How to compare medical schools: medical school culture and other important factors

It would be a tremendous understatement to say that the medical school application process can be overwhelming! Between LizzyM scores, out-of-state percentages, and every other statistic available to us on MSAR, it’s easy to get lost in calculations. We often get so caught up in a school’s stats and numbers as we compare medical schools that we overlook other equally important factors necessary to effectively compare medical schools and eventually choose the right medical school for you. No set of stats alone is going to answer the all-important question, “Which medical school is right for me?” Even though many of us don’t have the opportunity to choose between several different schools, learning about them is a must. This type of preparation and research is also necessary because, during a medical school interview, it becomes apparent which applicants have taken a genuine interest in the institution. Having knowledge about the institution beyond its US News medical school ranking and research funding can show interviewers that you’ve approached the process in a mature manner. We have learned a lot about what constitutes a “good fit” from our interviewees here at DocStory. In this article we want compile some of the great advice we have gotten from students. Hopefully it can help you end up in an environment that will help you thrive!

What is medical school culture?

Culture. Especially when it comes to medical school, culture is something that many have a tough time defining. This is partly due to the fact that it encompasses many intangible or immeasurable properties of a school. Culture can even extend to aspects of administration at a medical school. For example, many students find it important that schools take into consideration student feedback. Arnie, and MS1 at UC Irvine School of Medicine mentions that the administration involves the student body in the design of curriculum and events. Medical school and residency are responsible for cultivating the basis of knowledge you will rely on for the entirety of your career. Therefor, students should be involved in the design and improvement of curriculum and class material. At the very least should be able to provide feedback on which administration can act. Learning about this aspect of a school’s culture is as simple as asking students how easy is it to give administration feedback!

Administration also contributes to school culture by putting on events that help students engage with other members of the medical community, either at the school or otherwise. Some awesome examples we have heard of are camping trips, retreats, and Medschool Olympics. These sorts of events keep medical school exciting! On top of that, they contribute to student wellness. Given medical school is easily one of the hardest things you will ever do, these types of events go a long way in ensuring you stay healthy physically and mentally. Understanding how a school might be able to help support your wellness is something worth looking into. Remember that, alternatively, these events could be put on by student organizations at the medical school. Asking students what interest groups and organizations they are involved in is great for making conversation while learning important details about a school!

Eric, an MS2 from Creighton School of Medicine,  explains that another characteristic that contributes to the culture at a school is the general “competitiveness.” It’s important to remember that competitive students can be found at EVERY medical school! There is no changing that. However, a good way to get a sense of the overall academic environment is by asking students about life outside of school. Asking questions to students about how they spend their free time is great way to get a sense of how well the community at that school will support you as you develop in aspects of life unrelated to medicine. As you ask these questions and try to learn about the school, it is important to remember that there is no objectively good or objectively bad culture and trying to label any class as such is just bad form! How “good” or “bad” a culture is is relative to your personality. If you are passionate about medicine and only medicine, how a medical school class spends its free time may be of little interest to you!

Comparing medical school class structure

Class structure is another aspect of medical school that warrants your attention. Quite often, our interviewees bring up grading scheme, podcast availability, and attendance requirements. The Pass/No Pass grading scheme de-incentivizes excessive competition for top marks right out of the gate because the highest grade you can earn is a ‘P.’ Many students believe that this grading scheme during first year helps foster collaboration and eases students into the medical school routine. Podcast availability and attendance requirements boil down to the freedom to design your own schedule. Steven Tohmasi, a student commuter at UC Irvine, explains that a video/audio podcasting system meant he wasn’t obligated to drive to campus everyday. Many people learn and retain material when they are able to pause and parse lectures at their own pace. Furthermore, no one wants to be in a lecture hall day-in and day-out! Having days without mandatory lecture and the ability to watch podcasted lectures allows you to spend a day studying at home or at a coffee shop on the beach. This variety goes a long way when you are preparing for an upcoming exam.

Many of our student interviewees suggested that understanding a medical school’s associations with regional teaching hospitals is important. During the first two years of medical school, curriculum is typically heavily classroom-based and shadowing opportunities and clinical exposure may depend heavily on active student effort to seek them out. Interviewees from Duke School of Medicine and Rush Medical College have mentioned “free clinics” that students can volunteer at to practice taking medical histories and conducting physical exams. The importance of putting classroom knowledge into practice early on cannot be understated, so take the time to learn about how you might be able to do that at a given school! Additionally, during the pre-clinical years of medical school many students explore specialties to differentiate those they have some interest in from those they don’t like at all. If the affiliated hospital is a significant distance away from the medical school campus where classes are, it may be difficult to schedule shadowing opportunities while balancing classes. As Austin from Medical College of Wisconsin puts it, “All medical schools try to draw students in by saying things like ‘We get you to have patient contact on day one.’” Try and find out how students receive this exposure. Is it through Clinical Skills courses with standardized patients? Is it through mandatory shadowing? Or is it through something completely unique? It’s up to you to find out!

Why is medical school location important?

It comes as little surprise that one of the most common responses we receive when asked about finding the right medical school is location! James Doss from Geisel School of Medicine reminds us that, “Believe it or not, there is a lot more to life than just medical school, and you want to be in a city that you can thrive in.” As obvious as this bit of advice may seem, we can’t emphasize enough how much it affects your medical school experience. We all have hobbies and pass-times that keep us healthy, mentally and physically. If these hobbies depend on a particular environment (i.e. water or snow sports), being in the right location is actually essential for your success as a medical student. Another aspect that interviewers will often explore is the location of a students “support system.” Going to school near family and friends may translate into healthier, more successful students given they have the support they need nearby. If you know that you rely heavily on friends and family to get through stressful times, consider making location a bigger priority! It could even play to your advantage to share with a admissions committee that your interest in their school is (in part) rooted in its proximity to your support system or hobbies. Medical schools care about wellness a lot more than you might think!

Putting it all together

The four years we spend in medical school are some of the most formative years of our lives. We want to make sure that we spend them in an environment equipped to support us and nurture in us the skills we will use throughout our career. Whether or not we have the opportunity to choose between schools, looking into medical school culture, extracurricular opportunities, wellness events, and location are ways to show interviewers that you care about all aspects of your medical school experience. Take the time to ask students and faculty about these aspects of their institution and it will benefit you in the long run!

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