4 Tips for Selecting a Medical School

Deciding where to apply can be tricky. Use these tips to simplify the process.

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Choosing where to apply to medical school can be a challenging process. Almost every applicant has a few dream schools they'd love to attend, but unfortunately, not all of their "numbers" (GPA, MCAT score) match up with schools' averages or requirements.

How do you effectively select schools? There are a few important things to consider when determining your strategy.

1. Geography: It's important to know before you begin applying, for both financial and personal reasons, where you're willing to spend the next four years of your life. Many times, applicants impressed or flattered by being admitted to a great school in a less desirable city end up struggling through medical school.

Of course, restricting yourself geographically to a certain area—especially popular ones like New York or Southern California—could hinder your chances for admission. However, in some instances, such as applying to schools in your home state (where state residents are normally preferred), geographic restrictions could be advantageous.

[See the 10 most popular medical schools.]

2. Number of schools: This is a question that comes up often. How do you balance your desire to find the right school (and get accepted) while not spending too much time and money applying to numerous schools?

Generally, it's a good idea to aim for 13 to 15 schools. Depending on geographic restrictions, it's best not to apply to fewer than 10 or more than 20. Even if you are worried about your grades, MCAT score, or an unusual circumstance, applying to more than 20 schools will drain your time and money, while potentially compromising your ability to prepare quality application materials.

3. Your GPA and MCAT score: When choosing where to apply, it's a good idea to take a look at the average accepted students' profiles at schools you're interested in and see how you compare. Most medical schools provide this information on their website, and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) site also has helpful statistics.

Don't get too discouraged by the numbers; remember that the averages include numbers both above and below the mean. So a school with an entering class mean GPA of 3.6 has accepted students with both 3.4 GPAs and 3.8 GPAs. If you're below the average of a school in which you're really interested, it might still be worth applying, particularly if your other materials (such as your personal statement, mini statements, and secondary application) are strong.

[Get U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]

4. School tiers: Applying to the right mix of schools is key to maximizing your chances of getting that coveted acceptance letter. Researching the websites of schools to see if they offer specific programs, research tracks, or other opportunities is a good way to start. The AAMC has a comprehensive list of medical schools if you're unfamiliar with them or would like to broaden your options.

Generally, it's best to apply to a few schools in a tier where your numbers match the average accepted applicants profile, a few higher-tier reach schools where your numbers may be a little lower, and one or two backup schools where your numbers are much higher than the average student's. You should also apply to public medical schools in your home state regardless of tier. This way, you can have a mix of some realistic options while maintaining the possibility of getting into your dream school.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.