December 12, 2007 at 11:59 pm (Applying to med school)
I’ve begun working with the admissions committee again this year. I meet with applicant’s steering their lunch break and discuss with them the merits of our program. While most students are very nervous about the prospects of interviewing at a medical school, a few people are able to give us questions about life at our university. While subjects such as housing, scholarships, and even dating are to be expected, there is a few things that you should never ask during an interview—even if the medical students that are providing lunch promise they won’t go back to the admissions committee. This past week I had a one student who’s very first question of the afternoon was, “Why isn’t your school ranked higher in the rankings?”
Upon hearing his question, I wanted to jump across the table and beat them over the head with his orientation folder. Naturally my first response is to scream out, “Does it matter what our ranking is? You would come here regardless of what we were ranked if we were your only acceptance!”
For the education of my readers, let me explain to you why using the results of a ranking system such as U.S. News & World Report is bad for applying to medical school. While university administrators and even students and alumni look to the ranking systems is boasting the quality of their education, using a pop culture magazine to dictate your future educational endeavors is like asking a used car salesman if you need to purchase a new vehicle. These ranking systems are bad for several reasons.
First, let’s take a look at what the U.S. News & World Report uses in its algorithm.
1. Peer assessment by deans and residency program directors.
2. Money received in the form of research grants from the National Institutes of Health.
3. Mean MCAT, GPA, and acceptance rate.
4. Student:faculty ratio.
The peer assessment is largely based upon the title of the university and fame, rather than direct contact between the deans and the faculty and students at other universities. An administrator at a Northeastern university would be hard-pressed to discuss the merits and pitfalls of the program in the Midwest. Therefore, it’s a wonder why so much weight is put upon a popularity contest.
Looking at the money issue, we can immediately see problems with using NIH grants as the sole indicator of a university’s ability to perform research. There are numerous organizations besides NIH that provide grant money for medical research, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the military, and others. In addition, private donations are not included as part of research funding according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings. A university could receive a donation of well over $100 million from a philanthropist, yet that money will never play a role in the school’s ranking.
Further, the amount of money that a particular university pulls in for funding does not tell the applicant if the research that is conducted at that program is even interesting or in-line with one’s professional goals. For example, a school can pull in over $30 million in funding for genetics research, but if the student isn’t interested in genetics that funding is meaningless.
While the MCAT and GPA are useful for applicants to determine where their scores are a fit, these numbers are the only part of the ranking system which is controlled by the students who attend the university. The acceptance rate is problematic for two reasons: out-of-state students rarely apply to expensive private schools, and popular universities such as the Ivy League will receive more applications than state schools, perpetuating the very numbers that push them higher in the rankings.
Finally, the student:faculty ratio is by far the most worthless piece of data in the U.S. News & World Report ranking system because it sets up a false sense of what the class size will be in medical school. For the first two years, most students will sit in a large auditorium with 100 other people—and only one lecturer. So whether this student:faculty ratio is 8 or 16 is meaningless because you will always sit in an auditorium with only one faculty member and 100 classmates.
You’ll notice immediately that the rankings do not include any information such as student evaluations of teachers, clinical experience, or even the average USMLE scores. I would argue that these three factors are the most important determinants of where an applicant should go to medical school.
So the next time you’re on an interview, remember that rankings are of little importance for applying to medical school. And if you should ever ask, “Why isn’t your school ranked higher in the rankings,” don’t be surprised if you get hit in the head with an orientation folder.