Applying to Medical School

How to Create a Medical School List Using MSAR

You’ve worked hard as a pre-med, you’ve started writing your personal statement, and know what to expect when AMCAS opens. The big question is: which medical schools should you apply to?

Your school list is one of the most important – and yet one of the most underestimated – parts of the application process. It can make or break your chances of getting into medical school.

Follow these tips to create a strategic and balanced medical school list to boost your chances for acceptance.

First, It’s OK to Dream (and be Practical!)

In a minute we’re going to dig into a cool database that will help you strategically create your school list based on hard data. But first, know that it’s ok to have a mental starting point for your school list based on both practical and aspirational ideals of your perfect school. 

YOUR reality may be that you will go to medical school wherever you get accepted. Hey, it’s a competitive landscape out there, so that’s a reality for many students! But there’s nothing wrong with having a dream school, or with considering realistic factors – like location, cost, and personal interests – when researching schools. As you research, you may also discover factors you didn’t think were important, like how the school’s residency match program works or how your learning style will mesh with a school’s grading system. 

Co-founder and Director of Operations of, Edward Chang offers some insightful advice for helping you decide which medical schools to apply to. 

Now let’s dive into strategy.

The Importance of Categorizing Medical Schools 

As you begin researching medical schools, you will find that you are overqualified for some schools (undershoot or often called “safety” schools), underqualified for others (reach schools), and a perfect fit for some. These sweet spot schools are your target schools. You should plan to apply to more target schools and fewer reach and undershoot schools. 

It’s important to categorize schools you’re considering so that you can create a balanced list with the right amount of each type. If you apply to too many reach schools, you risk not getting into any because your stats simply aren’t strong enough. Some students think to play it safe by only applying to undershoot schools, but they’re just as likely to get rejected by those schools because they’re clearly overqualified and should be at a higher tier school.

The right mix really is key, and the only way to be able to categorize schools is to do your research and see how you stack up against the data for a school’s previously accepted students. 

ProspectiveDoctor created a proprietary algorithm to predict your chances of getting into medical school. The calculator uses your GPA, MCAT, state of residence, and ethnicity and assigns a color-coded category to each medical school so you can see at a glance which schools are safe, a reach, and just right. It’s a fantastic starting point to give you an idea of where to start with your school list research.

The calculator provides the following definitions to help students understand the different categories and the importance of creating a balanced school list:

Far undershoot: This means that these schools are numerically too low to be considered a “safety school.” Medical schools that are too far beneath your target range may reject you on the basis that they don’t want to waste an interview spot on an applicant that they feel will be going to a higher tier school. In essence, a school’s interview spots are precious to them in order to fill their class; a lower tier medical school will not interview a bunch of overqualified applicants and run the risk of not filling their class with enough acceptances. Apply to these sparingly.

Undershoot: Like with a “far undershoot,” these schools are numerically below your target range, and you run the risk of running into some of the same issues as the “far undershoot” schools.That being said, these schools are more appropriate for spreading some of your applications to, especially if you feel weak in some of the other areas of your application. Apply to a small handful of these.

Target: This range is your sweet spot. You have the best chance of getting accepted into a medical school when your range more closely mirrors the range that they accept. There are no “safety schools,” and being overqualified for other schools is not necessarily an advantage. Apply to more of these.

Reach: These are the schools that you are still in contention for, but your success will rely more on the other strengths of your application. Apply to a small handful of these.

Far Reach: These schools will rely upon massive compensatory strengths in your application for you to have any candidacy. Apply to these sparingly.

Now onto that handy database. 

How to Use MSAR to Explore Medical Schools

Every medical school in the U.S. has different admission requirements that are published in the AAMC’s Medical School Admission Requirements database (MSAR). This comprehensive database allows you to compare your stats, coursework, experience and extracurriculars alongside each school to see if you would be a competitive applicant. 

Each school has a profile page in the MSAR database which contains information that is important to prospective applicants, such as: 

School Overview – General school information, contact and social media information, and the school’s mission statement (which is a valuable nugget you can tie into your upcoming personal statement!).

Admissions – The school’s specific admissions process, including policies and timelines, admissions requirements such as undergraduate pre-med coursework, premedical experience and extracurriculars, the interview process, and waitlist information.

Acceptance Data – Includes median MCAT and GPA data for previously accepted students. In addition, the MSAR charts applicants’ GPA and MCAT data from the 10th to the 90th percentile and from the 25th to the 75th percentile. This provides an extremely useful breakdown of the scores required for acceptance into each medical school. For example, if your MCAT score is above the 90th percentile for a school, it’s likely an undershoot or far undershoot school on your list. Conversely, the school is likely to be a reach for you if your MCAT score is below the 10th percentile.  The acceptance data also contains demographic information to give you a snapshot of the type of students the school accepts based on gender, age, ethnicity and race, residency, and any disadvantaged status. 

Research and Education – This section of the profile describes the school’s academic curriculum and the opportunities it offers for professional development and research for students interested in pursuing opportunities outside the classroom.

Tuition, Aid and Debt – Medical school isn’t cheap, so comparing the cost of different schools is a critical point to many students. This section includes in-state and out-of-state tuition costs, how many students receive financial aid, and the average amount of debt students have after graduating. 

Campus Life – Students looking for a certain lifestyle or campus experience will find information in this section. It includes information about housing, student work-life balance, social activities and support systems the school has in place. 

MSAR Makes it Easy to Compare Medical Schools

MSAR contains a TON of valuable information, but it can feel overwhelming reading through every school’s profile. Fortunately, MSAR makes it easy to automatically compare your stats to each school’s admission requirements and median MCAT and GPA stats. 

On the “My Coursework & Scores” page, you can enter and save your MCAT, GPA and coursework. Then, as you’re reviewing a school, it will automatically show how your scores compare to previous applicants that were accepted. Similarly, you can save your coursework, hours completed, and lab experience to see at a glance if you meet the school’s admissions requirements.

If you want to compare multiple schools, the “Compare” functionality will give you a side by side comparison of up to 10 schools.

You can “Favorite” the schools you decide to add to your list and view them from your “My Favorites” page. Here you can rank the schools, from Far Undershoot to Far Reach, with your Target schools taking up the majority of your list.

How Many Medical Schools Should You Apply To?

This really depends on the strength of your application, but in general, you should consider applying to about 25-40 schools. Too few and you risk not getting into any; too many and you may find yourself overwhelmed with secondaries and interview invitations.

Applying to medical school is also a costly endeavor in itself. To submit your application to schools using AMCAS, the current fee is $170 to send your application to the first school and $42 for each additional school. When you receive requests for secondaries, the fee is anywhere between $75 and $150. If you receive multiple interview invitations, you also have to consider the cost of travel and accommodations to visit campuses. Travel costs are clearly less of an issue if interviews remain virtual.

MSAR Isn’t Free – But It’s Totally Worth It

Much of the basic information about each medical school is free on MSAR, but the good stuff you really need is only available with a subscription. Fortunately, the cost is very affordable considering the value it provides – just $28 for one year of unlimited access

Once you create your school list on the “My Favorites” page, you may decide to export the list into Excel or Google Sheets to manage tasks and track your application status. But as a research resource for building your school list, MSAR is a must-have.

MedSchoolCoach Helps You Cultivate Your Perfect School List

Deciding which medical schools to apply to can feel overwhelming. If you decide you need a helping hand, the admissions advisors at MedSchoolCoach have countless hours of experience helping pre-med students create a strategic and balanced school list to boost their chances of acceptance.

We also offer complete application advising services, including writing support for your personal statement and work/activities, interview prep, and everything you need to be a strong medical school applicant. 

Schedule a free consultation to learn more about our admissions advising services. 

Learn even more from The Ultimate Guide to Completing Your AMCAS Medical School Application.

Renee Marinelli MD

Renee graduated magna cum laude from California State University San Marcos with a bachelor’s degree in Biology. While attending school, she worked for a neurosurgeon where she led clinical trials. Renee attended the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine where she served on the admissions committee and interviewed many applicants. In medical school, Renee met her future husband, a military scholarship student. After medical school, both Renee and her husband attended family medicine residency in Hawaii where she also served on the residency admissions committee. She has mentored and assisted many students in the medical school admissions process and brings a wealth of experience serving on both medical school and residency admission committees. She is excited to continue to provide guidance to students while spending quality time with her son.

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