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» A morality tale from The Listless Lawyer
Scheherazade, appropriately, presents budding prelaw students with a morality tale: I know a married couple, both lawyers, who went to prestigious law schools because they thought they should go to the best schools they could, and were pretty sure t... [Read More]


Kai Jones

Choice is one of my favoriate issues, and you nailed it when you pointed out that taking on debt limits the choices of the future you.

But also, here's my piece of advice: your choice today still isn't forever. I dropped out of college 25 years ago, have had a happy and successful career (as a legal secretary), own a home and raised two children, and now I'm going back to college to study engineering. Your life will be longer than you can really imagine at your age, and you can change direction and start at least some things over, more than once.


My thoughts would be along the lines that Sherry has already stated. Namely, that you want to be very careful about mortgaging your future with school debt. If you make the decision to burden yourself with that much debt, you have to understand that you have committed yourself to a high pressure, high paying, no relief occupation. Once you have the debt there is no going back.

As Kai said in the first comment, by accumulating mountains of debt, you are limiting your choices of the things you can do in the future. I would be very cautious about doing such a thing.

I think you would be better served by choosing a college that you feel comfortable with rather than choosing one because it has a prestigous reputation.

In saying this, I am not knocking prestiguous schools. They are great and they are prestigous for a reason. That does not mean they are the only choice, however. Additionally, once the debt load is considered, they may not be the best choice.


I went to a big old State university. Over 30,000 students. It was good enough to get me into law school. And the people I went to law school with (at the same big old state university) came from all kinds of schools. I went with other state school grads, Ivy Leaguers, kids from little tiny liberal arts schools. The kids from big public schools and from Ivy schools all did well. The key word for state schools is big. The schools where the faculty is touchy feely hands-on isn't going to prepare you for the impersonal "do it yourself" world of professional school. The first honor grad from my class went to Richmond for undergrad. To date, my most well-known classmate went to UGA for undergrad (he's the one on CNN and NPR all the time). My classmates' income level has had absolutely nothing to do with where they went to school. If you want to be a professor of medicine, go to good schools. If you want a low debt load, go state and go cheap. I have friends from high school who are doctors. One went to an unaccredited carribbean medical school. He's the one with the brand new 6,000+ square foot office with his own diagnostics and who a pharmacist friend of mine estimates is grossing several million dollars yearly. Wherever you go to school, learn to write well and not ramble. Like me.

Kim Plaintive

I would guess that the emailer wants to go to a "prestigious" med school not for the prestige, but for the quality of the education, so he can become the best doctor he can be (I could be wrong, but I'm just thinking that he might not really be focused on "prestige"). If that's the case, it's a worthy pursuit, and he should do everything he can, within reason, to prepare himself for that.

I did my undergrad at an Ivy and I know it has opened doors for me (for instance, it landed me my first job, where only Ivy grads were hired as managers, and I have to think it helped me get into my law school). My parents could not contribute to my undergrad tuition, so I did it all on my own -- I was able to get some grants, I worked my ass off at various part-time gigs, and I took out huge loans. And I have a lot of debt right now. And I'm about to acquire a lot more in three years of law school. But I absolutely think it is worth it -- I have my whole life ahead of me, and I'm glad that I will always have the options afforded to me by a top education. That's not to say that you can't be an extremely successful doctor/lawyer/candle-stick-maker without the expensive education (nor to say that the education gives you an automatic pass into career success), but my personal opinion is that (for me) it is worth the debt.

That being said, this kid should apply for all the scholarships and financial aid he can and then do a wholistic evaluation of all his options once he can evaluate the final costs.


Are you really as smart as you think you are? The top schools are incredibly competitive.

I have two sons. First son went to one of the top schools in the world - toughest of the tough. He struggled. Took him 5 years to graduate. But he got a job he enjoys, bought a house, is starting a family and is now doing law school at nights.

Son #2 went to a good private school, but one notch below Ivy or equivalent. He too found the academic work tough but coped. He graduated in 4 years. He spent an enormous amount of time in an extra-curricular activity where he rose to the leadership position, won the universty's annual contest and broke a record. I'm convinced he learned more of value in that endeavor than from any lecture. He found his dream job, has just had his first major project recognized in the national press in his field and is about to start an MBA at Yale.

Looking back on their experiences I question whether the prestigious school attended by son #1 was worth the stress it caused.


I agree with most of this, but I'm divided about debt. On the one hand, I agree with what Sherry says: the feeling that you need to pay off that debt can be crushing, and can limit your options.

On the other hand: debt for undergrad is not the same as law school/med school debt. I graduated (from a small not-Ivy but supposedly prestigious institution) with about the same debt as if I had bought a Honda - in fact, when I bought my Civic about a year later, I doubled my debt load. (We won't talk about credit card debt.) Things have changed and tuition has risen since then, but I would still choose to incur that debt for the education I had. I didn't know about some details - for instance, many of the programs like MSF, TFA and City Year come with loan deferments - and I was scraping for a little while, but the wonderful thing about the race with compound interest is that if you can get ahead of it (and I was determined to) you can really smack it up in the long run. I was paid off five years early and saved four figures in interest.

There are a lot of schools, like my alma mater, which promise to be "need blind" in undergraduate admission, and to meet the full aid needs of all admitted students. The problem comes when you fall in the gap between those who are considered needy by the school, and those who can pay full freight.

And, finally, I live in my alma mater's town, and we have a big state school in town as well. I think I can confidently say that there are excellent educations available at the big state schools. The difference is that you have to go looking for that education at the state school, whereas the Ivies and small private colleges won't let you escape without one.


I agree with the person above who said to wait and see what kind of financial aid or scholarships you get before you make up your mind. Apply broadly and don't rule anything out until you can actually sit down and compare numbers. A lot of the more prestigious schools also have a lot of aid money to give out. File your FAFSA early and if the school of your choice doesn't offer you money initially, ask them to review your file again. You've got nothing to lose.

I graduated from an Ivy League undergrad and am now getting my JD at a state law school. I am very happy with my decision - I'm at the top of my class, in a market I want to be in. (Sherry, sound familiar?) That said, I'm really grateful for the opportunities and connections I made in my undergrad institution.

My final word of advice is don't forget that there is no right answer here. No matter which way you choose, there will be pros and cons. You will no doubt try to peer down the road not taken. Try not to get caught up in the "What Ifs" and instead throw yourself in to whatever you decide with both feet.


Definitely apply to all the schools you think you would want to attend, and make the decision based on all the factors - where you got in, who is giving you money, and where you think you will be happy for the next four years. Prestige opens doors, but if you do well at a presentable school, you will likely still get into the prestige med school, and might not be as crippled, financially at the end. Lower debt load means you have more choices when you finally finish school and want to make decisions for your actual life, and not just the future you envision right now.

For the record, I went to a prestigious undergrad. It was a wonderful experience that I would not trade. Has that name opened doors? YES, absolutely. Have I achieved anything I couldn't have if I had gone to a cheaper school? Probably not. But private schools have more flexibility in granting aid, so I went to this top tier school for about the same as it would have cost to go to a state school, with resident tuition. So look at those aid offers before you decide.

As for post grad, I am now in law school at a school which is in the second tier, and in many ways, I think I am getting a better education than I would have at the tier one school that waitlisted me. the culture of the school is much more comfortable, mitigating a lot of the ugliness that comes with law school competitiveness. Not only that, but because a majority of attorneys in town attended my school, it bears no real stigma for being ranked lower than the other school in town.

So well in school, wherever you go and you will do well.


Don't forget, when looking at the aid offers, that FinAid offices usually back-load aid: you pay the most in your first year, and in successive years, as you look more likely to finish your degree, you get more aid. Will they project a four-year package?


As one who went to a prestigious (read: expensive) college, followed by a prestigious (read: even more expensive) medical school, I have this advice:

Go to the best college you possibly can. But unless prestige, in and of itself, is important to you, consider a state medical school. The difference between undergraduate experiences can be enormous, but the spread in educational quality at medical schools is much lower than you might expect. Moreover, much of what you learn in at any med school comes from reading. A bit more comes from your classmates, and they will be the smartest, most driven people you'll ever meet, no matter where you go. All the rest comes from your patients, and they, thank god, are the same the world over.

(Of course, if money is an object at all, I would be remiss not to urge you to consider business school instead.)


Sheesh. 1) The prestige game is always lose-lose because no matter what category you achieve in, some one else has always done better - when measured in the subjective and group-specific terms that these things are measured in. And even if you win ONE of those games by being the top .0001 percent of a category most people admire, such as income or education level, (no one ever wins more than a couple) often you'll find that you still lose the ones that you really want to win. For example, the gorgeous Princess of Wales lost in love to a bland, horsey-looking woman (no offense to Camilla-lovers).

2) Let's say you find a group and a category that you can succeed in and feel satisfied - Connecticut wasp from a good family with the standard education, perhaps. Goody for you. No one gives you a medal. You just spend all your time and energy holding on to a prestige level or self-imposed standard of community acceptance until you are exhausted. Everyone still makes fun of your quirks behind your back. You still only really matter to the very few people who truly love you (and this lifestyle choice is a good way to keep that number quite low). And you still never know if you measure up, because unless you are a sincere believer in some sort of fundamentalist relgion, there's no way to know if anyone is really keeping track.


I went to Yale and am now in a good medical school. It's not great, as in, it's not Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or NYU, which are very highly ranked because they are strong research schools (and get a lot of government money). But in that "second tier" is every other medical school in the United States, practically.

So question number one to answer for yourself is whether you want to do a lot of research or whether you want to mainly see patients. (All schools will tell you they have both, but in truth, they stress one or the other.) If research is the answer, you are right to plan for how to get into those top medical schools. If clinical medicine is your goal, don't worry so much. Almost all US schools are in the business of getting you to pass your Boards, and will prepare you excellently.

I would not recommend that you go to an Ivy or other prestigious school. They will open your mind to new experiences and make you explore and grow, and if you single-mindedly want medical school, you do not want that kind of growth. I honestly did a lot of exploring and growing at Yale, and it shot me in the foot as far as applying to medical school. If I had busted my hump and never had any fun, I *might've* had the grades necessary to coast into medical school. But I did have fun and I did explore and grow, and as a result, my grades were mediocre and medical school applications weren't as easy.

So if you have that goal that you're sure of, go to a state school, limit your debt, be a big fish, and you'll much more easily get into a good medical school. Admissions officers weren't that impressed by Yale, I don't think. They just look at your numbers. Depressing but true.


I want to chime in because my husband is a pre-med student who was accepted at an Ivy but ended up at a big state school because with paying tuition for both of us it was what we could afford.

Apart from debt load, and apart from prestige it has been literally the best thing that he could have done. Period. The oppertunities that being at a big research institution has opened up for him as a science major have been outstanding -- he's an undergraduate and is working in a cardiac stem cell lab with the researcher who started the entire field, and has been involved in several published papers in the labs that he's been worked in on a number of topics. He's had to work hard and really put himself out there to get those opportunities, but once he was willing to do that a lot of doors opened for him that wouldn't have even existed at a smaller school. While I'm sure that Yale or Harvard on his resume would open doors for him, since he's sure that what he wants is to work in science the practical hands-on experience that he can get at a top-10 research university combined with personal recomendations and relationships, seems a LOT more likely to get him into medical school - especially since the admissions process for med/grad schools is less of a numbers game than law school. Not to mention making him employable upon graduation. For about 8K a year, rather than nearly 30K, too.


Just want to point out that law school admissions is very different from medical school admissions, and while I find Sherry's advice fairly sound, I'd recommend this student talk to people in medical school particularly. I think the prestige of the undergraduate institution plays a larger role in law school admissions than it does for medical school admissions, for a couple of reasons:

1) there is a set pre-med curriculum that almost every college will offer and that every med school applicant must take. No pre-law curriculum.

2) unlike the LSAT, the MCAT actually tests knowledge of facts that one was supposed to learn from that required pre-med curriculum.

Thus, as long as you attend a school with the required courses and do well on the MCAT, you can get into a good medical school. Keep in mind that part of the diversity they want in the class will be diversity of undergraduate institutions.

At the same time, the research vs. practice question is an important one. If you want to go the research, MD-PhD route, you really want to attend a school that will give you the opportunity to do research and show your abilities as an undergrad. This might be an Ivy, or it might be a big state school, but it is very helpful in getting the MD-PhD offers.

If you want to be a practicing physician, on the other hand, you don't have to do heavy undergraduate research, though be sure to make contacts for getting summer work in the field.

For the person who suggested that undergradate debt might not be as big a deal as grad school debt: it is these days. Even state schools like my alma mater have raised in-state costs (and out-of-state always cost only $10k less than an Ivy), and currently estimate the cost of attendance at $17k per year, which may rise depending on the stinginess of the state legislature and donors (who tend to fund buildings rather than operating costs). That's over $65k for four years, at a top state school at in-state rates.


To be or not to be......I am a little surprised that no one has touched on the major difference between ivy and non-ivy schools, which I believe is diversity, although not racial diversity in particular. I went to a highly rated, fairly small public university (10,000 students, it was one of several in the state) and then to one of the fifty top twenty law schools. Virtually everyone, even a high percentage of the grad students at my university, were in state, and a large percentage of them were from a single metro area. By way of contrast, there was far greater geographic diversity at my law school and its parent university. Choose the ivy if you want more geographic (although perhaps not economic) diversity, and the state if this matters less to you.
One further comment; I see education, from HS to university to graduate, as a funnel of sorts. At college, the majority of my classmates had been in the top 10 percent of their high school class. In fact, an astounding number of them had been the valedictorian of their high school. One wag noted that in a certain way, that made at least 90% of the freshman class relative failures! Sometimes it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than vice versa.

Regardless, we know so little, that what seems important now, will likely have far less significance in the future, so make the best choice you can, and enjoy one of the most exciting times in your life.


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