How to Decide Where to Apply to Medical School

There are almost 200 medical schools in the U.S., and choosing which ones to apply to can seem like a daunting task. But don’t worry. After assisting thousands of students with creating a medical school list, I want to share three tips to help you decide which med schools to apply to.

How Many Medical Schools to Include?

As a premedical student, go to your university pre-health office and ask, “What is the average number of schools premeds from our university apply to?” This will give you a rough estimate of how many med schools you should consider applying to. You may apply to fewer or more schools according to your personal financial situation, career goals and strength of your application.

With med schools becoming more competitive each year, premed students are applying to more schools. Most premeds I have met in recent years apply to 20-30 schools.

[Read: Primary Care vs. Research: Which Med School Is Right for You?]

Main Factors to Create a Medical School List

Next, figure out which med schools to apply to by weighing location, your academic standing and primary application considerations.


Location is one of the main factors that drives which medical schools premed students consider. Students typically apply to locations where they have social connections and support. Strongly consider applying to schools in your home state and the state you attended college, because you may have an in-state advantage; some med schools give preference to students who reside in the school’s state.

Academic Standing

Build an Excel table and gather the admissions statistics from each medical school you’re considering. Collect the 25th percentile, median and 75th percentile MCAT scores and GPAs for each one. Then, compare your GPA and MCAT score with these admissions statistics.

Where do your stats fall compared to the rest of the applicants who are accepted to each school? Your list should include a range of reach, target and safety schools. Although there is no clear distinction of what qualifies as a reach, target or safety school, a good list will include schools where your MCAT score and GPA fall below, around and above the median MCAT score and GPA of accepted students.

Primary Application Considerations

There are three main primary medical school application systems: AMCAS, AACOMAS and TMDSAS. AMCAS, the American Medical College Application Service, is the primary application for allopathic, or M.D., schools. AACOMAS, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, is the primary application for osteopathic, or D.O., schools. TMDSAS, which is the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Services, is the application system for all Texas med schools.

[Read: How to Apply to an Osteopathic Medical School Using AACOMAS.]

Although there are similarities among primary applications, each still takes a lot of time. One big decision point for med school applicants is whether they will apply to only M.D. schools, only D.O. schools or both.

Other Factors to Consider

Location, GPA, MCAT scores and primary application requirements help students build a robust medical school list, but there are typically still too many schools. How can you narrow down your school list? Doing research on the medical school’s grading system, extracurricular activities, clinical opportunities and school culture will help you understand the nuances among medical schools.

Grading System

A med school’s grading system can influence the school’s culture and your stress level as a student there. Some med schools have pass/fail grades while others have a tiered grading system like fail, pass, honors and high honors.

Some premeds strongly prefer going to a med school that is pass/fail because they do not want to be as focused on achieving the highest grades throughout medical school. Be aware that schools may have different grading systems during preclinical years versus clinical years.

Extracurricular Activities

Similar to college, in med school you will have time to pursue extracurricular activities, including taking elective courses, researching, community volunteering, shadowing and participating in school clubs.

Many med students want to continue pursuing passions that they cultivated during their premed years. For example, you may have focused on a specific research topic in college, and you want to continue research in the same field during med school.

Other students want to develop interests they have not had the opportunity to pursue. For example, you may want to pursue a joint master’s degree — like an M.D.-MBA or M.D.-M.P.H. — to further your knowledge in business or public health, respectively. Take time to learn about extracurricular activities available at each med school because these activities will provide a more holistic education.

Clinical Opportunities

Because many premed students know med students who are one or two years older, premeds often hear about great preclinical extracurricular activities and classes. However, the exciting part about med school is starting clinical rotations. Therefore, when you build your school list, incorporate clinical opportunities like clinical rotation sites and clinical electives.

[Read: A Day in the Clinical Life of a Third-Year Medical Student.]

First, look up where students do clinical rotations. Are they in urban, suburban or rural areas? What type of health care system — private clinics, Veterans Affairs hospitals, academic medical centers, community hospitals, or HMOs — are the clinical rotation sites a part of?

One of my most memorable clinical rotations was when I spent a week seeing patients at juvenile hall. I gained new insights about a new patient population and other systems like foster care that work in tandem with health care.

Second, research clinical electives available at each med school. Many schools have global health electives, for instance. Others may have special clinical rotation sites in other states or remote, rural areas.

School Culture

Speaking with current med students, faculty and recent alumni is the best way to learn about a medical school’s culture. If you have the opportunity, try to visit various med schools throughout your premed years.

Popular cultural factors that premed students consider include: collaboration among classmates; surrounding area; housing options; and mentorship from faculty. Another factor many premed students are typically not aware of, but that greatly influences a med school culture, is whether students graduate in four years, five years or longer.

At some medical schools, many students take a gap year to pursue another graduate degree, start a company or conduct research. Gap year opportunities before med school may appeal to you as you build your school list, if you are interested in spending extra time to pursue your health care interests.

Creating a medical school list takes a lot of research. But it is exciting to learn about opportunities in med school, and doing so will ensure that you have a medical school list tailored to your interests.

More from U.S. News

What a First-Year Medical School Student Can Expect

Make the Most of Medical School ‘Second Look’

3 Types of Students Who Should Consider a Joint M.D. Degree

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