Is Primary Care Right for You?

Choosing between a primary care and research program is an important decision.

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Let's be honest. While studying optics or organic chemistry in the wee hours of the morning three weeks before taking the MCAT, almost every aspiring medical student says that they would give anything to get into any medical school. But not all schools are the same and it isn't just a difference in prestige, faculty, or location. Medical schools often fall into one of two categories–primary care and research–and which you apply to (and ultimately attend) is important.

So as you move past the MCAT, compose your personal statement, and chase down your letters of recommendation, you will need to decide which medical schools will receive your AMCAS application and whether a primary care or research school is a better fit.

[Learn about loan forgiveness programs for primary care physicians.]

U.S. News's rankings of Primary Care and Research medical schools are great tools to help you figure out what type of school is right for you. This resource is essential because the rankings are more than a list; they provide valuable insight into the institutional culture and help you choose where to apply.

To help you navigate the rankings, it's important to understand key differentiating factors:

The research medical school rankings, as you would expect, weigh research heavily. Research activities count towards 30 percent of their rankings, factoring in both depth (total number of research dollars) and breadth (average research activity per faculty member) of activity.

Research is not factored into the primary care rankings, which give equal weight, 30 percent, to the percentage of M.D. or D.O. school graduates entering primary-care residencies in the fields of family practice, pediatrics, and internal medicine.

The research school rankings value student selectivity more than the primary care rankings, objectively measured by MCAT score, GPA, and acceptance rate. Therefore, the research schools are ideal for the competitive aspiring physician-scientist who dreams of being a professor of medicine or surgery at a large academic medical center.

On the other hand, the primary care rankings put greater emphasis on the faculty-to-student ratio than the research school rankings. A greater faculty-to-student ratio and focus on primary care often leads to more face time with attending physicians, and a less competitive academic environment.

[Read a profile of a Brown University med student.]

There are a handful of schools such as the University of Washington School of Medicine, University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine that earn top marks in both rankings, but the majority of medical schools tend to rank proportionally higher in one ranking or the other. It is important to be honest with yourself and assess your needs while deciding where to apply.

Understanding the differences between primary care and research schools offers insight into their respective priorities and cultures, and can be used to help you determine what schools would be the best fit, because it isn't (or shouldn't) be about getting into any school–it should be about getting into the right school for you.

Mark D'Agostino, MD, MS, MSc is a Brigade Surgeon in the United States Army. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a Masters degree in Biochemistry at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and a second Masters degree in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics (LSE) & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). After graduating from Brown Medical School, he trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.