Does Your College Matter for Med School? Ivy League vs. Public University


Does your undergraduate reputation matter for medical school admissions? It’s a bit complicated. The answer is both yes and no.


The Literature on University Prestige and Lifetime Success

There have been a handful of interesting recent economic studies examining the effect of university prestige in long term success.

A recent study by Ge and colleagues found that there was no relationship between college selectivity and long-term earnings. However, for women, there was a significant correlation between attending a college with a higher average SAT score for matriculants, and increased earnings and reduced rates of marriage. It’s important to note, however, that these women aren’t earning higher per-hour wages, but rather, they’re working more hours per day. These women, on average, delay marriage, delay having kids, and stay in the workforce longer than similar women who graduate from less selective schools. In short, they are more career-focused.

Chetty et al in 2017 found that lower-income students at elite schools had a higher chance of reaching the top 1% in earnings compared to those at public universities.

In a broader sense, these data suggest that if you’re affluent, Caucasian, and male, the effect of college prestige is minimal. After all, you’re likely to be more connected than a less affluent minority student, which is exactly why elite colleges have a larger effect on those who are not rich, not white, and are not men. Rather than relying on connections through family, elite colleges provide the connections and credibility that connect these graduates to higher paying jobs.

That makes sense for students in general, but what about students specifically pursuing a career in medicine? Blue and colleagues studied whether there was merit to undergrad university selectivity in predicting medical school performance. They found that the student’s GPA and MCAT were much more effective predictors of medical school performance than the school from which they graduated.

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of literature examining undergrad school selection and success in medical school and beyond. But luckily, at Med School Insiders, our combined dozens of years of medical school admissions experience provides us with a vantage point to tell you what it’s like from the perspective of medical school admissions committees.

In short, we’ve found that when medical schools look at your application, the reputation of your undergraduate institution is not high on the list in terms of importance. If a student’s GPA, MCAT, extracurriculars, personal statement, secondary essays, and letters of recommendation are all strong, then this is simply a strong applicant, regardless of the school they attended.


A Tale of Two Students

Let us illustrate this with an example. Johnny goes to a state school that is not highly ranked. Rather, his school is known for being “fun”, if you know what I mean. He was able to avoid the allure of the frat parties, though, and by the time he’s ready to apply, he has a 4.0 GPA, an MCAT score of 520, two publications, leadership experience in a couple organizations, and excellent letters of recommendation.

Sally attends Harvard, and by the time she’s ready to apply, she has a 3.5 GPA, an MCAT of 508, and while she has letters of recommendation from some of the most world renowned Alzheimer disease researchers in the world, she wasn’t able to create as strong of a personal connection, so the letters are somewhat generic.

Between Sally and Johnny, who do you think is going to be the more competitive applicant? Despite going to a top university, I’d put my money on Johnny. But that isn’t always the case. There are some advantages to going to a more prestigious university. Allow me to explain.


Why Your University Matters

If you take two students who have identical scores and extracurriculars, the student coming from the more prestigious university will be viewed on more favorably, all other factors being equal. This is even more so if they attend a highly competitive school with grade deflation, like MIT or Caltech. Getting a 3.7 GPA at one of these institutions is much more impressive than getting a 3.7 GPA at your local community college.

But the main reason your university matters is less because of the direct effect of reputation, and more because of the indirect effects – notably the program’s resources and opportunities for pre-meds. If you want to go to a top ranked medical school, research is an important part of that equation. You’re much more likely to have significant research experience with abstracts or publications at a school like UC Berkeley than you are at a community college. Similarly, hospital volunteer and clinical opportunities are going to be easier to find at an institution of this caliber that caters to a significant number of pre-meds.


My Advice to You

I’ll start by sharing what I did when it came to applying to colleges. I scored in the 99th percentile on my SAT and had a strong application, but I didn’t apply to Ivy league schools. I was born and raised in California, and I really like it here. So I decided to apply to California schools. When deciding between UC Berkeley and UCLA, I chose the latter, because I was keen on exploring a new region of California, and I loved the campus. I knew that either program would provide me with a solid education. I believed that the driver of my success was based on me, not my school, so I didn’t sweat it too much.

My college career was a great success, and I was a strong medical school applicant, interviewing and getting acceptance offers at multiple top 5 medical schools. Again, I chose UC San Diego, a top 15 program, over some more prestigious or elite programs, because I knew I would get a solid education, and it’s still a terrifically strong program, even if it’s not a Harvard, Penn, or Wash U.

Choose a strong program where you believe you’ll get a strong education and have the resources and opportunities available to you. If a private school is too expensive, don’t be afraid to go public, like I did. I went public all the way and still got a top numbers and matched into one of the most competitive specialties.

In short, I went to great programs, but I didn’t sweat the prestige or rankings when making my decisions. I knew that after a certain point, program quality is strong, and the rest is going to be on me. The key point is this: the talent and merits of each individual student are worth far more than the resources and prestige of elite schools. Ultimately, it’s more important to worry about the systems you implement in your life – the habits that you create and that ultimately dictate your trajectory, rather than the school you go to. Systems produce results.

This is our philosophy at Med School Insiders. Each individual is unique, and it’s a matter of maximizing your systems and habits to grow, learn, and become the best version of yourself. It’s more than just checking in the boxes. While research, top scores, and strong extracurriculars are key, the foundational principles that facilitate those aspects of your application are just as, if not more, important and it is these same principles that will help you generate compounding success into your future. Our mission is to create a generation of happier, healthier, and more effective doctors. And the best way to do that is with a personal and individualized plan to maximize a student’s potential – not just checking all the boxes. To learn more and see how we help students maximize their potential, click here to learn more.


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Bob

    I have been wanting to become a surgeon for my whole life. I am currently a sophomore in high school in the Bay Area, CA. I am an above-average student but my highschool is also extremely competitive. I have been a straight A student for my entire life but I am really struggling with AP Calculus AB and I might actually end with a C. I heard that Bs are okay but a C means your done for. I still want to reach for top colleges and Ivy Leagues but I’m not sure if I will be able to do so with my C grade. How will this affect my medical journey? I am stressing out a lot and I’m thinking that this will affect my chances of becoming a surgeon. Please advise.

    1. Kevin Jubbal, M.D.

      Your high school grades have essentially zero effect on your medical school application. The important thing here is going to a strong university that provides opportunities. It doesn’t have to be an ivy league, but even a strong public university will be more advantageous.

      Focus on improving your study strategies (which we have a ton of blog posts and videos about) to improve your grades. There’s no reason you can’t be an A student. Best of luck!

  2. Future Doctor

    Hello Dr. Jubbal,

    I am a highschool senior and I am going to attend a small, humble public university. Its not even close to prestigious and definitely not as strong as UCLA (once again, not even close). I have classmates that are going to Stanford, Harvard, and Duke, and I have been feeling quite insecure about myself, my successes, and my future. I want to become a doctor one day, and I know that no matter where I go for my undergraduate studies, I will succeed. However, I just can’t help but feel insecure when I compare myself to my classmates. Sometimes I feel like I will never be as successful, intelligent, and talented as them.

    I read this article and the advice you presented. Thank you for your words of encouragement because you’d be surprised by how many students you’re inspiring to take up medicine. Your encouraging words bring me a small flame of hope in my own success and future. I wholeheartedly want to become a medical doctor and I hope that you wish me luck. Have a great day.

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