Transferring Between U.S. Medical Schools

A transfer between medical schools is a long process with no guarantees.

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Many medical school applicants breathe a sigh of relief when they receive that coveted acceptance letter and then settle into their new school. For a select few, however, a few things change along the way, and a little-known option might emerge: transferring.

How do you transfer between medical schools? Unlike undergraduate institutions, it is very difficult, in general, to transfer between medical schools. Many schools will only consider allopathic applicants from schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), and only for what they consider to be very compelling reasons.

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These reasons vary widely between schools; some schools will consider financial hardship or moving closer to family to be sufficient, while a few require that a spouse is specifically employed by that medical school before they even consider a transfer application.

In most cases, you need to be a third year medical student in good standing (a few schools will consider applicants for the second year), and have the support of the dean of your current institution. There are many schools that require that you pass Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), typically taken after the second year of medical school, before they will consider an applicant into their third year. You would also need to write a letter of interest explaining your reasons for transfer, and the deans of the two schools usually need to have direct communication regarding your specific case.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) provides a database of U.S. medical schools and their transfer policies, as well as a count of the number of available positions. This website is a good starting point for a search, though you should also double check with schools in which you're interested about their most up-to-date policies and openings.

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There are some distinct advantages that come with a transfer:

• Financial savings: Sometimes, a great private school can end up being much more expensive than previously anticipated, or an unexpected family situation may arise. In those cases, it is worth checking the transfer policies of public medical schools in your legal state of residence; they tend to be more open to residents seeking transfer due to financial hardship. Schools in Texas, Colorado, and Florida, for example, appear to take these circumstances into consideration, and prefer their own residents in most cases.

• Increased academic / research opportunities: Albeit rare, there are some medical schools that are open to considering all transfer applicants meeting certain academic criteria. If you find that your current school doesn't provide the opportunities you'd like to have, there are a few options to move to schools offering them. Many of these schools still prefer that you have a spouse or family in their area, but schools such as Drexel University appear to consider applicants with any compelling reasons to consider their institutions.

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There are also some reasons to give pause to considering a transfer:

• Low acceptance rates: Only a handful of students transfer between U.S. medical schools successfully, and a majority of them do so for a compelling personal or family reason. Schools are reluctant to take transfers due to lack of available spaces and typically only take applicants with academics well above average. Since you need your school's dean to be on board before you apply, you also need to consider any possible ramifications if your transfer application is not accepted and you need to remain at—and apply to residency from—your current school.

• Potential educational roadblocks: Many schools already look at potential issues when they consider your application, but there could be instances where a transfer student may have to retake a pre-clinical course or clinical clerkship. Residency program directors may also have questions about your transfer, especially if it was not for a personal or family reason (for better or worse, they may see it as a risk that you might also consider leaving their residency programs in the future).

Whatever you decide, it's important to be aware that transferring between medical schools is a long process with no guarantees. Unless you fall into one of those specific categories and are fortunate enough to find an open seat, it's best to try to take advantage of all the opportunities at your current school— and focus instead on matching at a residency spot at the institution you're eyeing.

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.