I have developed a rating scale for medical schools as I visit them for interviews. I call it the “Shininess Scale” (in partial homage to the show Firefly) and ratings range from “Hearts-In-My-Eyes-Shiny” to “A-Bit-Dingy.”

In an ideal world I could use these oh-so-subjective ratings to determine my top choice to medical school, and to be honest it’s playing a larger role in my actual opinions than it probably should. Unfortunately actually deciding on a medical school is not so simple as finding the place with the newest buildings and the latest technology.

As I’ve mentioned before, the interview process is as much an opportunity for we the prospective students to get a feel for the school as it is for the school to decide if we are up to snuff. Since most of us are seeing these schools for the first time, there is a lot of pressure to get a sense of the program and what kind of a fit we would be in only a few short hours.

This is easier said than done. For one thing, the schools have put effort into presenting their strengths for viewing. Similarly, the students who are willing to come to answer questions are generally ones who are really happy with their choice (even free food is not enough incentive to get a disgruntled student to take part in the admissions process that brought them such unhappiness.) And even though the students present for “the real scoop” portion of the afternoon are perfectly happy to tell you about flaws they’ve found in the program, they, for the most part, have nothing to compare it to. They chose the medical school they are advertising. If there was a better choice, they certainly are happier knowing they didn’t make it.

There is no question that these medical schools are different, but, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The broad strokes tend to be similar across the board; a state of the art simulation lab with mannequins that can react to medications is really cool (and earns a high score on the Shininess Scale), but I’ve yet to tour a school that doesn’t have one. I’m always thrilled to hear about opportunities to study abroad, but there is little data with which to compare programs. A lot of schools advertise early patient contact (a change from older programs where the first two years were spent exclusively in lecture halls), but does it really matter if I start learning interviewing techniques in week one or week six?

Even the schools that boast the highest rating on my arbitrary scale cannot be named as a clear favorite. They are beautiful from the outside, but does that necessarily mean they will provide the most practical medical education? Well, no. But the opposite is not necessarily true either.

Thus my Shininess scale is really quite useless, and I am left to rate schools on an overall gestalt. Fortunately my choices will be limited soon, first by my actual acceptances and, later, by financial considerations. For now I remain happily overwhelmed with the possibilities and certain that even the lackluster options on my list might have hidden sparkle.

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