Putting Medical School Rankings in Perspective

Delayed gratification. Patience. These are the quintessential marks of doctors-to-be, who regularly forgo the fun and festivities often associated with college life.

After all, the path to a medical career winds along a route that leaves little time to enjoy the scenery. Even for those who manage to embrace the highly focused life of a premed student, the frequent curricular trials — from organic chemistry to the MCAT — can be incredibly stress-inducing. Few decisions along the way seem more important than your choice of medical school.

Yet there is more to choosing where to apply to medical school than picking from a list of “Top Schools.” Although such resources serve a purpose, basing your choices primarily on rankings can constrain you before you’ve thoroughly evaluated the criteria that are most important to you.

The Trouble with Rankings

Arguably, the most well-known of the rankings lists is U.S. News & World Report’s annual catalog of America’s Best Medical Schools. Many prospective med school students first turn to these rankings to guide their searches, but they don’t necessarily understand the measures that underpin them. For example, many U.S. News detractors argue that its rankings are elitist and too heavily focused on the economic indicators of an institution’s well-being, such as its donor base and amount of research funding. Authors William C. McGaghie and Jason A. Thompson, among others, have critiqued the methodology that U.S. News employs and, even more importantly, called it out for failing to consider social and professional outcomes in its assessment of the quality of medical school programs.

Critics also point out that just because an individual graduates from a “big name” school, that outcome doesn’t mean that she will be an exemplary physician. For a student considering different factors in the application process, it can be frustrating to determine how much weight to accord a particular school’s rank, over and above, for example, personal considerations like location, successful placement into particular residency programs, and average student-indebtedness upon graduation.

Of course, the ideal medical school would be located near your family and friends, have a reputation for producing outstanding and successful graduates, accept its class based on a whole-person evaluation that considers factors other than grades and standardized test scores, and support its students throughout the arduous years of anatomy and clinical rotations. And it would cost nothing — well, with the exception of that last point, these may well be some of the characteristics you may want to look for in a medical school.

The Importance of YOUR Criteria

Choosing your medical school is a very personal decision. As you create your own list of options, take a serious look at your professional goals before looking at any rankings. In fact, one useful strategy is to make your own “rankings list” by writing down the factors that matter most to you. For example, if you’re most concerned with being accepted to medical school and don’t have a fixed idea of your plans for your medical career — that is, you want to be a doctor, but you’re not committed to a competitive specialty or becoming the dean of an Ivy League institution — remember that the content of medical school curricula are fairly standard in U.S. osteopathic and allopathic medical schools. In fact, regardless of alma mater, all prospective physicians have to pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), a series of standardized tests that assesses the knowledge and skills needed to provide medical care safely as a physician in the U.S.

Given that the core content of a medical education is similar from school to school, if you don’t want to assume a $200,000 educational debt or don’t have compelling circumstances that tie you to a particular geographical area, you needn’t fret if the schools that match your criteria don’t make it onto a publication’s list of top programs. With the exception of the most competitive specialties, the medical school you attend does not determine where you’ll work or how successful you’ll be in your chosen medical field. There are doctors who practice at the best hospitals who did not attend the best medical schools — instead, they worked hard in the programs they attended and set out to become accomplished physicians in their specialties.

It’s one thing to advise students to look beyond the rankings — it’s another to have to do that. Here are six actionable steps you can take to find the med schools that will be best for you.

6 Things Every Prospective Med Students Should Do

  • 1. Seek out recommendations of schools that accept students with your grades and MCAT scores. Reach out to your premed or college advisor. There are medical schools for many different achievement levels, so you’re likely to find a selection of programs that are well-suited to your record. And remember that you can leverage favorable scores if you’re seeking more financial aid. That is, if your credentials are well above the average for a school, then you will be in a stronger position to negotiate for greater financial support than if you fall toward the middle or bottom of the pack.

  • 2. Learn the requirements for state university systems where you live. Many, such as the State University of New York (SUNY), require their medical schools to accept a certain proportion of their students from within the state.

  • 3. Ask your advisor about each target medical school’s admissions practices. Does the admissions committee rule out candidates whose grades and scores are below a particular level, or does it investigate a student’s application more deeply? In the latter case, schools are often looking for more well-rounded applicants, and/or those who may have decided to apply to medical school later or after following a less conventional path.

  • 4. Read the websites of schools that interest you. Find out about their pedagogical or philosophical approach, and look for clues about the character of the student body. Even if they don’t state it directly, many med schools provide clues to the types of students they’re seeking. For example, some medical schools may say they are committed to producing doctors who work with underserved communities and that they are looking for students whose experiences demonstrate such a commitment.

  • 5. Speak to premed professors about the schools they attended. This will help you learn what they liked and didn’t about their almae matres. And ask them if they believe that the programs they attended ultimately affected where they were matched for their residencies — or ultimately affected their careers in significant ways.

  • 6. Look at outcomes. Do the majority of each school’s students pass the various USMLE steps? What is a given school’s residency placement results? What level of debt does its graduates carry?

A Final Thought

It is true that many of the schools that are consistently at the top of rankings lists enroll students with the highest grades and MCAT scores. This fact doesn’t have to be determinative, but it does suggest that the student body is likely to be comprised of high-achieving candidates. These schools also tend to offer their students more opportunities for research, and to be more successful in placing them into the most competitive residencies. Earning a medical degree from a “pedigree” school does make it easier to advance in certain career paths, especially in academic medicine. That said, highly-ranked schools generally come with higher price tags, but not necessarily higher satisfaction among their graduates.

At the end of the day, keep in mind that a particular medical school’s rank — whether it’s at the very top or somewhere toward the bottom — has less to do with you becoming a good doctor than your own commitment to providing competent and compassionate care. You can achieve this goal in many programs, top-ranked or not.

Follow this link to find further advice about applying to medical school, and ask subject matter experts like Dr. Beeman any questions you have.

Sources:

Mcgaghie, W., & Thompson, J. (n.d.). Americaʼs Best Medical Schools. Academic Medicine, 76(10), 985-992. Retrieved June 1, 2015.