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What To Look for in a Medical School

Benferguson72x725Ben Ferguson -- What to look for in a medical school, in this order:

1. Location, location, location! I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s well worth passing on again: You will be spending four (or more) years at whichever school you choose to attend, and you should be sure that you can handle living there for that long. An amazing location won’t add all that much above and beyond a solid school, but a poor location can and will drive you crazy and distract you from your work as a medical student.

2. The grading system. This, to me, is by far the most important academic feature of a school. I cannot put into words how beneficial the pass/fail system used at my own school has been in every single aspect of my daily life as a medical student. Schools’ grading systems were not something I closely looked into while applying, but in retrospect, a pass/fail grading system should have been at the top of my list of requirements for a given school. I’ve clearly not attended a medical school that employs letter grades, so it’s tough from a personal experience standpoint to directly compare them, but based on stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues at such schools, let’s just say I do not envy them in the least.

3. Happiness. When you visit a school, take a pulse of the emotional well-being of its students. Do they seem happy? Do they seem suicidal? Do they seem to get along with each other? Does anyone smile or laugh or crack jokes? Are there people studying together, or is every table you come across occupied by a single wallflower with his or her nose buried in a book? Try mentally inserting yourself into the school’s environment and see what happens. See how it makes you feel right then and there. See how it makes you feel one hour after leaving, and the next day, and the next week. Sometimes gut feelings can be great decision points, and this area is based almost entirely on your gut. A school’s social environment is almost as important as #1 up there, although at most schools, the classes are big enough that you can find friends and like-minded people practically without trying.

4. A great supporting cast. How nice has a school’s administrative staff been to you throughout your application process? That is indicative of how they’ll likely be when you’re a student there, and the quality and helpfulness of the administrative staff can most definitely make or break your quality of life as a medical student. Some schools can make you feel like a rock star all of the time, and some can make you feel totally alone. Don’t disregard this one.

5. Financial support and knowledge. Medical school is stressful enough on its own without having to worry about money. Throw financial issues into the mix, and you can get mighty distracted. A school that gives a lot of money to its students is one that has a supportive and active alumni and community and one that clearly finds it important that its medical students are able to focus on learning medicine. A school that has staff who know what they’re doing and can explain to you in clear terms what you need to sign/pay/do/read is absolutely priceless (especially if you score a full ride!).

6. Everything else. Student mentorship, shadowing and research opportunities, enthusiasm of faculty in working with students, daily routines, curriculum formats, number and breadth of extracurricular groups and intramural sports teams (if that’s your thing), format of patient records in the teaching hospital(s), and even match lists (so long as you have some idea of what fields interest you) go here at the end. They are all important factors to consider, but to me, they pale in comparison to those above. They are extremely flexible and largely dependent on how you thrive upon, or cope with, them, and they should not make or break your decision in general.

What not to look for in a medical school:

1. Board Scores. I’m probably going to get reamed by some for saying it, but this really shouldn’t be taken into account when you’re deciding between schools. There are so many confounding factors that go into a school’s average board performance, and overall it’s a poor judge of academic quality in my opinion. If you’re a genius, you’re probably going to do very well on the boards no matter what school you attend, and a few extra points in a school’s average board score doesn't come anywhere close to making up for other shortcomings it may have. If you’re not so good at standardized exams, there are far better ways of determining what sort of professional success you’re going to have other than a given school’s average board score, and going to a school with very high reputed average board scores doesn’t in any way guarantee you a very high board score.

2. US News ranking. Seriously? It’s a magazine just trying to sell issues like everybody else. In 20 years, none of your patients are going to come to your clinic on the basis of your medical school’s #11 ranking in the April 2004 issue of US News and World Report. They are going to come to your clinic because you have a medical degree, you are an expert in your specialty, you are comforting, and you don’t kill your patients. If you are lacking any of these things, a poor US News showing from 20 years prior is the least of your worries.

3. Hottest potential suitors/faculty/patient population. You don’t even have time for that anyway. Professionalism, people.

4. How many derm/plastics/rad-onc residencies the Class of 2006 matched into. These numbers tend to vary widely from year to year and are largely based on whether anyone was even interested on an individual level in these fields in a given year. If you think this is an important thing to look at, you need to reconsider your priorities.

May 20, 2008 in Ben Ferguson | Permalink


I think one huge thing missing on this list is the strength of the clinic rotations. All you see when you go to the school is the 1st two years - but it's really your clinical experience that's going to make you the doctor. So where are they done, is it community based or is it more tertiary care? Do they get crazy cases or is it just the normal routine stuff? I brushed it off as not being that important, but it's really key.

Posted by: heather | May 20, 2008 9:26:17 AM

Agree with above. Quality and setting of clinical rotations is HUGE. The first 2 years of medical school are more or less the same everywhere (you will learn the same basic body of knowledge). But your clinical experience will vary dramatically and that's where you become a doctor. I went to a medical school where we did our rotations at a county hospital, and the level of autonomy and responsibility that I got to take on was phenomenal. My med school is known for that experience, and as a result, our graduates are highly regarded for their clinical skills and confidence. On my away rotations as a 4th year, attendings commented that I worked at the level of a PGY-2, and I credit my home hospital for that.
So yeah, find out about the quality of the clinical experience!

Posted by: | May 20, 2008 3:20:22 PM

Good addition, Heather!

Posted by: Ben | May 20, 2008 3:25:05 PM

thank you for all articles which mentioned above but I realized from what you said that Iam in a problem,my university has all of the negatives you mentioned plus sometimes lecturers do not come to their lectures and this will have bad effects on us because they will give us too many lectures at the end of the course and they are added to the daily time table which is very confusable,and I can not move to other university outside my country because they are very expensive, so I will be thankful if I had an advice from you.

Posted by: reem | May 25, 2008 9:51:58 AM

I would not rule out a school on the basis of it employing letter grades. If you are planning on going into a competitive specialty, not having grades can put you at a major disadvantage, especially if your clinical rotations are pass/fail. Having just graduated from a school that uses standard letter grades, let me just say that it was not that bad. Not bad at all, actually. You just need to get yourself out of the mindset that you need to get straight A's. You will still match without a 4.0, but you might have a tough time matching into rad onc (for example) competing against a lot of people with 4.0s if your transcript just reads "pass"

Posted by: Mel | May 27, 2008 3:41:59 PM

I agree with this ranking for the most part, but I would change two things: #2 should be curriculum, not just pass/fail, because many aspects of the curriculum determine your experience as a med student. surely pass/fail is a major part of it, but we can imagine the format of the curriculum playing an important role as well (do students attend lectures from 8-5 or small group sessions?). I would also switch 4 and 5 because i think financial aid is a more practical concern than whether your interviewers were nice to you. overall, though, i think this is an excellent ranking.

Posted by: Zubin | May 27, 2008 3:54:59 PM

I couldn't possibly agree more, except perhaps to simplify the list to: location, grading system, and everything else.

Posted by: Adam | May 27, 2008 4:00:35 PM

It is a good overall view for going to medical school. First of all anyone should be clear about their perspective in medicine, what you are looking for? What you want to be? Get through your academic choice, either you just want to be a doctor, or going for a research, surgeon. Look for your personal accomplishment in the school you are going to.

Posted by: Chandan Singh | May 27, 2008 4:44:07 PM

This is a very important aspect of any high school leaving student with big decisions to make as to which tertiary to go to. I also agree with Heather and i will go further by saying that a clinical setting has to be well equiped with a large influx of patients to allow students to get a broad spectrum of what they may come across beyond tertiary. Not enough emphasis can be placed on grading systems as this may at times be too subjective. If only there was a standardized way of examining students across all medical insitutions.

Posted by: Mandisa | May 28, 2008 1:43:27 PM

What if you are applying to a brand new school. What should you mainly look for in a brand new program? Or should this program be dismissed all together? I'm married with a one year old baby and I'm looking to stay within the city that I live because of the help my wife and I get with our baby. Been married is stressful enough and I can fathom moving to a city with my family to have a depressed wife and a son that never sees his relatives. At least in the city where I live I can be guilt-free for trying to pursue my dream while sacrificing everything else.

Posted by: Cristian L. | May 29, 2008 1:29:26 PM

personally, i havent been an overachiever all my life (as many med students have been), so i am a big fan of the pass/fail system. im no slacker, dont get me wrong, and im by no means a genius, just a student eager to practice medicine who worked very hard to get there the last 4 or 5 years (before that, ok...i was a slacker). that said, without the added stress of needing to raise an 86% to a 90% in three weeks to desperately try to fit into a percentile, med school is just a tad easier..JUST a tad.

Posted by: britt | May 29, 2008 7:59:36 PM

I think you also need to look at the course structure. In England different courses are very different. I didn't apply to Oxford/Cambridge because they teach medicine as a science subject for 3 years and you don't see any patients there. All the courses I applied to enable you to spend time in hospitals/doctors offices from the 1st 2 weeks of the course. That was the main factor in my decision of where to apply.

Posted by: Imogen | Jun 1, 2008 4:03:04 AM

Vey informational! Thank you!

Posted by: Sue Beck | Jun 8, 2008 7:28:35 AM

strong clinical rotation and good faculty are very very important!!!

Posted by: Saad Abdullah | Jun 8, 2008 9:54:59 PM

When checking out med school, this looks like an awesome place to begin your academic program! The True Blue Campus at St. Georges University.

Posted by: John | May 11, 2009 11:09:34 AM

You could also include the facilities as a factor one can look out for in a med school. The quality of the equipment can help them train better in such a way that they won't have to deal with outdated machines.

Posted by: George Melcher | Oct 18, 2011 10:48:07 AM

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