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Choosing a Medical School

Ben_3Ben Bryner -- Interview season for med schools is getting underway; it's a nerve-wracking experience getting interviewed because the stakes are rather high, but it's an exciting time to see what the future may hold. Other Ben has made a great list of things to consider when choosing schools at which to apply and interview, and I agree with it. All of those factors are important when making decisions about where to go to school. But there's nothing like taking a look around the place to get a feel for it.

Maybe the most important thing to notice about a school is the overall attitude that most people seem to have there. This was a huge factor in my decision to go where I did; everyone seemed to be very upbeat and happy. You can also tell something about the school just from the number of students you run into. The number of applicants present for an interview day ranges from just a handful to a huge roomful, so you have to take that into account. But if a school can only manage to convince a couple of students to show up and say hello to a large group, that's not as encouraging as a big group of students stopping by to say hello and get some free food.

I remember interviewing at several schools where lots of students showed up at lunch to answer questions, some where only a few did, and one school where I think I met only two or three students. Most schools have a tour led by students, which is a great opportunity to ask questions while you get a glimpse of the place where you could be spending the next four years of your life. This last school, though, just had someone working in the office take us around the campus, and it was a lot less interesting. Even if it's your tenth interview and you're tired of wandering around medical schools, the tour guide can often be a good resource. For one thing, you have enough time with them to ask questions that require some thought, like "what makes this school different?" or "what do you wish you knew before you started?" Or, if you get a tour guide that's painting what you think is too rosy of a picture, you can ask something like "What are the things you like least about this school?" A thoughtful response is pretty useful, since you can put their praise in context.

Speaking of tours, one thing to pay attention to on your tour is the presence of construction. If the campus is busy with new buildings going up, that's a good sign that things are going relatively well at the school. If the most complicated construction project you see is some kids building a tower with Legos in the waiting room, that doesn't bode as well for the future of the school. Most of the time you'll get a tour of at least one of the hospitals you will be working in at that school. Most hospitals probably look more or less the same, but this is a time where you'll want to find out as much as you can about the clinical component of the curriculum. If you get a chance to talk to a clinical-level student, make sure you seize the opportunity to ask them as much about the rotations as you can. It's easy to get a feel for the preclinical (usually the first two years) curriculum, but I would argue the ways the third and fourth years are set up, and the quality of and expectations on rotations, matter even more. So if you get a chance to talk to a fourth-year, grab onto them and ask questions. If someone gives you the email address of a third- or fourth-year, follow up on it and ask how their rotations are going.

Whenever I'm leading a tour I try to make sure we see the hospital cafeteria. It's a decent place with a wide range of choices if limited variability, and it has an especially nice view of the leaves changing color in the fall. It may sound like a waste of time to see that, but you spend enough time there during third year that it's definitely worth considering. Maybe not to the point that I'd choose one school over another solely on the basis of the cafeteria, but it's fine to make that part of your overall evaluation of the place. Obviously you should pay attention to the presence of study rooms, computer labs, and other med student-specific study facilities for those same reasons.

And on the way back from an interview you should take the time to write down your thoughts. You can do this in a standardized way, like making up a form to record all your thoughts about the school in various categories (for example, "coziness of lecture hall seats," "number of students in anatomy lab groups," "number of weeks I think it would take to find my way around this building," etc.) This is fine, but more important, in my opinion, is writing down the impressions you had about the place, the things that differentiate it from the other schools you've been to (or if it's early in the season, things you think are different and want to pay attention to at other schools), and what was really exciting about the school. No matter how thrilling that detail of that school's small-group case discussions seems at the time, by the time you do a few more interviews each school will start to blur together. Needless to say, it's embarrassing to make your decision, matriculate, and then show up the first day of school expecting to be at a completely different institution, so take the time to write down everything you can about the school as soon as you get a chance to sit down.

September 24, 2008 in Ben Bryner | Permalink


Its really odd to hear the american perspective of choosing a medical school. I live in New Zealand and here there are 2 med schools in the whole country!!! I didnt even get a chance to look around the med school I am currently attending before I turned up..... we pick based on geographic location (the schools are at opposite ends of the country) and thats about it really!! They both have almost equal international reputations so its not a huge decision.

One is located in our biggest city (Auckland) and since I dont really like the city (nothing against the med school) I picked Otago Uni which is in a much smaller city in the cold south! Totally worth it though as I am loving every minute here.

Posted by: Yoska | Sep 24, 2008 2:14:39 PM

The attitude of the students was very important to me when I interviewed; I actually based my final decision on it. It came down to two programs that were similar in many ways but that also had very different atmospheres. Neither was a clear winner in my mind, so I chose the school with the happy and friendly students (vs. the more competetive personalities in the other school). I think it was one of the best decisons I've ever made. Despite the difficulties of medical school, I can honestly say that I am enjoying school and I am happy.

Posted by: ashley | Oct 10, 2008 9:26:29 PM

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