How to Decide Which Medical School is Right for You

By Michelle Finkel, MD

Insider Medical Admissions

The following piece was written by Dr. Michelle Finkel. Michelle has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former Harvard Medical School faculty member. She is the founder of Insider Medical Admissions.

Managing the medical school interview day requires stamina, poise, and know how. Please look for my other guest posts on the Varsity Tutors blog where I’ve covered both prominent and subtle aspects of the interview day. Check out my July entry for advice on how to let your story show your glory and how to fake it until you make it, and my August entry emphasizing that you can run; you can hide; but you can’t escape the weaknesses in your application. September’s piece reviewed geographical issues – how to persuade programs that you are willing to relocate to a substantially different location – and solid strategies for demonstrating interest in schools. October’s entry included advice on how to tactfully navigate interview day’s social events – shiny happy people holding hands – and how to manage illegal questions with poise – you’ve got to hide your love away. November’sunforgettable – highlighted how to leave an enduring impression after the interview day is over.

As we’ve seen through these entries, the medical school interview day itself is complicated and imposing, and managing it graciously is critical. Having successfully navigated the hazards of the interview day, many applicants find themselves ill-prepared to make decisions about the institutions that will play such a major role in their personal and professional lives. 

It was the heat of the moment

I’ve written before about a psychological principle called reciprocal attraction, or reciprocal liking. The phrase refers to the phenomenon of people’s tending to like more of those people who like them. This idea can be used to a candidate’s benefit by preparing in advance to launch a charm offensive: Demonstrating a strong knowledge base about an institution’s curriculum, geography, and faculty can transform an underdog candidate into an enthusiastic match. 

The problem with reciprocal attraction is that it can bite you in the butt. In the heat of the moment, interviewers may make promises they can’t keep. As the saying goes, kisses aren’t contracts; although flattery feels good, never assume that any comments about your prospects are accurate. Take what is said with a grain of salt and certainly don’t make decisions like foregoing an interview at another institution based on what you have been told about the strength of your candidacy. At most institutions, one interviewer does not have the power to single-handedly determine the course of a candidate’s application. Also, and perhaps most importantly, make sure that you don’t inadvertently judge an institution as a better fit for you because someone has stroked your ego a bit.

Destiny's Child

Making decisions about where to go to medical school also depends on understanding and valuing your personal happiness.

I received really bad advice from a well-meaning faculty advisor when I was applying for residency: I was interviewing around the country, and one program really stood out as a strong one, but I had major qualms about the residency’s location. I had no friends or family in the city, and the weather was not to my taste. I was concerned about my future social life and my ability to do the outdoor activities I enjoyed in my free time. I approached a dean I knew and laid out my dilemma, hoping for insightful advice.

The well-meaning dean told me that I would be working so hard during my training that it wouldn't matter where I lived. He said I should choose the most competitive program regardless of location.

Fortunately, I ignored his advice. In applying to medical school and choosing where you’ll be, it's essential to think about what will make you happiest. Usually, that means being near your significant other, family, and friends. It might mean being in weather conducive to activities you enjoy, near a supportive religious community, or in a place where you can pursue your favorite hobby. 

Experience shows that many medical students end up matching for residency near the location where they went to school. This trend also continues after residency, for completely understandable reasons: Because they’re a known quantity to faculty, standout residents are offered local jobs after training. Because it’s a pain to move, and they have developed local support systems during residency, many doctors accept jobs near where they trained. None of this means that your choice of medical school will determine your destiny, but understanding how short-term decisions can have long-term consequences will help you choose the best location for the next four (or more) years of your life.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.