There are a variety of English-taught medical schools in Italy. All having their pros and cons, how should you pick which one you want the most? Are there some factors that are more important than others when making your decision?
Here’s a deep dive into what daily life in medical school really looks like and a couple of aspects you might not have thought through. Let’s just say, this is the med school selection guide I wish I had read back when I had to choose where to study.
Eu vs Non-Eu: which factors to consider
Let’s start with the premise that the factors for choosing a medical school are completely different for Eu and Non-Eu applicants. While Eu candidates can list and compete for all universities available, Non-Eu candidates can only compete for a single university.
The most important factor for Non-Eu folks is to match their preparation level with the minimal entry score of the university. Applying for a university with a high minimal entry score, while not ready to score high enough on the IMAT, will result in losing the chance to get accepted in a med school that year. Here you can find the minimal entry scores for the previous years.
Since Eu students have all the options available, scoring a bit lower would simply result in getting accepted in some of their less preferred universities, but should they score higher, they can enter their top pick uni. In this case, it makes sense for them to arrange the list according to their true preference.
Down below you can read about some of the least popular aspects that come to mind when wondering how to order your preferences, which, from the perspective of time, I find extremely important for a med student’s success.
Sprinting a marathon
Let’s face it, folks, medical school IS stressful. Once I started my clinical years, which are undeniably the most challenging part of the entire degree, I noted to myself “It’s like sprinting a marathon”. You’re in for the long run, but you need to give it your maximal effort all the time. I’m not saying this to phase you out. I also know you are not in a place where this seems so important. You’re pumped about getting into med school and super excited about achieving your dreams. So long-term stress somewhere “distant” in the future is a problem you’ll deal with later, right? All that matters right now is getting accepted. I was there too.
My dear friends, no. In order to survive med school, and retain your sanity, you need to take really good care of yourself. This is where the choice of university comes in place. Giving it a very good thought before you choose, will go a long way. Don’t only consider your high points when you feel like you can take over the world. Try to approach it from a perspective where you’re drained, emotionally depleted, worn out, and flat-out exhausted. What will help you recharge then? Socializing? Going to a party? Enjoying a warm climate? A stroll by the beach? A trip to the mountain? Some quiet time?
Underlooked factors when choosing a medical school in Italy
- Your daily life. The bread and butter of your time. Spending an hour commuting in a single direction is a cost you might not be willing to pay when you have 10 exams to study for and lectures during most of the day.
- Progression requirements. Do you need to take all exams in order to proceed to the next year (eg. Pavia)? Are there some exams that need to be cleared before you can attempt others (eg. Milan and Padova)? Are you willing to pay the price of getting stressed over the possibility of repeating the year (which by the way also means you lose the chance of getting a scholarship for that academic year).
- Which hospitals will you be taught at and how far away are they from where lectures will be held? An example from the University of Pavia: all three hospitals are located within a 10 min walking distance. Lectures are also in this area, as well as eating canteen.
A day in the clinical years may look something like this:
8:00 – 10:30 rotation in hospital A
10:30 – 13:00 rotation in hospital B
14:00 – 18:00 lectures
Imagine hospitals are not so close to each other. Imagine you live an hour away. You arrive at home at 19:00. When do you study? As you can see saving two hours of your day can turn out to be vital.
- Renting prices. North is more expensive than South, small cities are cheaper than smaller. Milan and Pavia are only 30 min away from each other but you can’t find a single room for rent under 450 – 500€ in Milan (big city), while 250€ is a common occurrence in Pavia (small city). Apart from the rent, the rest of the expenses won’t differ much from city to city.
- Smaller cities are more difficult to socialize in. Let’s not forget that by the time you speak Italian well, chances are, you won’t have many good friends other than your classmates, especially in a small city where there aren’t many international students from other specialties. Milan and Rome on the other hand, are lively cities full of loads of tourists and expats, where you wouldn’t be facing the language barrier.
How important is the university’s reputation?
Some of the most common questions we get from applicants about a certain university:
- Do they perform dissections?
- When does clinical practice begin?
What sports and other extracurricular activities does the university offer?
- What international mobility does the uni offer?
- What’s the ranking of the university in the X world ranking of best unis in the world?
- Where can I specialize after graduating from this university?
If your questions stop here, you’re focusing on exceptional activities/ one-time events, rather than on your daily life bread and butter.
Whole cadaver dissections are not allowed, but observing autopsies is. Even if it isn’t a part of the curriculum, you can always attend the morgue and observe an autopsy. Most of all, a cadaver dissection is not going to teach you much. The anatomy atlas will.
The structure of the international med courses in Italy is more or less the same in all public universities. Don’t be tempted by “X university offers clinical practice from the 1st year”. Why? Because in Italy you have a high degree of freedom for proactivity. As a med student in Italy, you can always go to the hospital/ operating room/ morgue/ research lab, and say you’re interested and you want to learn. You can do this from day 1 in med school entirely on your own.
All unis offer sports, and all of them offer international mobility. This shouldn’t be the main reason you chose a particular uni.
The diploma from each public uni in Italy gives you the same opportunities for your future career. Don’t dive into step 1, thinking of how you’ll manage steps 2, 3, and 4. A lot of things will happen in 6 years. One step at a time guys. (says the person who started researching specialties the moment she got accepted in med school. I guess I would have rolled my eyes reading all this back at the time). But speaking from the experience and perspective I gained over time, I found there are some more important questions I’d advise you to ask yourself instead before making your mind.
11 questions to ask yourself instead
- What will my daily life look like if I live in X city?
- How long will be my commute?
- Are the lectures and the hospital nearby?
- How big is the hospital I will be trained in? Is it one or several different ones? A big hospital exposes you to a bigger variety of cases, which is good for your practice.
- Are there progression requirements to enroll in the next year?
- Is accommodation difficult to find? Are there a lot of conveniently priced dormitories in a good location? Bologna, for example, is a city notorious for how difficult it is to find accommodation.
- What is my budget?
- Does climate affect my mood? (A BIG ONE) Keep in mind the North can be foggy for a good part of the year.
- How do I perform under chronic and intense stress? What helps me relax?
- What entertainment does the city offer? Pavia for example is incredibly poor on that end. I could only imagine a small city such as Messina or Piacenza would be as well. In contrast, Padova and Bologna which are considered medium-sized cities, offer plenty of variety.
- Is there a good student community and student presence in the university?I
Is your voice as a student going to be heard and valued? Messina, for example, got a particularly bad review from its students on this point, since some professors don’t share materials and PowerPoint presentations after lectures. As it turned out there isn’t an organized student committee to voice students’ concerns. In contrast, a review from a student in Padova emphasized the fact students often get surveyed on professors’ performance. In Pavia, responsible students from the English-taught medical course are elected each year to represent the course in a didactic council. They sit down with the dean of the course and voice students’ concerns and needs. While didactic councils are common in Italian Universities, my impression is that International courses are rarely included in them.
Then and only then, would I focus on ranking position and the reputation of the University.
Sure, it’s important how much you’ll learn. After all, this is why you’re doing all this, right? But as I’ve said before, a large part of how much you learn in med school depends on your own proactivity. There is a difference between just passing exams and attending clinical rotations, and actually learning and making sense of what medical school teaches you. You may wish to get some extra practice in the hospital, watch surgeries every day, or be a part of research by helping your professors. But in order to do this, you can’t be chronically stressed out and drained all the time. If the environment isn’t right for you or you feel like you can’t find ways to relax properly from time to time, you won’t be in an optimal state to be as proactive as you’d wish.
I hope all those aspects gave some food for thought. Try visiting some of the cities and universities before you make your mind, or at least collect all the information you can, including google street view of your commute if need be.
Finally, it’s absolutely impossible to know what exactly is getting into before you settle in.
As much as you research online, visit places and speak to current students, there will always be surprises.
And still, your main focus should be on picking the right ENVIRONMENT. The 6 years ahead will not be a piece of cake, so you need to support yourself by meeting your personal needs in order to perform your best.
Image source(c): pexels.com
Elena Mitsulova (Pavia)
I am a 5th-year student in the Harvey course of Pavia. During my Italian journey and all these years spent in Pavia, I've gathered a valuable experience that I am happy to share with you.