Our nation’s medical schools are ranked, but there are many misconceptions about these rankings. Are medical school rankings important to you? Do you think can become a good doctor even if you go to a “lower tier” school?
Our society is obsessed with rankings. Almost every institution is ranked in some way and medical schools are no different. US News arguably produces the most popular medical school ranking system based on each school’s research and primary care programs. Any person who is not well informed about medical schools could look at these rankings and automatically assume that doctors who graduate from low ranked schools are not very good. Conversely, the same person could assume that all doctors from Harvard are amazing.
For other professions, such as law, business, and engineering, the institution from which you graduated is important. The rankings for our undergraduate intuitions are substantial as well. The higher the rank of the school, the easier it is to find a well-paying, prestigious job. Fortunately for potential medical school applicants and, more importantly, society in general, medical school rankings are not as important as people may think.
One fundamental reason why this is true is because almost 100% of medical students who graduate from a U.S. medical school will find a job as a doctor (residency). Although residents are not compensated well, after they finish their training, almost all doctors will make a six-figure salary topped with the prestige of being a doctor. This trend will most likely continue as the need for doctors is still increasing. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts a concerning shortage of physicians by 2025, estimating that our nation will need 64,800 more doctors without increases in residency training. As the need for physicians increases, the demand will increase as well. It is safe to say that those who graduate from any U.S. medical schools will have little trouble finding a highly compensating job.
This is definitely not the case for other professional fields such as law and business. There are many people with JD and MBA degrees who cannot find jobs. That is why it is advantageous for those who want to go into law and business to go to top tier graduate schools. Some argue that it is not even worth going to lower tier graduate schools for these professions.
Nevertheless, even though almost every medical school graduate will receive residency training, not all residencies are created equal. Some residency programs produce better doctors than others. And many graduates want to go to top ranked residencies to receive the best training. Therefore, residency programs need ways of determining which students they want. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) surveyed residency program directors in 2012 to determine what these directors consider to be the most important factors in deciding which candidates to interview.
The top six most important factors based on the percentage of programs citing the factors were:
1. USMLE/COMPLEX Step1 Scores (medical board scores): 82%
2. Letters of recommendation in the specialty: 81%
3. Personal statement: 77%
4. Grades in required clerkships: 71%
5. USMLE/COMPLEX Step 2 score: 70%
6. Grades in clerkship in desired specialty: 69%
Out of 35 factors, graduating from a highly regarded school was 23rd in importance with 53% of directors saying it mattered. Thus, although graduating from a highly ranked medical school is somewhat helpful for landing a great residency, it is not as important as numerous other factors.
Going to a reputable medical school may not be a significant factor in admission into residency programs, but will it help you be a better doctor? The answer is yes and no. No because the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which is the nationally recognized accrediting authority for MD programs in the U.S. and Canada, has strict standards for every school. These national standards are rigid and implemented in every school, making allopathic medical education very homogenous. Obviously some schools teach and implement these standards better than others but in general, the school you attend will not determine whether you will become a good doctor.
On the flip side, different schools have different strengths in specific areas and specialties. For example, if you are interested in academic medicine, it will be beneficial for you to go to a research giant like Harvard. If you are interested in rural medicine, going to a program that is located near a rural area and specializes in that field will make you a better rural doctor than going to a school based in a metropolis. Ultimately, doctors agree that being a good doctor is based on each individual. If anything, the training from residency is much more important than the medical school.
So are medical school rankings important? My basic conclusion is they are to a certain extent, but are not to be obsessed over. Different schools have varying strengths and I would argue that you should choose your schools based more on “fit” than ranking. When you apply, take a holistic look at each school you are applying to, not just how they are ranked on U.S. News. That way, you will be much more informed about each school and know whether you think you will be a good fit in the program.