Turn to Current Students When Choosing a Medical School

Delece Smith-Barrow

Finding the right medical school is a two-way street. While students have to persuade admissions officers of their worth, an institution has to sell itself, too. One way to gauge whether a school is the right fit: campus visits.

Medical school campus visits are often part of the admissions process. A number of schools interview applicants for much of the school year, sometimes hosting two candidates every week from September through March. Hopeful M.D.s usually spend the day getting a tour of the campus, sitting in on a class, interviewing with a faculty member and eating lunch with current students.

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At some schools, interested candidates that have yet to apply - such as those in a premed society - also tour campus and meet with admissions officers, but aspiring students vying for an acceptance letter are much more common.

Experts agree that one of the most important things prospective medical school students can do during a visit is speak with current students. They, more than other people at a school, can give the most candid perspective on student life.

"They obviously really have some inside information that could be very valuable," says Sherri Baker, a pediatric cardiologist and the associate dean for admissions at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.

Schools often have current students give tours and eat lunch with prospective students. Admissions experts say it's during those times that a prospective candidate should ask questions about how and what medical students are taught.

They can ask about what the relationship is like between students and faculty and what kind of teaching methods are used, suggests Stephen Wheeler, an associate professor of family and geriatric medicine and associate dean of medical school admissions at the School of Medicine at University of Louisville. He says students can use these conversations to find out if a school practices team-based learning or other methods.

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Asking students and professors about the curriculum's structure can help prospective students understand if the school's style conflicts with their own way of learning.

"If you learn by hands-on doing, and this school teaches mostly by sit-in-the seat listening, especially in the first two years, that's not a real good fit," says Wheeler. "If you are focused on being a physician scientist and want to do research as part of your practice once you get out, and the school is not really research-oriented, that's not going to be a good fit."

While classroom instruction is a core part of medical education, some experts encourage students to ask about hands-on learning opportunities.

Quinn Capers IV, the associate dean of admissions at Ohio State University College of Medicine, says the most important part of medical training takes place in the hospital, and teaches students how to care for patients. Students often work with groups that consist of a head doctor and junior doctors in various levels of training. It's important that aspiring medical students ask about how much attention current students are given in this type of environment, he says.

Students should ask questions such as "What's the medical student's role? And is the rest of the team invested in teaching that medical student when they're doing their work in the hospital?" says Capers, who is also an interventional cardiologist. They can also ask, "What do students get to do in the hospital?" Some places may be more focused on getting work done than teaching students, he says.

Even if the curriculum may be a match, the workload may not be. A campus visit is an opportune time to get a feel for how happy students are and how well they're handling the pressures of school.

"Are they happy? Do they look stressed? Do they have time for hobbies?" says Capers.

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Keeping up with extracurricular activities can help students have a more balanced life and unwind during their down time. Often a school's surrounding city or town can help them nurture these interests. Campus visits can help prospective students gauge how lively the community is outside of school, experts say.

"Location is one of the things that students rate the highest in terms of things that they use to make their decision," says Capers. "You want a city where after you've had your exams and it's Friday and you've got some time to do something, you'd like it to be in a place where there are some things that you like to do."

"Medical school doesn't happen in a vacuum," says Wheeler, from Louisville. "It happens while the rest of your life is going on."

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