I’ve been getting many questions from South African students about which medical school they should choose and which is the best, so instead of trying to remember what I said every time, I figured I’d write a general post about my thoughts.
Here’s a disclaimer though: I applied to only one medical school (long story) so I didn’t have the problem of needing to choose. So feel free to take my opinion with a pinch of salt (as you should with this whole entire blog, actually :P).
First, if you’re asking me which school you should choose, I’m assuming this is post-acceptance. The general rule (do as I say, not as I do) should be to apply to as many schools as you can afford. So if you can’t choose between UCT and Stellenbosch before you apply… don’t choose! Apply to both, and if you get accepted to both, THEN you can start worrying.
When it comes down to making the real decision, there are so many factors to consider. I’ll address just a few:
1. How “good” the school is
You’d think that with the small number of medical schools we have in South Africa, it wouldn’t be so hard to decide which is best. Actually, it’s still as hard because none of us follow the exact same syllabus, we are all accredited by the HPCSA, and none of us have the same standardised examinations. So how you classify how “good” the school is, really depends on your sources. You could ask clinical staff at hospitals what there experiences are with new interns. You could read those big ratings that are published every year or two. All of these have biases, but you get to choose which you want to take or leave.
A note on rating scales: a lot of those ratings depend purely on the quantity of research published and not the quality or the ratio. Just one example of why ratings can be misleading. The Financial Mail has a good article highlighting the various factors making a “good” university.
If you have a lot of time and you don’t mind the effort, the best would be to physically look through the curriculum. What do they teach their first years? When do they start with clinical work? How do the graduates from the specific school reflect on their experiences there?
2. How “nice” the school is
Travel is expensive, but if you can I highly suggest visiting the different campuses. For some reason, most medical campuses in South Africa are fugly! But knowing what you’re going to be looking at for the next six years might be useful in your decision-making.
I am a firm proponent of knowing medical terminology in at LEAST two official languages, preferably three. Will your classes be purely in one language? If not, will you be able to keep up with the second language? Are basic conversational skills in a third language taught? Is it a matter of a six-week crash course, or is it a nice longitudinal model?
Some of us thrive on politics and drama. Others don’t. Me, I respect the place that strikes and politics have in our society, but I don’t really want them to interfere with my medical training. I don’t want my classes to be cancelled because some of my colleagues have decided to take my professors hostage (yes, really). You might want to consider how often classes at your potential school are disrupted by protest action and whether you can deal with that or not.
What are the chances that you can get a bursary of some sort with a specific school? For most of us, university is very expensive, and choosing the school that offers you a free ride can be a wise decision.
6. Can you be happy there?
Honestly, I think this one may be the most important, yet it is the one we so often ignore. You could attend the world’s best medical school and if you were miserable it wouldn’t be worth it. I think it goes along with the whole medical field martyrdom attitude. You don’t have to be a martyr. You ARE allowed to enjoy your med school years. So absolutely, choose a medical school with the kind of values and social life and environment where you will be happy.
Of course it is true that happiness is not always about things and places, but you CAN choose your environment such that you have as big a chance as possible to be happy. [For me, that includes being in a coastal province, which is why I will always choose UCT, SU or UKZN above others in hypothetical scenarios.]
I wish I could give more clear-cut answers. I could totally post a list of what I think is the best-to-worst medical school in South Africa, but that would be just MY opinion. I, too, have limited knowledge about schools that are not my own, gathered from biased information sources.
One last thing: If you find yourself ending up at a school that you think is less than optimal in reputation or education, take heart: more important than the school is the student. That is why so-called great schools sometimes produce sub-par doctors, and “bad” schools still manage to produce great doctors.
Good luck (and congratulations!) to everyone that has to make this difficult decision. Be great!