Many med school students are under the unfortunate misconception that doing their undergrad work at a well-known university, and especially a top-tier or Ivy League undergrad school will be a deciding factor in where they land for school. Ladies and gentlemen, get ready for a news alert: where you go to college is far less important than how well you do while there!Ivy League undergrad

What matters most—GPA, Ivy League undergrad school, or MCAT score?

Here’s what really matters: your GPA (3.7 or above), your science GPA (3.5 or above), your MCAT (509 or above), your extracurriculars (ECs), letters of recommendation, research opportunities and valuable shadowing experiences—oh, and of course, whether or not your mom or dad is a huge benefactor at your chosen school! (Kidding on that last one…but it doesn’t hurt!) The scores above trend pretty high, and are what you’d need to have top-notch prospects of acceptance to a top-tier school.

In my post on getting into competitive residencies, I point out the wildly diverging costs of a medical school education, essentially asking, “Is it worth it?” While there’s a correlation between med school choice and getting your top residency choice, there are lots of ways of compensating for—and even beating—the “name brand” school advantage. This is the same story with your undergrad education. You can save a ton of money by attending a well respected (but lesser-known) university in your undergraduate years, and it shouldn’t diminish your chances of getting into a top-ranked program. The key is commitment, hard work and hitting the high notes below:

Undergrad GPA

If there is one vitally important statistic, it’s your GPA, so don’t let it lag. Since all medical students, no matter their undergraduate school of choice, have essentially the same pre-med requirements, you’ll be compared with “fellow” students from across the nation. A 3.5 GPA with a good MCAT score, ECs and LORs, could unlock the door to a top-tier school. But a 3.6 looks better! A 3.7 better yet. Keep in mind that if your school is one of those top-tier schools we’ve all heard about that do a little “creative grade inflation” to give kids an easier entre to medical school, the adcoms know about it. If, on the other hand, you go to one of the schools known for grade deflation, you may get a small boost in consideration. Even a 4.0 GPA won’t score you a sure ticket to medical school, but it does help if the other parts of your application shine.

What about my MCAT score?

MCAT scores are similarly critical. An extremely good MCAT score can push you into the rarified air of top-tier consideration. For specifics on what’s considered mediocre and what’s exceptional for a good GPA/MCAT combo, check out this post: “What’s a good GPA/MCAT combination for acceptance into med school—3.7/511?” An MCAT score is never considered in isolation, so it won’t do the job alone. But it can definitely boost your chances, especially if you attend a lesser-known undergrad school.

Name brand or not?

The adcoms at Ivy League/top-tier schools have spoken on this subject, again and again. And their message is always the same: your undergrad school is NOT a critical deciding factor in med school acceptance. Yes, even an Ivy League undergrad star school. Whether you attend a private school, liberal arts college or state college (large or small), what matters most is whether you can do the classwork, plus land some good research opportunities, gain leadership experience and find health and medical settings where you can do some shadowing. These opportunities are pretty readily available in most college towns, except for exceptionally small ones.

Science/non-science major?

Again, this may shock you, but depending on the medical school(s) you’re applying to, as many as 30% of matriculants are non-science majors. Obviously, the core science classes are still a part of every pre-med’s curriculum, but you may even get some props for doing whatever it is that really floats your boat: English, History, Sociology, anyone? By studying what interests you most, you will gain added experience while likely getting better grades. It may take you a little longer to get your pre-med requireds in plus a round of requireds for another major, but you’ll be…

…More well-rounded

This isn’t a reference to your waist size, but to your experiences before and during college. Many medical schools count these experiences as equal to, or more important than the college from which you hail. So look around you. Are there clinics where you can volunteer? Do you have the time to join a club on campus? Are you a writer or astronomer or inventor on the side? A one-dimensional doctor is just that. And most medical schools are looking for students who will excel in much more than their science classes! And remember that you’ll be able to solicit letters of recommendation from people you meet in all disciplines and walks of life.

The inside game

Finally, you can’t ignore the obvious: by going to Harvard undergrad, you’ll have access to Harvard profs via the classes you take, and you’ll have the chance to prove your stuff. You’ll also be considered part of the “family.” If you’re targeting an Ivy League or top-tier school, and want only that one, then it can’t hurt to start at an Ivy League undergrad, if you can get accepted. It’s just not a necessity! Keep in mind too, that should you decide to drop out of pre-med, and let’s say you’re shooting for business school or law school—a college with a good reputation will help you get there faster.

If you want some help choosing just the right non-Ivy League undergrad campus, check out the book with the cover featured above: Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right For You.

Here are a few other posts to help you along the way, as you choose your undergrad school:

What makes a university good for pre-medical studies?

What’s the best pre-med major?

I’m not sure I’m up for medical school. Are there other similar, shorter options?