Does the College You Go to Matter?
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
For many college applicants, attending a highly-ranked undergraduate program is not the “end-all-be-all” of their aspirations. Many of these applicants instead view their undergraduate institutions as stepping stones to other goals.
These students might ultimately desire to become a lawyer, a doctor, a researcher with a Ph.D. or MA, or an investment banker with an MBA.
When these students apply to undergraduate programs, they want to be sure that their colleges will help them achieve their professional goals.
With these career goals in mind, many students will ask themselves, “Will the name of my undergraduate program affect my ability to become a lawyer/doctor/investment banker?”
The short answer: it depends.
While some types of graduate schools and career fields care a lot about the prestige of your undergraduate degree, other types of graduate schools won’t care about your college’s prestige.
Below, we’ll talk about how much the prestige of your college matters in light of your career goals, and how you can get help to gain admission to undergraduate programs that are most conducive to your career goals.
Medical School Admission
If you intend to become a pre-med student as an undergraduate, you might be wondering,
"How much does the reputation of my undergraduate institution matter when it comes to medical school admissions?"
The truth of the matter is your GPA and MCAT scores are the most important factors in determining your med school application success.
In comparison to those, the prestige of your undergraduate degree is unimportant. In fact, MCAT scores are arguably the most important factor in determining your odds of getting into medical school.
All premed students should focus an enormous amount of effort on studying for the MCAT. Let’s look at some numbers to better understand why.
The average medical school’s acceptance rate is 7%. Breaking that down, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 81.4% of accepted students had an MCAT score greater than 517.
If you zoom out, over 50% of the students that had an MCAT score of 517 or above had a GPA of only 3.0-3.19. That’s generally considered as an extremely low-grade point average for medical school applications, yet these students compensated with a high MCAT score and were admitted.
Clearly, a stellar MCAT score is the largest, most important contributing factor to a student’s medical school admission.
Out of your entire application, MCAT scores are the best predictors of a student’s success in medical school, and medical school admissions officers know this. A score in the MCAT average range (510–513) indicates a high chance (98%) of advancing from the first to the second year of med school.
With slightly lower scores (498-501), your chance decreases only slightly (94%). This is why medical school admissions committees place so much importance on an applicant’s MCAT score: high MCAT scores correlate to successful medical students.
The second most important factor in medical school admission is GPA. Regardless of MCAT scores, 64.6% of medical school applicants with a GPA of 3.79 or higher were accepted. This dips to 46.4% acceptance for applicants with a GPA of 3.6-3.79 (again, regardless of MCAT score).
The main takeaway is that if your GPA is lower than 3.8 your odds of admission are less than 50%.
The prestige of one’s undergraduate program is relatively unimportant to medical school admissions counselors. However, the prestige of one’s undergraduate program might detrimentally affect one’s GPA or MCAT score.
How could this happen? Consider the following situation.
If a premed student attends an elite undergraduate program, the grades they receive in their science and math courses are weighted against their extremely intelligent and hard-working peers.
Therefore, this premed student’s decision to attend a prestigious undergraduate institution might give them a lower GPA than one they might have had if they attended a less prestigious college; this, in turn, lowers their chance of being admitted to medical school.
Similarly, attending a prestigious institution with a rigorous pre-med program might give a premed student less time to study for the MCAT, thus lowering their MCAT score and their chances of medical school admission.
Therefore, choosing the most prestigious college with the most rigorous pre-med program isn’t always the best course of action for aspiring medical students.
If you intend to go to medical school, you must seriously weigh the benefits of attending a prestigious university against the risk of having a low GPA.
It might seem counterintuitive, but having a 3.6 from Harvard, for example, might not be enough to get you into the medical school of your dreams (remember, less than 50% of applicants with a GPA under a 3.8 get accepted to medical school).
Having a 4.0 from a slightly less prestigious school will significantly increase your odds of medical school admission. Attending an undergraduate program with a record of GPA inflation could help boost your GPA and, as a result, help you get into medical school.
If an admissions committee is considering two applicants with equal GPAs and MCAT scores, they might favor the student who attended a more prestigious college.
This, however, is a very small way in which attending a prestigious undergraduate program would help gain admission to medical school. It’s not nearly as significant as the influence of one’s grade point average and MCAT score.
Attend an undergraduate program where you can graduate with a high GPA rather than a prestigious degree.
MBAs, Investment Banking, and Management Consulting
The MBA admissions process and the recruiting process in the professional world of finance is basically the polar opposite of medical school admissions.
Students who intend to get an MBA and work in fields such as investment banking and management consulting will find that the prestige of their college is extremely important, more so than GMAT/GRE scores and your GPA.
Employers such as Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, and Morgan Stanley focus most of their recruiting efforts on a specific list of schools. These companies send recruiters to target campuses and offer high-paying internships to undergraduates with the prospect of future employment offers.
If this is your dream career path, you must focus your efforts on gaining admission to a target school. These target schools include all eight Ivy Leagues—especially the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Harvard University, Princeton University, Columbia University, and Cornell University—as well as NYU Stern, Duke University, and Georgetown University. NYU Stern and Columbia are particularly important target schools due to their proximity to Wall Street.
As an example of the emphasis on target schools, consider Stanford’s MBA program. In 2020, it was the highest-ranked in the country and 42% of students had undergraduate degrees from Stanford or one of the target schools listed above.
Similarly, about one-third of MBA students at both the Harvard School of Business and at Wharton went to an Ivy League school for undergrad.
Graduate School Admission
Other graduate school admissions are a bit more complicated to parse as you could be applying for a Ph.D., MA, or MS in a variety of fields.
The graduate school admissions process varies quite a bit between the humanities and STEM, but in both instances, the prestige of your undergraduate degree will not have a great impact on your chances of admission.
In the humanities, Ph.D. and MA admissions decisions are holistic and qualitative. These programs consider an applicant’s cumulative GPA, major GPA, writing samples, personal statement, and GRE scores.
Admissions committees focus intensely on the quality of your writing, your research experience, and the ways in which your research interests align with the departments’ faculty specializations.
Letters of recommendations from well-respected scholars in your intended field will also greatly improve your chances of admission. A high GPA and GRE will certainly help, though many humanities programs either waive the GRE requirement or disregard the quantitative section.
In STEM, Ph.D. and MA admissions are also treated holistically, but these programs focus on different aspects of an application than a humanities program.
STEM graduate admissions committees often focus heavily on your undergraduate research and how your research interests fit with and complement their faculty’s interests.
Your GPA and quantitative GRE scores are also important, as are letters of recommendation from esteemed researchers and scientists.
Law School Admission
Law school admission is similar to medical school admission; both of these processes predominantly value standardized test scores and GPA over all other aspects of your application.
Some law schools now accept the GRE instead of the LSAT from applicants, but there is strong statistical evidence that correlates high LSAT scores with successful law school applications.
The top 14 ranked law schools take LSAT scores very seriously. Yale, for example, is the country’s top-ranked law school, and its median LSAT score among attendees is 173, which is the 2018/19 school year was in the 99th percentile.
This means that the average student at Yale Law School had better LSAT scores than 99% of the LSAT-taking population.
For comparison, Georgetown University’s law school (ranked 14) has an LSAT median of 167, which during the same year was in the 95th percentile. Clearly, a high LSAT is required to attend any law school with a high ranking.
GPA is another important factor. In the top 15 schools, for example, the mean undergrad GPA of admitted students is over 3.7. The median GPA at George Washington University, ranked 45th in the nation, is 3.71.
These two examples should emphasize how critical it is for prospective law school applicants to choose undergraduate programs that will yield them high GPAs.
If law school admissions committees are considering two applicants with equal GPAs and LSAT scores, they might favor the student who attended a more prestigious college.
However, prospective law school students should absolutely prioritize attending a program where they can achieve a high-grade point average while studying for the LSAT above attending a program where they could obtain a prestigious degree.
Similar to what we observed in medical school admissions, attending a prestigious university might make a student take harder classes than they would take at a less prestigious university, thus hurting the student’s GPA and, as a result, their chances of admission to law school.
The importance of your college’s prestige varies greatly depending on your career goals. If you want to attend law school, the prestige of your undergraduate program matters very little as compared to the importance of GPA and LSAT scores.
Similarly, if you want to attend medical school, the prestige of your undergraduate institution is relatively unimportant, while your GPA and MCAT scores are critical.
If you intend to go to law school or medical school, you should strategically apply to undergraduate programs from which you can graduate with a high GPA.
If you intend to apply to graduate school and pursue research, the prestige of your college is also relatively insignificant: your GPA, record of research, writing samples, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, and GRE scores are more important.
Conversely, if you intend to secure a lucrative job in investment banking or management consulting, the prestige of your college is extremely important: top investment banking companies and consulting firms recruit almost exclusively from prestigious “target” schools. Similarly, if you intend to apply to an MBA program, prestige matters a great deal.
Hopefully, we’ve made it abundantly clear that strategy matters. You have to attend the right program to maximize your chances of getting into law school, medical school, and MBA programs.
Bentham Admissions Consultants
Bentham's college admissions consultants know how to do this. We create individually tailored strategies for students to maximize their academic career in order to achieve your highest career goals.
Specifically, we help you select schools that will benefit your GPA, help you complete applications for target schools, and help you craft powerful essays that will effectively market why you are the best applicant to their program.