With the AMCAS application opening for submissions, many applicants ask themselves “how many medical schools should I apply to” and face the daunting task of building a medical school list. While many aspects of applying to medical school may be similar to how you applied to college, medical school applications require more strategic planning and realistic considerations of your needs and constraints.
We’ll help you figure out the right combination of schools to maximize your medical school acceptances. Additionally, we’ll help you choose schools that are a great fit for your background and interests.
In this blog post, we’ll cover the following topics and questions:
How Many Medical Schools Should I Apply To?
According to the AAMC, in 2019 there were 896,819 applications submitted by 53,371 applicants, with an average of 17 applications per applicant. In recent years, we’ve recommended:
We advise most applicants apply to 20-30 medical schools
The medical school application process is an art, not a science. And there is a lot of strategy involved. Which is why we wrote Cracking Med School Admissions: Advise From Students Who’ve Been There and advise students with their medical school application. There are many other considerations to factor when choosing which medical schools to apply to.
When should you apply to more medical schools?
If you are worried about certain aspects about your medical school application, then you should apply to more schools.
We typically advise students to apply to around 35 schools when they are re-applicants or if they are worried about the strength of their medical school applications.
Generally, applying to more than 40 schools will likely lead to excessive work and a very high application fee cost.
Considerations that may indicate a need to apply to more medical schools:
- GPA 3.5 or lower
- MCAT score lower than 510 or not hitting the 25th percentile of medical schools you want to attend.
- Little or no extra-curricular activities
- Mediocre letters of recommendation
When should you apply to fewer medical schools?
Financial constraints and personal commitments are important factors when applying to medical schools. There are applicants we advise each year to apply to fewer than 20 medical schools.
Common reasons applicants choose to apply to fewer medical schools:
- Have other career options and they are only willing to go to medical school if they get into certain medical schools
- Needs to be near family
- Selective about fit (e.g. schools need a strong MD/MBA program or a MD/MPH program)
- Financial limitations
Other considerations: Reach vs Target vs Safety Schools
You should also seek to stratify your school choices into three separate categories, which may be reminiscent of when you applied to colleges: “reach,” “target,” and “safety” schools. Although no school is truly a “safety” since many students who apply do not get into medical school, having a school where you are on the higher end of the academic spread will help you to ensure that you have a strong chance of being accepted and will not have to re-apply next cycle. Roughly 20-30% of your schools should be “reaches,” 40% should be “targets,” and the remaining 30-40% should be “safeties.”
Other Considerations: In-State School Preferences
Make sure to consider any geographic constraints that you may have. This can range from where your spouse may be able to move to if you need to support a family member and need to be close to them.
Another factor to consider is that many states have state-sponsored medical schools which have a strong incentive to train students from their home state. Usually this could be either the state you called home before attending college or the state in which you attend college. Make sure to be strategic about how you approach declaring which state is your home state to maximize your chances of getting into medical school. For example, if you are from Nebraska, but attend school in California, you would have many more options applying as a California resident instead of as a Nebraska resident. As a result, many of the schools that have strong in-state preferences may have more demanding requirements from students applying from out-of-state so avoid choosing too many state schools from outside of your state for your list. This also means that you should apply to ALL of your state schools if you can afford to. They usually represent your best chances of getting into medical school.
How Hard is it to get into Medical School?
Getting into medical school is extremely tough. Applying to medical school does not guarantee admission! According to AAMC, in 2019, only 40% of students who applied to medical school matriculated into medical school. Many medical schools have acceptance rates of LESS THAN 5% each year.
If you are applying to medical school this cycle, you have to check out these high yield blog posts we have for premeds:
- AMCAS Work & Activities Examples
- How to answer, “Why this medical school?”
- The Cracking Med School Admissions “Mastering the Multiple Mini Interview” online course
Why is the medical school admissions process so competitive? This is partly due to the fact that there are only 155 medical schools and 36 osteopathic schools in the United States. It is hard to become a doctor, but you probably already know that having taken countless perquisites and balanced your activities with your school work. Making sure to take your time now to build the right school list for you will allow you to pick schools that you would be happy to attend and able to afford. Many students who do not get into medical schools usually had a misstep when building a school list and chose schools where they were not competitive. Since you have already begun to see how grueling the application process can be, to avoid having to re-apply, make sure to build the right school list now and maximize your chances of getting in and starting on your dream to become a doctor!
How To Build A Medical School List
Now that you have pared down your list, it is time to answer the initial question of “how many schools should I apply to” and make sure that you are choosing the right number and spread of schools to maximize your chances of getting in. Building a school list does not have to be stressful. As an applicant, you should cherish the process because you’re learning about various medical schools! One of the schools you apply to will be your future home for at least the next 4 years.
First Pass: Using the MSAR to Research Schools
Important resource: We recommend that you purchase access to the AAMC’s Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) database. This database is compiled by the AAMC and allows you to browse, search, sort, and compare information about many U.S. medical schools (there are a few schools that do not publish their information on MSAR, but the vast majority do). Although there is a fee (usually $25/year) to use this database, it is much less than the cost of applying to a medical school (~$170) and will save you time and money in the long run.
Before you start building your medical school list, you should calculate your cumulative and science GPA (biology, chemistry, physics, math, and statistics classes only) and have your MCAT score on hand. Although schools are moving towards reducing the emphasis that is placed on scores, they are still some of the most important factors when assessing your academic preparation to apply to medical school. This also means that they can serve as representative statistics to help you determine if you would be a good academic fit at a particular school.
When researching schools, make sure to note down the following:
- Your MCAT score versus the school’s 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile scores for accepted students. If you scored a 515 and the accepted student with highest MCAT score last year was a 516, then you stand a very strong shot of getting into the program. Conversely, if the lowest cumulative total MCAT score accepted last year was 514, then this school may be more of a “reach”
- Your GPA (science and cumulative) versus the school’s 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile accepted GPAs. Similarly, if your score falls below the 25th percentile or above the 75th, then you should adjust your expectations accordingly
Use the MSAR to sort your schools into “reach,” “target,” and “safety” schools. Other than figuring out the answer to “how many medical schools should I apply to?,” you also have to figure out, “What’s the right balance of reach, target, and safety schools?” As we stated earlier, apply to roughly:
- 20-30% reach schools
- 40% target schools
- 30-40% safety schools
Second Pass: What are your Priorities and Preferences?
Three of the most important considerations medical school applicants have when narrowing their medical school list:
- Location and geographical area
- Ability to pursue their interests
- Medical school’s mission and curriculum
After reviewing the MSAR, you should have a long list of schools where your academic achievement matches with particular programs’ preferences. It’s important to ask yourself, “do I see myself at that medical school for the next 4 to 8 years?” Although you will be spending much of your time studying, you should consider what kind of environment you would like to be in when you spend your free time.
- Are you comfortable living in a big city, suburban area, or a more rural area?
- Do you have friends and family around the medical school’s location?
- What kind of weather are you comfortable with?
- Do you have a family and where would they be comfortable living or attending school?
Making sure to choose a school where you can see yourself living and being happy is very important and will greatly affect your experience in medical school. If you know that you would struggle without a strong support network or if you were far away from your family, make sure to consider this when making your decision.
Ability to Pursue Interests:
Other than clinical medicine, many medical school applicants are interested in other aspects of healthcare, including research, public health, global health, public policy, and business. As you start narrowing your list, make sure to research the curriculum, teaching and learning style employed by the school, advising and other administrative support, volunteering opportunities, and other components of the educational experience at each school to ensure they align with your own needs. Many schools are very different, so it is important to pick the school that matches well with your needs and preferences!
When researching medical schools, consider these questions:
- What opportunities are available that align with my passions and interests?
- Which professors, physicians, or centers within the hospital can I see myself conducting research with?
- What volunteer opportunities are available?
- Is there time allocated to pursue my other interests?
Medical School’s Missions and Curriculum:
Another major consideration is your “fit” with the school’s priorities, mission, and approach to medical education. For example, if you believe that working with underserved populations is an essential part of the training that you would like to receive, make sure to focus on schools that emphasize this kind of work and have many programs to support students with these interests. Also, if you are interested in this kind of work, but have few experiences that support these interests, consider how else you could shape your arc to align with this school’s mission.
Consider these questions:
- Is this school pass / fail?
- Does the medical school rank their students?
- How competitive and cut-throat is the medical school culture?
- What is the medical school culture?
- When do I start my clinical rotations (2nd year or 3rd year)
- What is the mission of the medical school? How do students strive to fulfill that mission?
- Does the school have any emphasis on research? Community health? Underserved populations? Minority populations? Rural health? Urban health?
Third Pass: Consider Your Constraints
As part of the third pass at this list, we will determine what your constraints are for these schools and pare the list down even farther. One big consideration when figuring out how many medical schools should I apply to is your finances and time.
Money, money, money. Medical school can be very expensive, but it is also one of the best investments that you will make in your lifetime. Recent medical school graduates have a median debt of about ~$200,000 according to the AAMC. Although many schools have launched efforts to help reduce the cost of tuition through financial aid or are tuition free like the NYU School of Medicine and Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine, the reality is that most medical schools still carry a hefty sticker price that can go up to $400,000.
To return to one of our earlier pieces of advice to apply to your state schools, another big advantage of attending a state medical school as an in-state resident can be reduced tuition costs. These savings can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as can be shown by the example below:
UT Southwestern (in-state) – $22,000 x 4 years = $88,000
UT Southwestern (out-of-state) – $35,000 x 4 years = $140,000
Emory (private) – $51,000 x 4 years = $204,000
Although these costs do not include other living expenses or interest that may accrue on any loans, it demonstrates the stark difference in the cost of attendance based on your geographic location.
Time and Costs to Interview and Complete Secondaries
AMCAS Costs: When applying using the AMCAS application, the first school you apply to costs $170 and every school after that costs $40. That means that submitting a primary application to 15 schools costs $1,100! This would be before you would factor in the cost of secondary applications, which routinely average $100 for each school. Although you may be able to qualify for a fee waiver, if you do not, just submitting your application can cost upwards of $2,600 for 15 schools.
Secondary Application Costs: As stated above, the primary AMCAS application is just the first step of the application process. After AMCAS verifies your application, your schools begin to receive your application in late June and early July. Many secondaries will be arriving around the same time. That means a lot of time spent writing and editing your essays while still working or attending school. This can be very stressful and may lead you to have to prioritize certain secondaries over others, putting you at a disadvantage if you take too long to return the applications. Make sure that you will be able to complete the secondaries for all of the schools that you will apply to in a timely manner before you submit your primary application.
Interview Costs: After you are invited for interviews, you will also spend a significant amount of time and money traveling to these schools for 2-3 days. This means that you would have to miss work or school and pay for bus, plane, or train tickets as well as hotels for schools where there are no student hosts. These costs can quickly add up and make the application process very expensive.
In conclusion, how many medical schools should I apply to? There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Do your research to find the best medical schools for your academic and personal fit and only apply to those school you would like to attend.
FREE AMCAS Work & Activities Workbook
Use this workbook to write STELLAR AMCAS descriptions. This section is as important as your personal statement.