I get inappropriate requests for advice on all kinds of topics by email more often than you would think. I don't mean inappropriate as in dirty or insulting. Just as in, why would you imagine that I can help you? Still, I chime in with my not-terribly helpful opinion when I think I've got something to offer.
An email came the other day that I've been stuck on for a while. It's from a rising high school senior, and it's long, but here's an excerpt:
my dilemma now is whether or not it is worth it (financially) for me to pursue an undergraduate premed degree from a prestigious (and expensive) university. i am willing to pay back all 11-or-so years of debt i may accumulate, as long as going to a prestigious undergrad school will help land me in a prestigious med school. i am determined to enter a prestigious med/grad school, so paying for that is out of the question: i will. my main question is whether or not you, personally, believe your education from yale undergrad better prepared you for whatever exams law school requires, as opposed to an education from a state school.
Additional info: the questioner feels his grades and scores put him in the range for some of the Ivies, but not the most competitive Ivies. And the questioner's family probably can't offer any financial support. My response is below the fold, but I hope you will chime in in the comments with your advice, too, because I think this fellow deserves more wisdom than I can provide.
Here's what I know for sure:
1) You're going to love college, wherever you go. College is great, and as long as you go to a school that's reasonably big enough to have some good professors and a variety of subjects you don't yet realize you're interested in and a good mix of kinds of students, you'll be able to have a deeply enriching experience there.
2) You have the drive and the talent to succeed, so I suspect you'll find a way to get to the medical career you want regardless of your undergraduate institution.
3) Debt is a big deal. I don't think a lot of adults talk to high school and college students about what debt really means, and I think a lot of young people figure that if the bank or the financial aid department is willing to front them this money, it must mean that paying it off on the other end won't be too hard. 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 they could get good jobs that would let them pay the debt off.
And they were right, they could and did get those jobs. But they worked all the time and it turned out they didn't love the work that much, and they started to resent their lives. The practice of law was a lot more drudgery and a lot less stimulating or exciting or fulfilling than they'd thought, or than law school was. They moved here, deciding to take lower paying jobs in order to have more time. (They still had to choose the firm here in Portland that paid the most, or they couldn't have kept up.) And what they found was that because of their debt, they had to choose between buying a house and having a child -- they could do one, but not both, which wasn't consistent with the life they'd always imagined for themselves. And if they had a child, the mother would have to keep working, because her salary went to pay their law school debt, while his went to pay their living expenses. They were making more money than most people in the state but they found they couldn't save very much, and they felt like they couldn't get ahead.
I saw him in the grocery store and he was bitter and unhappy. They'd done everything right -- gone to the right schools and gotten good grades and gotten hired at good jobs -- and they felt like they were trapped in a life they didn't want. Last I knew they'd moved back to the big city to take higher paying jobs.
So I want to tell you to take debt very seriously, and to do all you can to avoid it. It means you can never change your mind.
Now, you sound very focused and maybe you never will change your mind. (I myself have changed my mind about ten times since high school, but you sound like you've got things more figured out than I did.) But even if you don't change your mind about being a doctor, you might want to go work for Doctors Without Borders or travel for a year or adopt a child or start a medical practice of your own or maybe a company that does something you see a need for, and all of those things will be much harder to do if you have a commitment to pay a certain amount of money to your student loan creditors every month.
4) For me, the longest lasting legacy from Yale was the people I met there and the sense of possibility that going there gave me, not anything I learned in a classroom. (I know that I would have performed better, as you speculate you might, at a school where I would have had a clear shot at being the 'best' -- I'm competitive by nature, but at Yale everyone was too brilliant, so I turned my competitive instincts to sailing instead, and didn't rack up great grades.) So, to answer your question, I think it's possible to get as good an education at a state school or a college that might give you a full scholarship. I also loved my time at Yale and feel terrifically lucky for what I saw there. I wrote about it here. I just don't know what to tell you about what that experience is worth. I *don't* think it's worth sacrificing your future freedom to change your mind.
5) One more thing. I know you want to go to a "prestigious" medical school. I'm not sure why that matters so much to you. You have lots of time to think about it. But as an adult, I notice that the people most wrapped up in the "prestige" of various institutions are often the least interesting and least happy people I know. Prestige does open doors, but planning your life around it can be limiting. Find people who are doing work you admire and follow them. The nature of academia is that very smart, passionate people are working almost everywhere, and for me, those have been my best teachers. My best teacher ever was at the University of Maine School of Law, not at Yale, and although there were probably more Great Minds at Yale, I didn't get to work with more than three of them. I was exposed to two at Maine Law, and I think they had a deeper impact on my intellectual development because they actually knew me and became advisors.
6) Finally, congratulations on your good grades and scores so far. You've earned lots of good choices. And congratulations too on your ability to reach out to friendly strangers, looking for help. This habit, I think, will give you even more good choices.
Please stay in touch.