How many schools? Applying to medical schools or other professional programs is an expensive and time-consuming process; do not apply to too many. On the other hand, you have invested a lot of time and energy in preparing yourself, so apply to enough schools to maximize your chances of getting in somewhere. If you are applying to medical schools, a good rule of thumb is at least two highly selective, at least eight high-quality, and at least two less selective schools. Most students apply to somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 schools (typically 12 to 15). The number of veterinary, dental, or other professional schools may be smaller, but the overall strategy should be the same.
Which schools? “Categorizing people isn’t something we do at Clark” is the famous slogan on Clark’s peapod poster. There are many good reasons for not trying to pigeonhole people, and the same goes for health-related professional schools. Completing the requirements of any one of the US or Canadian accredited allopathic medical schools will earn you the MD degree and the title “Doctor.” Similarly, quality programs leading to doctoral degrees are available at all of the US osteopathic medical schools, US or Canadian veterinary schools, US podiatry schools, US or Canadian optometry schools, and US or Canadian dental schools. Nevertheless, your choice of schools to which to apply should be guided primarily on the fit you perceive between your strengths and career goals and the types of programs offered by the schools you are considering (explore individual schools’ websites). Other important factors include geographic location, urban vs. rural, teaching methods, curricula, housing, and cost. You should take the time to learn as much as you can about each of them from schools’ websites and by visiting.
If you are primarily interested in medical research, there are several medical schools with very prestigious and well-funded programs of research. On the other hand, some schools emphasize primary care, community service, or other aspects of medicine. It is your responsibility to find out as much as you can about the strengths of each school.
In addition to individual schools’ websites, a summary of basic information on US medical schools is available in the extremely useful online resource Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) and on the website of its publisher, the Association of American Medical Colleges. This searchable database contains much information about all US medical schools and allows you to sort them on several criteria, including MCAT scores and undergraduate GPAs of their admitted students. Similarly, useful information and links are provided at other professional school organizations’ websites, including:
- American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine
- American Association of Colleges of Podiatric Medicine
- American Dental Education Association
- Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges
- Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry
In addition to the general factors that determine the strength of an applicant listed in the Introduction, there are at least three other factors to keep in mind when choosing schools to which to apply that may affect your viability as an applicant: 1) the school’s admission criteria (i.e., selectivity), 2) the match between your strengths and the school’s programmatic priorities, and 3) residency requirements.
Using medical schools as an example, it quickly becomes apparent that it is not straightforward to categorize schools in terms of their selectivity. For instance, if one examines average undergraduate GPAs or average MCAT scores reported by most schools for enrolling classes from 2020, there is a relatively small standard deviation from the mean in each case: 3.80 Overall GPA (0.08 SD), 3.76 Science GPA (0.11 SD), and 513 total MCAT (4.69 SD). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask if a school has an especially strong reputation in a given area, or if its admissions criteria are significantly higher or lower than those of most other schools.
A much more revealing approach is to examine the 10th to 90th percentile range of admitted applicants for GPA or MCAT scores. If your score lies below the 10th percentile range for that criterion, then you should take it upon yourself to identify other criteria for which you are a better fit for that school. Even if you are still at the margin, the holistic approach to medical school admissions being adopted by many medical schools implies that there is still a chance you might be accepted. Nevertheless, it is best to carefully carry out evidence-based reality checks before you apply.
The “Top Ranked Medical Schools” button* above presents the US medical schools that were ranked by US News and World Report among the top primary care schools. It should be pointed out that such ratings may be biased by many factors, and many schools refuse to participate in such surveys. Accordingly, the rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, but can be useful in planning an overall strategy for choosing schools.
Perhaps the best way to think about this “ranking” is to make sure that your list of schools includes some from this list, as well as some not on this list. The balance of schools on, or not on, this list should reflect the strength of your academic credentials and your level of recommendation in the Premedical and Predental Advisory Committee’s letter of evaluation.
* Also contained on this page is a list of schools whose GPA or MCAT scores were discernibly lower than the national average and a list of schools whose percentage of the 2020 matriculating class comprised by in-state applicants was greater than 80%.