?
If you have always found yourself struggling to focus in lectures and prefer self-teaching or problem-based learning, some schools will result in pedagogical mismatches for you. Schools are very forthcoming about their learning philosophies, so do your homework and consider your learning style. Medical students are the human capital of a medical school and in order to be properly tapped, the system must fit their style. This isn’t a perfect science but students often self-select to appropriate learning systems.
3. Do you believe you will be a good fit within the institution’s culture?
If you want opportunities to participate in student governance and advocacy, the culture of the school matters. If you want to put your head down for four years and be solely devoted to learning, the culture of the school matters. This question is a matter of considering your personality and social strengths vis-à-vis that of the typical student body.
4. Are there opportunities for student engagement in curriculum planning?
Accreditation bodies of medical schools are more and more demanding that students be involved in the management of their learning and the design of their learning environment. If you are interested in medical education then choose a school that cares about your voice and integrates the students’ perspectives into the philosophy of their institution.
5. Is the location one that works for you?
If the school is close to your support system, in a city that you enjoy with effective transit, offers good community participation, and has a spirit of innovation, you will feel really good living in that city. If the school takes you across the country into weather that you’re not familiar with and you’re prone to loneliness and isolation, do yourself a favor and choose a school closer to your support system. Medical school is stressful so the opportunities you have to step away from learning to enjoy the social aspects of life must be readily available and easily accessible in the city that you will be calling home. If you’re very independent, consider that medical school could be one of those occasions where you may be more interested in finding a social niche given the demands of the curriculum and the experience of medical learning. Don’t underestimate your need for support.
It is entirely fine if you're not one of these people. The other 99% also get into medical school. Most students belong to the second group, and they have to be very creative in their approach to applying to medical school. You will meet physicians in your training that applied to medical school seven, eight or nine times. They gained acceptance to one school on the 10th try. They went to that one school and became remarkable physicians. They have a sense of self, confidence, and commitment to excellence. The opportunity is not wasted on them.
When it comes to selecting schools for candidates in this second, and much larger group, there are five questions they need to consider:
1. Do you meet the criteria for admission?
Application instructions for Ontario (hyperlink to: http://www.ouac.on.ca/docs/omsas/b_omsas_e.pdf) and US (hyperlink to: https://www.aamc.org/students/download/182162/data/amcas_instruction_manual.pdf) medical schools are available in centralized online documents that are republished annually. Ensure that you’re using the right version of these documents as they do change year to year. Medical schools in all other provinces andUS schools that don’t participate in the AMCAS system publish their application guidelines on their school websites. Be sure to review these at several junctures during your application cycle.
If your degree was completed part-time, there are some schools to which you cannot apply. You must scour the Admission guide in order to ensure that you meet all criteria. If you have extraordinary circumstances like these, hiring a consultant for a planning session is very valuable. You will come away with a clear plan of action and a sense of the non-negotiables that you must work on in order to earn acceptance.
2. Do the universities state that they are looking for candidates like you?
Each school describes the kinds of students they aim to train on their websites. These descriptions will have common, generic elements but they will also feature some unique traits that they are interested in. location. The University of British Columbia for example, states that they aim “to recruit intelligent, dedicated and well-rounded students, and therefore we apply equal weighting to academic and non-academic achievements.” If you do not see yourself in the applicant description, then your work is to either find opportunities to highlight or develop the highlighted characteristics or to consider not applying to that particular school.
3. Are there opportunities for special consideration?
These run the gamut from location (i.e. Schulich School of Medicine at Western University) to ability. If you are a member of a specific population, there may be enhanced opportunity for you to enter certain medical schools because these medical schools recognize the advantage of many forms of diversity.
If there is a gap in your application (i.e. GPA, MCAT scores or reference letters) are you applying to a school that understands that failure or weakness can become strengths through time and maturity? Most programs will have special sections of their websites devoted to special consideration. Consider contacting the school to discuss your case in advance. Know that they will not offer you special information about your odds of acceptance but you will get a useful frame of reference for your application.
4. Have you been diligent in following the instructions?
If all else is equal between you and another candidate, you could lose your spot if there is a spelling error in your application or if you didn’t answer the correct question in your personal statement. Errors of any kind can be detrimental because medicine is a detail-oriented profession. Diligence and focus are professional characteristics required for a career in medicine. Please demonstrate these on your application. Ask someone you trust to proofread your application. Leave yourself plenty of time to complete all fields. The application always takes longer than you think to complete so do not open it at the last minute.
5. In which interview situations will you thrive?
If you believe that you will be unable to communicate your skills and demonstrate your capacities in a multiple mini-interview (MMI) format, you are not alone. With some coaching and a lot of practice, the MMI is conquerable. Feeling confident about your ability represents a key to doing well. Substance is important, of course, but your manner leaves a significant impression on the assessors.
If you feel as though you will not thrive and impress during a MMI, then perhaps consider applying to schools that still continue to hold panel interviews for their potential candidates. They are typically more relaxed and much more predictable.
After you are accepted, the top five factors which where discussed above for the top 1% of candidates will guide you when choosing schools.
Best of luck for the current application cycle and congratulations in advance to the Class of 2020.
Click here to download our FREE Pre-Med Report entitled: "Top 5 reasons 90% of med school applicants get rejected - and how to avoid them.
If you're applying to medical school or residency, click here to learn more about our application review and interview preparation programs.
About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. from McMaster medical school and had navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
To your success,