As June looms on the horizon, seniors like me are given the daunting task of deciding where to steer our post-secondary plans. For those keen on specialized occupations that require graduate training such as medicine and law, the choice of which undergraduate institution to attend becomes ever more critical. Besides obvious factors like geographic location, financial burden, university rankings, and even where friends will be, many students are now considering the difficulty of an undergraduate program—in other words, how easy it is to obtain a high GPA—in order to select the school that will maximize their chances of professional school admission. This has led to certain unorthodox methods, in which perfectly capable high school students sacrifice the opportunity to attend tier-one universities in favour of “softer” institutions, effectively gambling on a coveted spot in one of Canada’s professional graduate programs.
Let’s focus on medical schools. I was first exposed to this issue when a close friend with aspirations to become a doctor revealed to me that his dad—a doctor himself—was pushing him to go into Biomedical Sciences at Ryerson University instead of his own choice of Life Sciences at McMaster University. My friend is extremely intelligent, and I have no doubt that he would thrive at McMaster. However, his dad reasoned that my friend would be able to breeze through classes at Ryerson and easily obtain the 4.0 GPA that would put him above his peers. Under McMaster’s more challenging curriculum, his dad argued, my friend’s GPA would likely not be as lofty. A higher GPA and class rank would surely be more valuable for medical school applications, wouldn’t it? After all, the average GPA for admitted students to U of T’s M.D. program was 3.96 in 2015, up from 3.94 in 2014 . There seems to be support for this: A study found that a student in the top 1 per cent at America’s worst school was more likely to be published in an academic journal than a student in the top 20 per cent at Harvard . Apparently, it pays to be a big fish in a small pond. So at a glance, dad’s proposition seems logical. But from a broader perspective, is this the right approach?
Certainly not, according to a 2014 survey of current medical school students across Canada conducted by Maclean’s. Of the 1,598 medical students who participated in the survey, “78 per cent had last studied at one of 15 universities with a medical school on campus.” Furthermore, 52.1 per cent of all surveyed M.D. students in the country came from one of six institutions: McMaster University (168), University of Toronto (149), University of Western Ontario (149), McGill University (132), the University of British Columbia (128), and the University of Alberta (107).  Many of these schools hold reputations for difficult undergraduate offerings. The data seems to contradict the notion that a difficult program reduces odds of admissions to medical school. Maclean’s says, “some swear the University of Toronto’s life sciences is so hard, it should be avoided at all costs—but [there is] little data to back up the rumours.” McMaster alone sent nearly as many students to medical school in 2014 as all other Ontario universities combined, excluding the five other schools cited among the top six. To the chagrin of my friend, Ryerson failed to even appear among the top thirty schools, implying it sent less than six students. It appears that putting money on a high GPA alone is an extremely risky bet.
However, we must be cautious in drawing conclusions. Without the individual number of medical school applicants from each university, it is impossible to determine the acceptance rate for students from specific undergraduate programs. Perhaps students that go to schools like Ryerson or Brock simply do not apply to medical school as often as students from U of T or McMaster. Furthermore, the smaller student body size of many of these tier-two schools translates logically to lower representation in professional programs across the country. We cannot directly dispel the belief that GPA-lenient schools offer higher chances of medical school admission using statistics alone.
Medical schools are firmly aware of GPA-padding. Though certain schools like the University of Alberta claim that grades from all universities are weighed equally, in reality it would be hard to imagine a 4.0 GPA from Acadia University being held under the same consideration as a 4.0 GPA from U of T Life Sciences in the eyes of an admissions committee. To address the GPA question, medical schools employ a much more holistic approach to assessing applications. While many students presume that GPA is the chief factor in admissions, in reality there is much more that could make or break an applicant. According to Dr. Marc Moreau, Assistant Dean of Admissions at the University of Alberta’s medical school, the weighted importance of GPA at U of A is merely 30 per cent. The remaining 70 per cent goes to factors such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), extracurricular activities, evidence of community involvement and leadership, and personal essays.  It is reasonable to assume that other medical schools—and by extension, other professional schools like law or pharmacy—employ similar assessments.
So perhaps there is a much greater sacrifice being made when students opt to avoid “difficult schools” in their pursuit of entering professional programs. While it is true that it may be more difficult to obtain a high GPA in places like U of T, McMaster, Western or McGill, distinguished institutions offer the richest resources and the most supportive learning environments. Whether the goal is medical school, law school, dentistry school or any other graduate pursuit, students are far more likely to be connected to relevant internships, extracurriculars, and research opportunities when they are situated at the focal point of professional activity.
Ultimately, the choice of an undergraduate program is a personal and multifaceted decision. Those with the foresight to consider professional schools this early on should be aware that the conventional wisdom regarding factors in admission, such as the sole importance of GPA, is often misleading, if not downright incorrect. Instead of strictly focusing on mundane incentives like the promise of easy grades, students should enrol in a program that beckons their passion. Distinguished institutions may not present the easiest curriculums, but they compensate by opening doors to opportunities that are highly valued in the admissions process. In an environment that naturally motivates and challenges, success will surely follow. Just don’t mess up the MCAT.
 Gladwell, Malcolm. David & Goliath. 2013. Chapter 3, Section 6.
Medical School Statistics: http://www.ouac.on.ca/docs/omsas/rc_omsas_e.pdf
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