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About a month ago I published a profile of the Milan-Bicocca (Bergamo) med school. In that article, I tried to understand why Bicocca is now the 2nd most difficult university to get into for EU applicants by IMAT score. No students had written anything publicly about Bicocca’s English med school. We had no bloggers or reviews of the school. So I did all the research from scratch, on my own. Only after I published the profile, did Bicocca students contact me to give me feedback on what their life is really like.

Here, I’m writing a similar article about Bologna. Medschool.it does not yet have a detailed profile on the school. But in 2018, Bologna was the hardest school for non-EU applicants to get into by IMAT score. By 2019 it had gone down to sixth — the middle of the pack. What happened? Did it actually become so much less popular, or was this just some statistical variance? I don’t have the answer to this question, although in IMAT circles there is a hypothesis about it, which I’ll go into at the end of this post.

I’ll divide this article up into the same categories I used for Bicocca:

Hopefully, when I’m done, you’ll have a clearer picture of what it’s like to study in the English med program in Bologna. As before, I’ve doublechecked all my information, but there may be errors here. If you notice one — or have more details to add — please let me know.

Location

One feature of Bologna’s program is that it is much clearer than most English med schools in Italy about where exactly lectures take place. To be specific, they are in two locations: via Ugo Foscolo 7, and via Massarenti 9, which are on opposite sides of the city center.

Here’s a picture of the via Foscolo facility…

…and this is roughly the location of the via Massarenti building, which is right next to the Policlinico, the teaching hospital.

The medical school’s website, gratefully, has an extensive array of photos of the insides of these buildings, showing lecture rooms and laboratories.

Where exactly in Italy is Bologna? It’s sort of in the middle from east to west, at the top of the peninsula. It’s got good transportation links all over Italy, if your plan is to travel around the country.

Bologna, being inland, does not have the balmy Mediterranean climate that you’ll find at some coastal schools like Naples or Rome, whose winters are warmer. Bologna gets pretty hot in the summer (average high of 30 degrees Celsius in July) and is usually somewhere a bit above freezing in the winter (6 degrees Celsius for an average high in January). It rains on average once or twice a week, and snows very rarely.

I don’t need to go into much detail about Bologna itself, because there’s plenty of information about the city on the Web already. You may know that the University of Bologna is the world’s oldest continually-operating university, founded (probably, approximately) in 1088. Just to give you an idea of how old that really is, here is a list of things that did not yet exist in 1088:

  • vertical windmills
  • eyeglasses
  • mechanical clocks (people mainly used sundials)
  • Purgatory (the Roman Catholic church hadn’t yet decided it exists)

The university is now enormous, with about 86,500 students. Bologna, the city, is similarly almost comically ancient. It predates the Romans and even most Etruscans, having been settled already in the 9th century BCE at the beginning of Italy’s Iron Age. I tried to figure out which was the oldest building in Bologna, but nobody seems to know. People have just been putting stones upon stones upon stones for thousands of years. If you get excited about historical buildings, you won’t quickly be bored by Bologna.

However, observant readers of my blog posts know that I have a pet peeve, which is graffiti tagging, which has sadly infected most of Europe at this point. Bologna has not been spared. Here, for example, is the 13th century Basilica of San Martino:

Oh, I absolutely want my view of this medieval architectural masterwork dominated by the signature of some dude whose nickname is “BLOB”. ( sarcasm) Why locals put up with this tagging I have no idea. It wasn’t there when I first visited Bologna in the 1990s. I’m almost afraid to visit the city now, because I don’t want my memories of such a beautiful place to be tainted by random acts of spray paint. But that’s just my personal taste.

Anyway, for the purposes of choosing your med school, one important thing to know about Bologna’s location is that finding housing is tough. This makes sense, with tens of thousands of students crammed into a tourist city. Even the university itself — in a refreshingly honest fashion — admits that “finding accommodation can be difficult” and that you should “start looking for accommodation well in advance”, which of course is hard to do for English med students, given that in recent years you only have sometimes a few weeks between your IMAT results and when you need to start school. All four of the anonymous student reviews on medschool.it about Bologna say that finding housing is a problem.

What is the solution to this housing problem? One Bologna student has told me that many incoming first-years stay in AirBNBs until they find an apartment. These AirBNBs are supposedly around 800 or 900 euros a month. If you’re “lucky”, I was told, a room in an apartment can go for as low as 300 a month, although most students seem to pay somewhere around 400 or so. This means that Bologna’s housing is comparable to Milan or Rome, and more expensive than, say, Bari or Messina.

As for partying in Bologna, there’s a lot going on. Restaurants, pubs, clubs, you name it… the city’s loaded with them. What else would you expect in such a huge university town? A quick Google search of “partying in Bologna” will answer any questions you might have about the topic, but one good website to start at is here. One advantage (potentially, depending on how you see it) that Bologna has over a number of other English med schools in Italy is that the classes are near the city center, so it’s easy to go out with your classmates. And the entire city center is compact and walkable. I think it’s safe to say that if you want to socialize in Bologna, you’ll find your crowd. A student contact of mine at Bologna described the social life as “impeccable”.

One more thing is worth mentioning that Bologna is famous for: its communism. Since World War II, Bologna has been one of the few municipalities in Western Europe which has almost constantly put communist mayors into place. Starting in the mid-1990s, the dominant party in Bologna has been the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), which was created out of a coalition of communist and more center-left parties. So if you like your politics left-wing, you’ll feel at home in Bologna. The city, sadly, is no stranger to political violence. In 1980, a fascist terrorist organization (or at least, that’s what police believe) killed 85 people and wounded 200 in a bombing at Bologna’s central railway station. But don’t stress about violence; on the whole Bologna is a safe city, and the biggest dangers you probably face are pickpockets and con-men who’d rip you off thinking you might be a tourist.

Curriculum

Bologna’s curriculum is in some ways traditional for Italy, and in other ways very much not. What’s traditional is that first three years are mostly theoretical, the 2nd three mostly clinical. What’s not traditional is that anatomy isn’t really taught until the 2nd year. Whether or not this is a good idea is a point of debate. Some students seem to feel that anatomy is such a fundamental subject area, that it should be taught in the first year. However, there is some smart logic behind putting anatomy in year two. Often, during the first year, you have students scrambling around for housing, or coming late because of visa problems, as well as settling down with a new culture and language, and so forth. Throwing them into anatomy — which is such a time-consuming subject area — can make things too tough in the first year, and students end up repeatedly failing anatomy exams and in some cases losing time. So that might be the school’s reasoning behind putting anatomy in year two.

Bologna’s website — which, among public English med schools in Italy, is probably the most organized and fully-developed (and has the best English) — goes into detail about classes throughout all six years of the program. There are some standout features:

  • In year one, there’s a clinical clerkship about basic life support, and you can choose electives in such interesting areas as cancer metabolism or (my field of interest) medicine in developing countries. Year one also, thankfully, includes medical ethics and statistics — two very important subjects lacking in many med school curricula. (However, some students think that these shouldn’t be year one subjects, because you might “forget” them by the time you get to clinicals.)
  • In year two, you do clinical work in “basic nursing skills” as well as “basic surgical skills”, as well as the heart of the anatomy curriculum.
  • Year three goes into disease etiologies and diagnostic tools. You also start doing traditional observational clerkships, such as in cardiology, emergency medicine, pneumology, and radiology.
  • Years four, five, and six are almost entirely clerkships, and, like at other schools, you have to write a thesis at the end. You can actually do that thesis abroad, and can apply for a grant to fund it.

Testing in Bologna is on the traditional end of the Italian spectrum, being a mixture of oral and written exams. Bologna also has plenty of opportunities for studying abroad, as an Erasmus+ student, as well as outside of Europe.

One standout characteristic of Bologna is that I’ve encountered very few complaints about the professors not speaking English well, which has been a documented problem at some other English med schools in Italy. I’m not quite sure why the English in Bologna is so good, but it might have to do with the fact that Bologna is perhaps Italy’s most internationally famous university and simply attracts high talent, both in students and in faculty and researchers. English being the lingua franca of the scientific world, being able to handle the language well is pretty much necessary if you want to be an international researcher. The region of Italy that Bologna is in — Emilia-Romagna — also happens to be the most proficient in the country in English-speaking. (This is important because if you click that link, you’ll also find out that Italy, amongst all EU countries, has been measured as having the lowest English-speaking proficiency, being comparable with South Korea and Taiwan.)

There is one other important point to make about Bologna’s teaching program. Among English med schools in Italy, Bologna has one of the lowest ratios of non-EU to EU students, at 1:5. I haven’t found an explanation for this. According to a student there, 70% of the first-year class are of Italian origin. That is definitely higher than at other schools; for example, at IMS Milan, non-Italians have made up around 50% of the class, and in Campania Luigi Vanvitelli, a full half of the students are non-EU. Because of Bologna’s relative lack of foreign students, I worried about ethnic discrimination, which is a problem throughout Europe and, unfortunately, indeed the world. So, I asked about this to a Bologna student from a country in a part of the world whose immigrants often bear the brunt of this discrimination, and he told that he hadn’t experienced any such problems in Bologna. He described the city as “tolerant”, which does make sense given its high percentage of students and their politics.

By the way, if you’re looking for a quiet place to study, the University of Bologna has you covered. Here is the remarkably long list of the university’s libraries and study rooms, to which all students have access. One of these libraries is depicted on a postcard from the early 20th century:

Reputation

As in my Bicocca piece, I discuss the school’s reputation by analyzing it in two different ways: 1) what university rankings say about it, and 2) what students have written about it online.

As for university rankings, we have three international and one domestic ranking system. Among the international systems:

  • QS 2019 ranked Bologna medicine as between the 51st and 100th best worldwide, and best in Italy (tied with Rome La Sapienza and Milan).
  • US News and World Report 2019 places Bologna medicine as tied for 92nd best worldwide (along with, if you’re interested, Chinese University Hong Kong and Peking University) and 2nd best in Italy (after Milan).
  • Times Higher Education 2020 ranks Bologna medicine as between 126th and 150th best worldwide, and first in Italy.

Meanwhile, in the Italian domestic Censis rankings, Bologna is third best in Italy, after Bicocca and Pavia. You can go back to my Bicocca piece for an explanation of the methodology behind these four ranking systems, each of which is very different.

The takeaway on Bologna’s rankings are that it’s pretty safe to say that the school is one of the best-ranked in Italy, and within the best 150 medical research institutions worldwide. There is also the perhaps unmeasurable reputational value in the fact that Bologna is the world’s oldest university. Bologna is kind of like the Oxford of Italy, an ancient city concentrated with centuries-old academic buildings, some of them fantastically beautiful like the Archiginnasio Anatomical Theater.

What do current students have to say about Bologna? First of all, the school publishes the statistics of its student evaluations. You can read them here (in Italian, but Google Translate does a nice job of switching them to English). They appear positive, but that doesn’t necessarily provide us with much information, because as in the case of Bicocca, regardless of subject area (engineering, sociology, literature, whatever) the university’s published evaluations are all positive.

We do have qualitative information about Bologna in the form of four English-langauge reviews on the medschool.it website. They tend all to say the same thing, praising the academics and the city, but pointing out the problems with housing. My personal contacts at Bologna pretty much echo this. Beyond these, there are some good online Italian-language student reviews of Bologna’s Italian-language medicine program, such as this review, in which a student advises another student to choose an Italian med program in Bologna over an English-langauge med program, and basically has gushing things to say about studying in Bologna: “I haven’t found any disadvantages.” In this review, again a student recommends Bologna and lauds its academics, and says the city is “not bad” but doesn’t like “the pollution and the unbearable heat”. However, this reviewer may be a bit unreliable on climatic matters, because he or she also complains about a “snowstorm”, which is a little odd because snow is so rare in Bologna that a 15 centimeter fall in 2018 was enough to be called the “Big Snow”. (I’m writing this from northern Sweden, where the snow depth has been over 15 centimeters already for 10 days this winter.)

Final Thoughts

For a number of English-language medical schools in Italy, it’s hard to find reliable information. Basics like classroom locations, full six-year curricular descriptions, or relationships with partner universities can be missing. But this is not the case with Bologna. This is really thanks to the school’s excellent website and the number of students who — unlike at other English med schools in Italy — are willing to write and speak publicly about what they think of their institution. (This lack of information from other universities is one of the reasons that medschool.it exists.) So relative to some other English med schools in Italy, you know rather precisely what you’re getting in Bologna: a well-reputed, relatively well-organized academic experience in the middle of a compact, lively, moderately expensive and ancient student city. For these reasons, it would seem that Bologna would be near the top of most people’s lists of favorite English-language med schools in Italy.

Nonetheless, Bologna was only the sixth hardest school to get into for non-EU students in 2019, having been beat out by programs like Padua and Tor Vergata, the first of which is brand new and the second of which has very little public information available about it. What happened? I don’t know for sure, but there is a hypothesis about this question going around IMAT circles. The hypothesis is this: in 2018, Bologna had the number one highest non-EU threshold entrance score — that is to say, it was the hardest one to get into, at 48.6. Therefore, the hypothesis goes, lots and lots of IMAT-takers were scared off from choosing Bologna — so many, in fact, that it dropped to sixth in the rankings. If that’s the case, then we might expect that in 2020 Bologna will bounce back up. But on the other hand, if lots of people predict that it will bounce back up, then that might have the effect of scaring them off again, and it may stay back down, and remain less competitive. Who knows what might happen?

So, if you’re worried about whether your IMAT score will be high enough, and whether you’ll get in, I’ll give you the advice that I give most people: don’t stress about threshold scores, and pick the university you like the best. If you shoot for a school with a low threshold because it has a low threshold (say, Messina, which is a fine school but had a 2019 threshold of 17.9), and you barely get in, then you may end up in a new struggle, trying to pass courses in the first year because of your lack of academic scientific background. A better choice — for many people, not all — is to delay entrance for a year and use that time genuinely to beef up your knowledge of basic chemistry, biology, and physics, so that you can handle the coursework when you finally get to med school. But like I said, this is my general advice, and doesn’t apply to everyone. I can explain it in more detail, if people like. Ultimately, only you know what’s best for you.

Erik Campano

Chief Editor at MEDschool.it
Blog Editor
Erik Campano is a graduate student in Umeå, Sweden, studying the ethics of artificial intelligence in medicine. He formerly was an academic consultant to the English-language medical school of the University of Turin. Erik completed his Bachelor’s of science in Symbolic Systems (cognitive science) at Stanford University, and then he worked for about eight years as a radio news anchor, before moving to biomedical scientific study and research at the University of Paris and Columbia University. Erik grew up in Connecticut, is a citizen of the United States and Germany, and his family is a mix of Filipino, Italian, and German.
Erik Campano