Many competitive programs might not even give you a clerkship or an interview if your rank doesn't fit their standards. With all due respect to your dean, how recently has he participated in the interview and match process? I'm sure he has seen a few students who were very bright and good yet had a family or job during school and managed to get a good residency despite maybe even a sub-3.0 gpa or sub-50% rank since by compensating with great clinical and social/interview skills. You have to remember that they are the exception, not the rule.
Yes, any program's standards would rapidly drop if they went to scramble. A mediocre or poor student might get a good residency in that fashion, but the best residencies never do scramble and definetly won't as annual national class sizes increase now that AZPod will be putting out finished students. Your best bet is to do your own research or talk to upperclassmen who worked hard and got the residency they wanted. Chances are that they'll tell you to do the very best you can in school to leave yourself many options when interview and match time rolls around.
It is true that many other top programs don't specify a GPA or class rank requirement because they know that there is the occasional "sleeper" candidate whose GPA/rank don't show their true aptitude, but if a program has 60 people who ask for an interview yet only 25 time slots, how do you think they choose who to meet with? I doubt they're going to invite the guy who showed up late on half of his days and never answered his pager while externing there, the guy whose recommendation letters aren't exactly glowing, the guy with a 2.7gpa, or a guy who hasn't passed pt1 boards yet...
I haven't been through the process yet either and could be wrong, but I'd certainly say that you won't go wrong by doing as well as possible in classes and working as hard as you can to represent yourself well in rotations and externships. I agree to some extent that you don't need to go crazy about grades or compete "against" classmates, but I certainly want to do as much as I can to show my aptitude on tests and gain the respect of my intelligent colleagues and supervisors in the clinics.[/quote
My opinion is to treat med school as a prep time for landing your desired residency. work hard, yes. get the best grades you can, yes. i think it is jjust like undergrad in the respect that the better you do, the more options you will have, including placement at a top notch residency program. in other words, why not bust your ass and do your very best? is it going to hurt you??