Well, it’s that time of year. The acceptance letters are rolling in for some and MCAT dates are being signed up for by others. Let’s talk a bit about deciding where to apply.
I’m kinda lucky. My husband is great about including me in big decisions, but sometimes those decisions catch me off-guard. In March of 2010 I got a call from my then boyfriend, now husband, B. I was living on the Eastern Seaboard, in grad school, he in the South. He said, “Manda, I took the MCATs today. I think I want to go to med school.” Stunned silence on my end. After a few moments of quiet, I said, “That’s great, but I’m an equal half of this decision.” He said we had a deal and couple of visits later, I was planted in a Panera Bread over Memorial Day weekend looking at the AMCAS book and trying to decide where I wanted to live. We spent several hours pouring over the school profiles. Could I see myself living in Boston? What weight is placed on in-state residency at this school? Is this a D.O. or and M.D. school? What’s the difference? Is your MCAT score good enough to get you in here? Would the additional $7,000 per year in tuition at School A be a worthwhile ROI versus selecting the more economical School B? We quickly had a spreadsheet with an infinite number of columns to account for all of these factors.
We each made a list and allowed each other 3 vetoes. After hours of debate we narrowed our list to 25 schools. When it was all said and done we ended up with some options we were both satisfied with. Thankfully, we had been through the post-grad education thing before and thought of a whole host of factors and scenarios, each of us bringing a different perspective. The application process can be expensive and the interview process is even more expensive when travel costs are included. Choose your list carefully and only apply to schools that you actually have interest in attending. I’ll leave the medical point-of-view to those whose expertise in which that lies. However, here’s some tips I would provide to those on the support team (i.e. YOU!)
- Where could you feasibly see yourself living? You are going to spend at least four years at this place. Is it a region of the country you are comfortable with? Can you tolerate the weather? This seems silly but someone from the southern part of the country may genuinely struggle with the severe winters of the Midwest. Is the travel distance to those you love manageable? The political climate of the area? Access to good grocery stores and a large airport? While these may seem to be small details in the grander scheme, they may greatly impact your quality of life. Consider them carefully.
- Can you afford to live there? There are some fantastic schools in New York, LA, Chicago and Boston. But how much can you afford in rent? Gas? Public transit? Food? Gym memberships, salons, insurance, doggie daycare? All these smaller expenses can add up to punch you in the gut, especially on top of the extravagant amount already going out to tuition. Think in terms of your entire cost of living. Is it worth giving up your weekly movie night and Nordstrom’s shopping habit to go to a school in a hotly-saught region of the country. Yes? Great, commit to it and don’t sway from your budget.
- What are the job prospects there for the non-student? This was a major deciding factor for us. When considering all the other factors, in addition to this one, I knew my job prospects (despite a abhorrent economy) would be better where we landed than in the other places we considered. As the sole breadwinner for our small family for the next four years, this made a huge impact. Start scanning job boards as soon as possible to get an idea of what’s available. With the stress of medical school, you don’t want the stress of finding employment to add fuel to the fire.
- What is the grading structure like? Believe me, non-students: THIS MATTERS TO YOU. Is your partner a Type-A, overachiever who can’t stand to lose? That was hypothetical, of course they are; they are pursuing an M.D. Do you like spending time with this person? For the love of God- I hope so, if you are uprooting your life to follow them! Here’s the thing: some schools grade with rankings others are pass-fail (for the first year to two). This does not mean that one school is better than another, but it does mean that the level of pressure can fluctuate. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t competitive and constantly sizing up each other, but it isn’t documented in such a clear-cut way. Therefore, for the first couple years you can make friends with these people and confide in them without your info looming over your head. Well, to a degree. If your med student wouldn’t be able to cope with the number associated with his or her name, take the ranking/pass-fail scenario into account.
- What is the schedule like? Again, this matters to you as well. Is lecture required? Is there flexibility in the testing schedule? Many schools offer the opportunity to download lectures and watch outside of the classroom. Some programs open up tests and give you several hours or days to take them, depending on what works best for you. If you are accustomed to having your med student available at various times or may need to change plans spontaneously, this may be worth considering.
- Can you afford the tuition? If you are moving to be with your med student, you clearly have an investment in your collective future. This may be collective expenses, merging of bank-accounts, the sharing of bills, etc. Med school is crazy expensive. Prepare yourself now that people who don’t have personal experience don’t really understand that. They hear “med school” and think “doctor” and immediately think “rich”. We know this to not be the case. We hear “med school” and think “poor” and “loan payments for decades to come”. Make sure the trade-off is worth it. You may pay half the amount (or less) tuition at a school within your state of residence. Four more years in that place may mean thousands and thousands of dollars of savings not only in the initial tuition, but in the interest you pay on those loans in the years to come. Remember: you can always look out-of-state for residency programs. We opted for the more expensive option, but mostly because the answers proved more fruitful for the questions above.
Just some more things to think about:
- “Hey! I matter too…” You are just as much a part of this decision and your wants and needs are just as valid.
- …but you aren’t the supreme ruler. The application process is rigorous and regimented. A lot of it is out of their hands as well. Be understanding.
- The Power of “We”. You have to act like a team throughout this process. Come prepared to debate, compromise and negotiate.
These are just a few of the numerous points to consider when deciding where to apply. Overall, talk to your med student and voice any concerns or preferences you have up-front. You can drill down to the points that are hard and fast and begin to figure out where compromises can be made. Be incredibly honest at the beginning. Nobody wants to have points of contention thrown back in their face while muddling through a particularly boring and difficult nephrology sequence. And enjoy it – it is an exciting process! Savor those firsts: the first interview request, the first acceptance. And support for the hard-firsts: the first rejection. Then have a drink:) Here’s to your journey!