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The Dilemma of Applying Broadly

Should we incentivize applying to as many schools as possible?

It’s no mystery that applying to medical school pits you against stiff competition. Every year candidates dutifully complete prerequisite coursework, take the MCAT, and throw their hats in the ring for consideration. The culmination of years of planning and effort become distilled into an easily digestible (read: filterable) dossier struggling in a digital hunger games.

That being said, why not increase your entries?

If one hypothesizes that, after hard cutoffs are applied, ultimate selection of candidates for interview and possible admission offer could be viewed as having an element of chance then more applications would probably increase that. Some regions of the United States are considerably more popular than others, yet class sizes may not differ commensurately. Some applicants may have either a strong regional preference or circumstances that impose a regional restriction, meaning less competition. If one considered most medical education essentially equal for entry into the profession of being a physician, a foot in the door is a foot in the door.

On the other hand, applying broadly is expensive. Primary applications, secondary applications, and ultimately travel to an interview are not insignificant financially. Perhaps you, the reader, have ties to a geographic region that limit the appeal of transnational applications. Then comes the question: If everybody gets more raffle tickets is there any advantage to having more? Finally, is there regional bias in selection?

As if this was not enough, there comes the decision of whether to pursue American MD degree granting institutions only or to include Osteopathic schools and Caribbean schools in the mix. These alternatives have significant pitfalls that become more evident later in the medical education pipeline. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late to turn back even if money was not an issue.

At the heart of the matter is a frank evaluation of your ability to compete with your contemporaries alongside the risks and benefits of broader application. Consider for a moment the perspective of those who administrate educational programs. The most indifferent would at least recognize that students must be able to successfully make it through the curriculum and successfully progress to careers of some sort. Others might feel that there is a duty to ensure that graduates have good careers. Understandably, there may be a tendency toward a consistent premed product of a good university, as this has historically yielded a consistent medical school product at the end of their pipeline. The first question then is whether you are a reliable product with reliably average pedigree, or if there are elements of ‘uniqueness’ that may be seen as drawbacks.

The fingerprint of your application is the culmination of factors both within your control and outside of it. Historical tracking of previous MCAT scores, board scores, transcript scores, and so on means that planning for perfection began five years ago. No do overs. This should telegraph to the prospective applicant what the benchmark is and how they deviate from it. In essence, it is worth considering that each institution has an underlying mission, whether it is vacuuming up tuition money, producing local physicians, obtaining research grant money, or even just bolstering prestige. The applicant has a mission too, but the advantage lies on the institutional side by the numbers.

Truthfully, everyone enjoys a story about an outlier or underdog who beat the odds. But the reason these stories are so inspirational is because they happen so rarely. Should the modern day medical school applicant apply broadly? It depends on their mission, their circumstance, and their ability to fit into the institutional mission. It also may boil down to: Would I rather try it all again in another year or just go anywhere?

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