Medical School Rankings: A Different Perspective
How much should a medical school’s rank affect your decision to apply and attend? It’s a question that comes to light each year as the U.S. News & World Report releases its annual rankings of the “best” medical schools for primary care and research. While critiques of the rankings have existed almost as long as the rankings themselves, last year the conversation took a new turn with the publication of a study from researchers at the University of California Davis School of Medicine.
The study, published in the August 2013 issue of Academic Medicine, explores the methodology behind the primary care rankings specifically and questions the validity of the rankings (and others like them) at large. Like others before them, the authors take exception with the weight given to factors that have little influence on the education that students receive. “The variability [among rankings] is greater than could be plausibly attributed to actual changes in training quality,” the authors conclude, continuing on to assert that “these findings raise questions regarding the ranking’s validity and usefulness.” In a commentary following the study in the same journal, AAMC President and CEO Dr. Darrell Kirch and Chief Academic Officer Dr. John Prescott continue the discussion, noting that “the mission and strengths of each medical school – and the impact each has on individual trainees, patients, and the larger community it serves – are unique; thus, schools are poorly served by arbitrary and limited ranking methodologies.”
Notably, both the Davis study and subsequent commentary examine the issue from the perspective of the medical schools themselves – posing the question of how the rankings can or should be used to change the practice of medical education from institution to institution. Perhaps more important, however, is the topic that began this piece – “how are prospective medical students like yourselves influenced by rankings?” Driven by the pressure to control the expanding costs of the application process and influenced by an innate desire to attend one of the “best” schools, it’s not uncommon for students to limit the number of schools to which they apply – and in the process, run the risk of cutting out lower-ranking schools that might actually be a better fit.
So what tools can you use to get a more complete picture of the schools you’re considering? Here are a few of my favorites that I share regularly with students:
- MSAR/CIB: Probably the best known resources among students, the Medical School Admissions Requirements publication and the College Information Book contain detailed profiles of every accredited allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical school, respectively. These titles are generally considered a must-have for the admissions process.
- Fellow Students: One student’s experience isn’t necessarily directly transferable to another, but their perspectives can still be helpful. While some of the information on the internet can be anecdotal at best, the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) conducts an on-going survey of active medical students to help pre-medical applicants understand “what it’s really like at their schools.”
- Personal Experience: The best way to know whether or not a school is the right fit is to learn about it firsthand; unfortunately, many students wait until Interview Day to do so. While the costs of visiting each campus before applying can be prohibitive, there are other options: many medical schools send representatives to local pre-medical conferences, and online webinar-style information sessions are growing in popularity.