By: Rob Humbracht
In recent weeks, we at Savvy Pre-med have explained the 5 Necessary Factors for Getting into Medical School and the 5 Characteristics of the Most Successful Pre-meds.
But now we’ve arrived at an important question -- how does your choice of undergraduate college affect these factors?
Let’s look factor-by-factor to see how one’s choice of college might influence your ability to get into medical school.
THE GIST -- Your MCAT score, like your GPA, is one of the primary ways that medical schools sort the wheat from the chaff in the applicant pool.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- From your author’s experience as a long-time MCAT instructor, I’ve seen that students who attend competitive colleges tend to do better on the MCAT than students who don’t. But is there something about those colleges that affect the performance on the MCAT?
I’d argue no. Students at top colleges are more likely to perform well on the MCAT because they are good test-takers. Because they have already been able to get into a top college, they have demonstrated their test-taking acumen (on the SAT, ACT, etc.), and as a result, we’d expect them to perform better as a group than students who attend lower-ranked schools.
OUR ADVICE -- It doesn't make sense to consider MCAT scores in evaluating where to go to college. The same biology, chemistry, and physics is taught at all colleges. Further, most medical school applicants take an MCAT prep class from a company unaffiliated with their university, so even colleges that offer MCAT prep programs don't confer much of an advantage.
No matter where you go, you should take a variety of courses (not just the sciences), with special emphasis on reading comprehension and critical thinking. Before taking the MCAT, you should dedicate about three or four months to preparation, giving yourself sufficient time to personalize your study methods. Read our interview with MCAT instructor Levonti Ohanisian for expert advice: 5 Most Common MCAT Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.
THE GIST -- Your GPA carries a lot of weight with medical schools, since they use it to filter the overwhelming pool of candidates applying for spots. Medical schools don't, however, adjust the GPA much when looking at applicants from different colleges.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- Avoid colleges known for grade deflation, or at least consider it as a factor when making your selection. According to cbsnews.com, colleges such as Princeton, MIT, Boston University, and Reed give out the fewest A’s to their students. On the other end of the spectrum, we find such schools as Brown, where A’s are given about 67% of the time.
OUR ADVICE -- Choose a college where you can get A's. Avoid pre-med factories, unless you come from a top-notch high school, have already taken lots of science AP classes, and are ready to work incredibly hard from day one of your undergraduate career.
THE GIST -- The interview demonstrates your interpersonal and communication skills, while also testing whether your personality and skillset are a good match for the school.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- Where you go to college is unlikely to affect your interview. Choose a school where you feel comfortable to be yourself, where you will get involved outside of the classroom and grow as a leader and a person. It’s the stories you can tell about the things you’ve done that will make or break your interview. Spend your undergraduate career seeking interesting and new experiences.
OUR ADVICE -- It’s more important what you do in college than where you go to college. It’s a good idea to take a public speaking course, work on your stage presence, or apply for teaching positions during undergrad; look for situations and roles that put you in front of strangers and sharpen your communication skills.
THE GIST -- Exposure to the field comes from three primary areas: shadowing, clinical volunteering, and research. We’ll cover research later, but let’s address how one’s college choice affects your ability to gain exposure to the field.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- Most colleges will have nearby clinics and hospitals, and some will even incorporate clinical work into their curricula. Cornell, for example, offers an Urban Semester Program, in which students work in the New York Presbyterian Hospitals and design their own rotations, focusing on fields of personal interest. On the West Coast, you could consider any of the smaller colleges in the Claremont Consortium, which would let you access a small web of affiliated clinics and hospitals. Just look at Pomona College’s opportunities alone.
OUR ADVICE -- Look for colleges with proximity to multiple hospitals. If you choose a school in the middle of a cornfield, you may have to spend your summers getting the clinical experiences elsewhere.
THE GIST -- Because doctors serve their patients (and indeed, the entire medical profession) for the rest of their careers, medical schools seek students who have demonstrated a consistent desire to serve others during their undergraduate career.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- There's an argument for both larger and smaller colleges. At larger colleges, you have access to more opportunities, such as the Alternative Breaks program, which lets you travel to foreign countries and provide services for those in need. But it's not just the quantity of service that matters to medical school admissions committees; the impact you made on the community matters most.
That impact might be easier to spearhead at a smaller school like Hamilton College, where you might have more autonomy and opportunities for leadership. In Hamilton’s student-run HAVOC group, you could create your own community initiative like the Utica Library Backpack Program, which collects, organizes, and distributes differently themed school backpacks to provide free supplies and improve literacy.
OUR ADVICE -- At smaller schools, you have a better chance to build something and leave a legacy behind, whereas the competition at bigger universities might limit your time, freedom, and possibility for collaboration. Regardless, medical schools want students who are unafraid to take risks, create something new, and actualize change. No matter which school you attend, use your passions to fill some pressing need on campus or in the local community.
THE GIST -- When you ask someone for a letter, you shouldn’t have to remind them of your name. In other words, don’t fall out of touch with professors, and don’t wait until the last minute to ask them for help. It’s best to build early relationships with professors you admire and seek their counsel.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- Smaller class sizes and mentorship programs will offer the best opportunities for relationships with faculty. CollegeMagazine.com showcases Harvard University as the ideal school for pre-medical advising, due to its three separate advisors for each student. One is a doctor, available at any time, in addition to a pre-medical advisor who lives in the same dorm as you during sophomore year. That sounds amazing, but not everyone can go to Harvard, right? Smaller schools like Grinnell College have tight-knit communities and personalized attention for students. First-year pre-meds at Grinnell are introduced to a Health Professions Advisory Committee and given one-on-one faculty guidance regarding course selection, shadowing opportunities, and internships.
OUR ADVICE -- Regardless of which school you attend, you should get used to approaching faculty and rubbing elbows with them. Although networking can seem forced or disingenuous, your goal will be to do it in the most authentic way possible. Approach professors whose area of study aligns with your interests, and make sure to ask a lot of questions to show your genuine fascination. You’ll be surprised at the opportunities presented.
Click here to get the answers to Every Question You Have About Letters of Recommendation!
THE GIST -- Pre-meds often prioritize studying and earning straight A’s, which sometimes causes them to sacrifice meaningful social interaction and community engagement. This could hurt your application chances, since medical schools want proactive, effective leaders who can communicate and collaborate with diverse colleagues and peers.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- I don't believe college choice affects your communication and interpersonal skills much, but it might affect the amount of available leadership opportunities, as well as the amount of competition you face within these opportunities. In some ways, a large school like University of Virginia might sound attractive, since it boasts a catalogue of 991 student clubs and organizations: https://atuva.student.virginia.edu/organizations. But how many other students are clamoring to join and lead these clubs?
At a smaller school, it will probably be easier for you to gain meaningful experience in an organization early on as a freshman or sophomore. This means it will take you less time to establish yourself and stand out as a leader. They might have fewer resources than large schools, but it’s much easier for you to approach a potential faculty advisor, set up meetings with administrators, and spread the word about your organization.
OUR ADVICE -- They say birds of a feather flock together, but as a college student, you’ll grow in more meaningful ways if you step out of your comfort zone and interact with diverse people from different walks of life. Shoot for depth in one or two leadership roles, rather than a breadth of obligatory positions. Don’t be afraid to try something and fail, especially if it’s for a worthwhile cause. You can take these chances at any college you pick.
THE GIST -- Essays carry a lot of weight, since they create the first impression of you for admissions committees. Since most pre-meds have similar resumes, the essays become the primary means to differentiate yourself through your specific stories and details.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- Your college choice will not affect your writing skills. In almost all cases, your pre-med curriculum will only require a year of college-level English. You should take it upon yourself to improve as a reader and writer by making these activities a part of your habits and lifestyle. If you have the time and scheduling space, you might want to take an additional creative writing course as an elective.
OUR ADVICE -- Like a good interview, a good essay will not result from your college choice. An editor, tutor, or advisor can bring out your best writing, but they cannot supply the raw materials: your personal stories and insights. Besides living a life worth writing about, you should strive to become an avid reader and get a headstart on the practice, patience, and mental flexibility it takes to be a great writer.
THE GIST -- Medical schools prefer students who have experience interacting with diverse populations, and they will give more attention to candidates with proven dedication to the underserved.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- If you’re not born into favorable demographics, you can cultivate experiences with the underserved - immigrants, the homeless, the poor - by volunteering with an organization that serves one of these groups. Schools in certain sections of the country, like the West Coast, will offer more cultural variety than schools in, let’s say, Middle America. Besides taking region into account, you might consider a school like Georgetown, which actively promotes social justice within its pre-health curriculum.
OUR ADVICE -- No matter what region of the country you’re in, there will be marginalized people who need help. Diversity comes in many forms, and medical schools will be most interested in whether or not you’ve engaged with people from backgrounds unlike your own.
THE GIST -- Medical schools don’t want pre-med clones, so it’s important for you to be an individual. Don’t suppress the things that make you different. Celebrate them!
Click here to see 10 Unique Activities That Got People into Medical School.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- Organizations like the Alpha Epsilon Delta pre-med fraternity (with 186 chapters at major universities) appear to be the perfect extracurricular. But let’s be honest: if your favorite hobby is being a pre-med, then your personality might leave something to be desired. Although you won’t find AED at smaller schools like Swarthmore College, the school makes up for it with the Yellow Stockings Shakespeare Troupe, the Boy Meets Tractor improv comedy group, and Sixteen Feet, an a capella group that performs barefoot on campus. You’ll probably agree that these activities sound a lot more interesting than a pre-professional healthcare society. Finding a unique activity that showcases your individual personality will make you memorable to admissions committees.
OUR ADVICE -- Don’t let your pre-med status define you. Find schools that cater to your various interests, or take charge by starting your own club or organization. Think about it this way: once you're a doctor, what are you going to talk about with patients? If you don't have hobbies or interests outside of the field, you won't have much to say.
THE GIST -- Medical schools love students who have experience with creating new knowledge for the benefit of the field. While it’s always great to have research experience, certain medical schools have a stronger preference for it. It’s the reason for the US News and World Report having not just one set of medical school rankings but two: a primary care ranking and research ranking. Schools at the top of the research ranking are looking for students who want to continue doing research during medical school and as part of their career.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE (Research) -- Most colleges with a sufficient number of biology majors will offer opportunities to do meaningful research with professors. CollegeMagazine.com lists Johns Hopkins University as the ideal school for research opportunities, due to its non-competitive environment, generous professors, and proximity to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute. Again, you might want to consider smaller schools like Pomona College, where 52% of all students participate in research. Besides traditional research like molecular biology, it also offers the Bernard Field Station, an 85-acre natural habitat near campus that doubles as an outdoor laboratory. You don’t have to limit your research to the sciences, either; medical schools value research in fields as diverse as economics, psychology, and public health as well.
OUR ADVICE -- Some students assume that a college must have an affiliated medical school to get clinical research; in our experience, I haven’t found a connection. Most medical schools prefer medical students for their positions, and on the other side of the coin, plenty of unaffiliated clinics and hospitals offer volunteering and shadowing opportunities to undergraduates.
Many colleges have dedicated research budgets for their students, while others offer course credit for doing laboratory research. Whether you perform research just to check it off the list, or you're set to become the next research rockstar, having the opportunity to get your foot in the door will make your life much easier.
THE GIST -- Attending a top-ranked college for undergrad could improve your chances as a medical school applicant, especially at ivy league medical programs. But it carries less weight than you might think.
CHOOSING A COLLEGE -- In admissions surveys, private medical schools list prestige as more important than public schools, and the limited available data on matriculants seems to corroborate this. If you’re on a short list of the undergraduate feeder schools to these private medical programs, then you’re much more likely to get an interview. However, it’s still not the most important factor to private medical schools, and it matters even less to public schools.
OUR ADVICE -- Prestige is overrated. In admissions surveys, several things are listed as more important than your undergraduate school’s selectivity. In other words, if you have mediocre grades and MCAT scores, then your undergrad college won’t matter one bit. Click here to read more about The #1 Most Overrated Factor for Getting into Medical School.
The truth is that there’s not one right kind of college for a pre-med, in the same way that there’s not one right kind of doctor. Large universities, small liberal arts colleges, ivy leagues, and everything in between: they all have their advantages and downsides. Ultimately, you can get a quality pre-med experience at any college, as long as you have the right mindset and approach to learning.