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Don't Choose a School Based on Prestige

It’s  a common mistake to think that going to the most prestigious university or medical school will lead to greatness. Often when we read the profiles of highly acclaimed scientists and doctors, it seems like an  Ivy League education or a degree at a top school is needed to achieve success. This idea of belonging to a prestigious and famous institution leads to success is in fact backwards. You won’t become a successful person just because you went to Harvard or the likes.

The reality is that these schools attract people who are already successful. Highly accomplished individuals will choose prestigious schools because it is often there that they will receive the resources and funding needed to continue their work. The faculty of the best universities don’t go there to become a successful person. They are there because they are already qualified and that happens to be the best environment for them.

In the long run, it’s much more important to find a school that will help you help you develop as a person. As Terence Tao, a world-famous mathematician, says “It is common to focus on the general prestige of the institution, but actually it is the specific strengths of an institution which should play a more important role in your decisions.”

At any institution, it’s much more important to find opportunities and positions that enrich yourself. The old cliche, “it’s better to a big fish in a small pond that a small fish in the ocean” should be in the back of your mind when you are choosing schools.  Everyone should find the place that fits them best, sometimes that happens to be a prestigious sounding university, but more often than not, it doesn’t have to be.

In medicine, you will get your prestige and respect regardless of where you graduate from. If you are a fully licensed doctor who is competent and good at what you do, patients won’t care where you did your training. A job well done is a job well done.

When you do end up choosing a school, the real factors you should consider are 1) location, 2) quality of program, 3) finances. Each school has a different fit for each person. A perfect school for you may not be for someone else.

If you understand the relative insignificance  fame and glory, and base your decisions on rational and personal reasons that matter, you will be much better off in the long run. After all, it’s not the credentials and degrees after your name that matters, but what you can do with what you have learned that matters.

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  1. Stan
    Stan March 24, 2009

    This post is very useful at this point in my life. Thanks.

  2. Ollie
    Ollie April 5, 2009

    Having a degree from a prestigious University on your cv is always advantageous when applying for posts later on.

  3. medaholic
    medaholic April 5, 2009

    That is true. But at that point, there are much more important factors (performance, connections) that will supersede a prestigious name.

  4. […] Reputation – There are rare cases where accepting a position at a top school may be to your advantage. If you plan on a career in academia, it may be worth it to pay the higher tuition for the extra research opportunities offered at these schools. The value of a “name” can be easily debated by both parties. Decide where you stand on the issue and determine what would be a reasonable price to pay. Whatever you do, don’t pay attention to News RANKINGS. They are almost always inaccurate and offer little of value on determining what school is right for you. (Read my thoughts on The Price of Prestige) […]

  5. Zack
    Zack September 19, 2012

    This is a much more difficult task than the first installment. Not that it’s more difficult to decide where to go than to get into grad school in the first place; just that it’s much more difficult to give sensible advice about how to do it. When it comes to getting into grad schools, everyone agrees on the basic notions: good grades, test scores, letters, research experience. Choosing where to go, in contrast, is a highly personal decision, and what works for one person might be utterly irrelevant to someone else. Rather than being overly prescriptive, then, I thought it might be useful just to chat about some of the issues that come up. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself how to weigh the various factors.

  6. George
    George August 3, 2013

    My son didn’t followed the advise, but select a school with top ranking or prestige, even gave up an offer from UCLA David Guffen Medical Schoo with full scholarship of four years. But I like the article, and would like to post it on my website which will started next month.

    I request to have author’s promise, can he/she? Please let me know.


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