BACKGROUND. Medical educators bear responsibility for the informational materials that their institutions use to communicate with potential applicants. These documents, because they are often the first official correspondence that prospective students receive, may be influential in shaping students' expectations. METHOD. In March 1990 all North American medical schools that awarded MD or DO degrees were requested to send their catalogs and courses of study to the authors. In response came 175 documents, with nearly all the schools represented at least once. The photographs and other visual images in these documents were then analyzed from the perspective of a hypothetical applicant who perused what his or her initial request for information had produced. RESULTS. Nearly 3,400 images were analyzed and categorized according to content and stylistic approach. Two basic stylistic approaches were found: stylized and documentary. Few documents used exclusively one or the other approach, as the approaches represent poles along a continuum. The stylized approach portrays medical education as a product to be sold, whereas the documentary approach candidly tells the story of medical education. CONCLUSION. The authors conclude that the documentary approach is a more morally responsible way for schools to communicate with individuals who are in the beginning stages of building their mental images of medical education and medical care.