Oct 1, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Never decide to attend medical school without visiting first. In addition to understanding how the school's academics work, you will want to get a sense of the place, too. Are the facilities up-to-date? Does the school match your location requirements? Does it offer the curriculum you need and want? Are there opportunities to volunteer and travel? How about student services?

Here are five things to look for in a medical school:

1. Curriculum

While most medical schools share commonalities in the curriculum, each program differs slightly.

In addition to reading information on the school's website, you should also check out the sample calendar. If the school schedules lectures for large chunks of times each day, you are looking at a more traditional curriculum.

Look at the testing schedule, too. It may be weekly or every other week -- and it may be the only factor that affects your grade in the class. If that traditional scheme works for you, go for it. If not, you may want to find a different kind of program.

Less traditional programs may offer more interactive curricula, with problem-based learning and team-based projects supplementing exams.

You do not have to be in a classroom eight hours per day unless you want to be -- find a school with a curriculum that matches your needs and interests and take it from there.

2. Volunteer Opportunities

Get involved in serving communities underserved by healthcare providers. Some schools have student-run clinics with information right on the website. If it is not easy to find on the website, then the school may not have those options. Look carefully and ask around.

If a medical school invites you for an interview, you will have a great opportunity to explore options that go beyond the curriculum. Ask about volunteer programs and get a sense of whether you'll feel like you fit in.

3. Facilities

Dilapidated facilities at any medical campus signal a potential resource problem. While the medical school may be on an older campus with older buildings, take a close look at the general maintenance and care of facilities. 

There should be enough lab equipment for every student, the buildings should be clean and well-maintained, and you should not feel like you will have to compete for study resources.

Another great place to check? The medical school's library. Does the library have access to the most current journals? Are there adequate places to study? Is it clean and well-maintained?

Take a look. Old is ok -- as long is it is cared for.

4. Access to students

You should mark a red flag on your visit to any campus that limits your access to its current students.

Keep in mind: third- and fourth-year students are on clinical rotations and may not be available, but you can and should ask for a list of students with you can connect to ask questions.

Talk to as many students as you can, either during your visit or after. Get lots of opinions from different students and take notes.

Any school that refuses to connect you with current students and alumni is a red flag. There is a reason they do not want you talking to students, and it is probably not good.

5. Location

Does the school's location meet your needs? Think about the community itself, the cost of living, geography, and access to things you enjoy doing.

Never lived in a city and thinking about attending medical school in one? Visit. Or maybe you have never lived in a more rural area. Think about where the school is, what it offers you, and how you may -- or may not -- be able to adjust to your new surroundings.

It matters where you are.

When you visit, ask yourself: can I see myself here? If you are unsure, probe deeper. Spend the day on campus. Explore the surrounding area. Get a sense of the place.

Still unsure?

Take another look. Go back for another visit in between your acceptance and your final commitment. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. If it matches most of what you need and want though, go for it.

On your second visit, go back to those places where you felt unsure. Schedule a meeting with a group of current students. Take a walk through the library again. Check out the labs.

You are about to make a huge investment of time and money in your future -- make sure you feel great about it.

Learn more about medical school. 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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