How Important Are Medical School Rankings?

There are benefits to going to a highly ranked school, but other factors should also be weighed.

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Medical school rankings are one indicator of an institution's perceived quality; however, gauging the importance of rankings is not as clear-cut as with undergraduate institutions, law schools, and business schools.

With law schools and business schools, there is a wealth of data suggesting that the employment rate as well as the initial salary and bonus post-graduation gets higher the closer you get to the top of the rankings. This incentivizes students to attend the highest-ranked school possible.

In contrast, all medical school graduates who choose to go directly into a residency training program (which is required if you want to practice clinical medicine) make roughly the same amount of money during their training program. The income differential arises post-residency and is dependent upon the choice of specialty.

That said, attending certain medical schools can increase the chance of matching in your desired specialty choice, and the medical research rankings are arguably more important if you are an aspiring M.D./Ph.D. candidate. But your future opportunities will be more tightly coupled with your performance during medical school and your United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) scores than the name of the institution on your degree.

[Learn more about joint M.D./Ph.D. programs.]

So how big of an influence should rankings be on school selection?

Unfortunately, not everybody can go to Harvard Medical School or University of Pennsylvania. However, there are more than 100 medical schools in the United States, as well as numerous overseas, that students enthusiastic about a career in medicine can consider.

When applying to medical school, the influence of rankings on what schools to apply to should depend on your objectives. For an aspiring physician scientist, being at a top-ranked research school that has the resources, aggressive publishing expectations, postdoctoral fellows, and grant-writing expertise can enhance your academic opportunities and set you up for future success.

For the aspiring clinician, rankings should be factored in, but can play second fiddle to the geographic, demographic, average MCAT score/average GPA, and academic culture of the institution.

[Find out what looming MCAT changes will mean for aspiring M.D.'s.]

However, applicants should stratify their application strategy to optimize their chances of securing an acceptance. It is generally recommended to apply to your state-residency schools, as well as a few schools who have a median MCAT and GPA that is similar to yours. Applicants should always include two or three "reach" schools; you never know if your story might resonate with them. Apply broadly and intelligently, and use the rankings as a guide to help you learn more about the schools rather than as a "top 10 list" of where to apply.

While the name brand cache of a school may be attractive, if you have the opportunity to attend a high-quality state medical school that will save you more than $100,000 between tuition, fees, and other expenses over the higher ranked private school, it may be the wise choice.

For the vast majority of core specialties—including internal medicine, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry—medical school ranking are not as important as USMLE scores. There are notable exceptions. If you are an aspiring dermatologist, orthopedic surgeon, plastic surgeon, or other highly competitive subspecialty, data does suggest that physicians graduating from a top 40 research school may have a competitive advantage.

[Learn more about choosing an M.D. specialty.]

While going to a top ranked school may seem like a big deal, at the end of the day do you know where your pediatrician, family physician, internist, or specialist physician went to medical school? What academic institution was their residency training program affiliated with?

Most of you will not have the answers to these questions, because a physician's success is based upon the ability to effectively care for patients. Your medical competency and ability to care for patients speaks louder than where you earned your degree.

Selecting medical schools to apply to is a tough endeavor on its own, as is committing to a school and location for at least four years. Rankings are an important consideration, but it is also important to consider other factors, including personal ones, when determining where you will apply to medical school.

Four years is a long time, and it's important that you attend a school where you will be happy and best positioned for success.

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

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.