The Best Liberal Arts Colleges for Medical School

Learn whether liberal arts colleges adequately prepare graduates for med school

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Introduction

Today, colleges boast hundreds of majors, from astrobiology to comic art to theme park engineering, and everything in between. With so much to choose from, some students with their sights set on becoming doctors may wonder if they have to miss out on the veritable fairgrounds of undergraduate studies.

The good news is: according to the AAMC, only 55.8 percent of applicants in the 2017-2018 medical school application cycle held degrees in biological sciences. What did the other half major in? Many opted for the humanities, while others went the route of physical and social sciences—all of which fall under the umbrella of a liberal arts education. 

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In fact, students with non biological science majors actually had higher med school matriculation rates than students with biological science majors. These rates show that if your premed child wants to study something along the lines of English, art history, psychology, sociology, you need not worry.

You may have imagined premed students crammed together in huge lectures on anatomy and physiology, and while those lectures are part of a premedical education, it’s equally legitimate for your child to choose a smaller campus where they can take seminars on non-medical or non-biological subjects.

They might even pursue a biological science major at a liberal arts college, supplementing it with humanities and social science courses in a way that may not be as possible if they were to attend a large research institution.

What is a liberal arts college and how is it different from a university?

When parents hear the term “liberal arts college,” they often furrow their brows and wonder what sort of education these institutions provide. Liberal arts colleges emphasize undergraduate study in a variety of subjects including the arts, sciences, and humanities. Although this traditional definition does not differentiate it significantly from a university, there are some notable differences between the two.

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Ultimately, the decision to pursue a liberal arts college or university depends on a combination of factors, ranging from your preferred teaching style to what type of extracurricular activities you hope to take advantage of.

As your child decides between a liberal arts college and university, one of the most important questions to ask is: how do they learn best? If they prefer a smaller community of students, maybe a liberal arts school would allow them the opportunity to thrive. Maybe they’re determined to get involved with biological research with a specific faculty member who already has an established lab. In that case, they should focus on larger institutions which offer the opportunity to personalize their research interests.

But most importantly: As long as your child feels like the college they choose will provide an enriching experience and allow them to achieve at a high level academically, they will be equipped to get accepted into medical school and succeed as a physician. The schools provided here offer premed students some of the greatest opportunities to secure a spot in medical school after graduation.

Can my child get a liberal arts education at an Ivy League?

Not all liberal arts style educations are equal. Deciding which liberal arts college to attend can radically influence how medical schools interpret your major.

When considering where to pursue a liberal arts education, both Ivy League schools and so-called “Public Ivies” offer phenomenal, rigorous programs that admissions teams will look favorably upon. They wed the benefits of a large research institution to the philosophy of a liberal arts education—or the idea that studying widely, and without a specific pre-professional aim in mind is universally beneficial.

Public Ivies, such as the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Texas-Austin, and more, also offer top liberal arts as well as science degrees, ensuring that both the major you pursue and your additional science coursework will prepare you adequately to do well on the MCAT and get you one of those coveted acceptances.

The UC system in particular is chock full of Public Ivies that offer students both liberal arts curricula and a wealth of research opportunities.

Liberal arts colleges vs. universities

Deciding where to pursue your undergraduate degree depends on your intended major, your preferred teaching style, and how you want to spend four years as an undergrad.

Small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Williams have total undergraduate enrollments of about 2,000 students or less, whereas mid-size private schools like Johns Hopkins and Washington University of Saint Louis boast 15,000-20,000 total undergraduate enrollment. 

This means that the class sizes you encounter in the liberal arts college will be significantly smaller, especially when it comes to premed basic science requirements. Does a big lecture hall of several dozen students suit you, or do you prefer smaller groups with more individualized attention?

One benefit of smaller schools is that you can form relationships with professors both in and out of the sciences, and network with mentors more easily. This is crucial for getting top-notch letters of recommendation for medical school. We’ve seen tons of premed applicants come in from large universities with a lot of research experience, but lacking personal relationships because their premed science courses were simply overrun and office hours were too crowded.

It's also important to note that most schools require a letter of recommendation from a non-science faculty member. This requirement emphasizes that the work students do outside the science realm is important. Medicine is becoming more and more interdisciplinary, with emphasis on ethics, informatics, communication, and team collaboration. A liberal arts school might offer your child a chance to get a fantastic non-science letter—one that sets them apart from every applicant at a large research university who asked their biology lecture professor.

In addition, faculty at smaller schools are sometimes under less pressure to ‘publish or perish’ and may have chosen to work at these colleges because they have a greater commitment to teaching over earning grant money or becoming public figures in their field. This might mean your child simply gets a better education in those tough courses like organic chemistry.

One flip side is that faculty at larger universities tend to be leading scholars in their area of expertise.  And attending larger schools may provide students with more exposure and opportunities for research. Within many universities, research fairs and clubs help students get involved with scientific investigation. There is significantly less emphasis on research within a liberal arts college.

How can students at a liberal arts college get involved in research?

Students attending liberal arts colleges can reach out to their school’s research labs and inquire about work opportunities. For example, Williams College encourages incoming students, as well as current students, to pursue both summer and winter research opportunities with biology faculty. They also offer students the opportunity to study at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Although liberal arts colleges may not always have several research facilities on sight, they develop extensive networks with partner universities. The school also offers an annual lab open house to provide students with information on what sort of opportunities are available to them.

Many liberal arts colleges also offer students honors research projects, which are often semester long courses which culminate in a scientific publication, something sure to impress a medical school admissions committee. 

The takeaway: if your child wants a small liberal arts experience for college but plans on attending medical school, they should be prepared to make a comprehensive plan to make up for their school’s weak spot—a dearth of major research labs.

Do liberal arts colleges offer resources and support for premeds?

The short answer is yes. It is important to remember that liberal arts colleges are cognizant that there are hundreds of hopeful premed students at their institutions. Many schools, such as Swarthmore, offer students guides on how to take advantage of the premed opportunities they provide. There are health sciences offices, advisory committees, health care related experiences, volunteer opportunities, and networking events all organized for premed students.

Remember that liberal arts colleges tend to have significantly less students enrolled, so they are often able to provide customized support. Premed advisory groups can help connect liberal arts students with research mentors, volunteering/shadowing opportunities, or tutoring services to help them thrive. 

The best liberal arts colleges for medical school

We’ve listed the top ten liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and visited each school’s website to provide you with their most recent medical school acceptance rate. It’s worth noting that every school on this list has a medical school acceptance rate that far exceeds the national average. 

Williams College

  • U.S. News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 1

  • Location: Williamstown, MA

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 15%

  • According to the website, “Each year, about 50 Williams undergraduate students and alumni apply to medical schools. The three-year acceptance rate averages from 85-90%.”

Amherst College

  • U.S. News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 2

  • Location: Amherst, MA

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 13%

  • According to the website, “We probably average in any given year a roughly 75 to 80 percent acceptance rate.

Swarthmore College

  • U.S. News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 3 (tie)

  • Location: Swarthmore, PA

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 11%

  • According to the website, “In 2017, Swarthmore's acceptance rate for the 3 graduating seniors was 67% and the 26 alumni/ae applicants was 85% for an overall acceptance rate of 83%.”

Wellesley College

  • News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 3 (tie)

  • Location: Wellesley, MA

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 22%

  • According to the Wellesley News, “From 2008-2018, Wellesley had a mean medical school acceptance rate of 72 percent.”

Bowdoin College

  • News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 5 (tie)

  • Location: Brunswick, ME

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 14%

  • 91% of students who applied through Bowdoin to enter medical school were accepted in 2015.

Carleton College

  • News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 5 (tie)

  • Location: Northfield, MN

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 21%

  • According to their Pre-Health website, “Carleton supports all of the students and alumni who decide to apply, regardless of GPA and MCAT score, and our acceptance rate for the past 5 year period is 82%. Approximately 77% of the accepted students/alumni are accepted on the first try. For those applicants who earned a GPA of 3.5 or better and an MCAT score at or above the 79th percentile (a 30 on the old MCAT or a 508 on the new MCAT), the acceptance rate for the same time period is 90%.”

Middlebury College

  • News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 5 (tie)

  • Location: Middlebury, VT

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 17%

  • According to the website, “For Middlebury College grads starting med school in 2018, the admit rate more than doubled recent national averages: a whopping 89 percent.”

Pomona College

  • News & World Report Rank (Liberal Arts Colleges): 5 (tie)

  • Location: Pomona, CA

  • Private or Public: Private

  • Undergraduate acceptance rate: 8%

  • According to their website, “in 2018, the average acceptance rate of Pomona alumni to medical schools was 85%.”

What medical schools should a liberal arts student apply to?

As your child reaches the end of college and prepares to apply to medical school from a liberal arts college, they might want to consider which admissions committees seem predisposed to letting in liberal arts grads.

The 2017 matriculating class at the University of Pennsylvania (Perelman), which ranks 3rd in medical research according to the US News and World Report, consisted of 31 percent of students majoring in humanities or social science. 

Brown University (Alpert), the University of Missouri, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai all had matriculating classes in which a quarter or more of incoming students were considered liberal arts majors. For additional schools where humanities and social science majors are readily accepted, click here.