Do medical school rankings really matter?

Do you have to go to a top medical school in order to accomplish your dreams?  Premedical students ask these questions often.  It’s really a subset of the larger question which is “How do I choose which medical schools to apply to?”

But back to the rankings.  In the Internet age, information is ubiquitous, and there’s always a new med school rank list being published by some authority. These rankings, in turn, make premedical students nervous and question whether or not they need to go to a top medical school.  Certainly, if you have the opportunity to attend a top medical school then hey, if you can afford it why not take it?  The real challenge comes when you have that acceptance letter from a top program, but you have an acceptance letter and a nice financial package from a lower ranked program.   Here are a few things you should know before worrying too much.

1. Anybody can make a rank list. This is very important to keep in mind when researching medical schools. If you are going to rely on a rank list, make sure it’s a credible one. Always review their ranking methodology. There are certain respected and reputable organizations that put a great deal of effort into their ranking systems, and these should be taken at greater face value. Still, that is not to say that their systems are perfect, but if you are going to consider school ranks, make sure to choose a respected organization.

2. Not all rank lists rank the same things. Rank lists tend to focus on research, primary care, or opinion surveys. Depending on what is most important to you, be sure you are looking at a list that reflects that. For example, if you don’t care about research, you might not place so much weight on the research ranks. I do caution however that because premedical students usually are not certain about what specific field they will pursue, be open to research when starting medical school as something might pique your interest.

3. Patients don’t really care how your medical school ranked. It’s great to go to a top ranked place, and that has many bonuses. But when it comes to direct patient interactions, your patients won’t really care where you went. To confirm this, I asked several people where their doctor went to medical school, and a whopping 0 percent knew the answer. I know, you’re reading this and saying well my doctor went to [insert school name]. OK, you’re the exception, and you’re obviously more interested in medical schools because you are reading this blog. For the most part, your patients will only care that you know what you are doing and that you treat them well. Doctors don’t build their clientele by advertising where they got their MD; they do so by being excellent in their practice.

4. Doctors don’t really care how your medical school ranked. As a practicing physician now, I can tell you that doctors don’t ask each other where they went to medical school. As a matter of fact, the question that is typically asked is “Where did you do your training?” And by training, we are referring to residency and fellowship, not medical school. Here’s what’s most important for premeds to understand. You get your MD or DO in medical school, but you become a doctor in residency. Nobody will let a fresh medical school graduate take care of them because, in reality, they don’t know how to practice medicine yet. Residency is where you get your clinical training and fellowship is a further specialization. When choosing a medical school, put more value on what residency programs can this help you get into, rather than how the medical school ranks. Then when it is time to choose a residency, you should pay a little more attention to the ranking systems then because that truly affects how strong of a clinician you will be.

5. The top medical schools are on top for a reason. Taking into consideration everything I have said above, there is some great value to be gained from using reliable rank lists.  Medical schools that consistently rank at the top of these lists do so for a reason. There’s no denying that the top 10 are special in their own ways.  Their ability to repeatedly rank is in part a reflection of their culture to achieve excellence. Now, this matters!  Along my journey to become a board certified physician, I was able to train at a top program, and that desire to be the best was very evident.

In my personal opinion, you should always take ranking systems with a grain of salt. Your success is based more on you than the medical school you attend. However, you want to be at a place that has a culture which demonstrates they can help you to succeed. A medical school does not have to be on the top of the list to do that. I went to a school that wasn’t ranked too high, but I chose it because the students performed excellently, got among the best board scores in the country, and matched for residency very well.

Here’s my take home message, rankings can be helpful to a certain degree, but make sure you take more than that into consideration.  Perhaps most important is finding a school that matches students into their top residency choices. If you can find a reliable medical school rankings list based on that statistic, use that list!

So, to close this article, I’ll ask you a question and look forward to your answers.  Which factors do you take into consideration when you rank medical schools?  What are the things most important to you?

“Dr. Dale” is a physician who blogs at PreMed StAR.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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