Question: I am currently a high school junior, interested in majoring in pre-med and ultimately going to medical school. I have good grades and test scores and have been taking rigorous classes, and I hope to go to University of Illinois. There are many private schools I would like to go to, but, frankly, they're way out of my budget and U of I seems like a better fit for me. However, I'm concerned that I'll have trouble competing for acceptance into the top medical schools with students from more prestigious undergraduate colleges like Harvard, Stanford, or Duke. What are your opinions?
Medical schools--just like undergraduate colleges--seek diversity in each incoming class. This “diversity” includes not only racial or ethnic diversity but also means admitting students who hail from a variety of undergrad alma maters. So if you are highly successful at Illinois and score well on the MCAT, you can certainly compete with applicants from the "elite" colleges. Keep in mind, too, that demonstrating interest and success in the medical field via research projects, internships, etc. will help your candidacy as well.
Note, however, that all of the private colleges you name offer excellent need-based financial aid. If your family is middle-class or upper-middle class, you and your parents may feel that you will not qualify for enough financial aid to make these schools realistic options for you. But, on the other hand, if you apply and are accepted, you may be pleasantly surprised to see how much aid you receive.
All colleges are now required by law to post a "net price calculator" on their Web site, so you and your parents should fool around with a few of these to estimate how much a pricey college such as Harvard, Stanford, or Duke will really cost you, should you be admitted. (Example: This is Harvard’s http://npc.fas.harvard.edu/ ) Granted, these online calculators often aren't terribly helpful for families with extenuating circumstances (which means LOTS of families!) but they may be able to at least give you a rough idea of what to expect.
Moreover, if you are strong enough to get into one of the aforementioned schools, then you are definitely strong enough to qualify for merit aid at many good colleges that aren’t as hyper-competitive as those you’ve named. Smaller, liberal arts colleges can offer a lot of faculty attention and access to research opportunities that can work well at med-school admission time. Colleges That Change Lives is a good place to start when researching such schools. But, again, you can realize your goal of attending a top medical school regardless of where you spend your undergrad years.
One final point as you proceed with your plans: Pre-med is typically not an official major. A pre-med program draws classes from several disciplines … primarily sciences but not exclusively. Students can usually major in either a related field (e.g., biology, chemistry) or a completely unrelated one (e.g., art history, theater) and yet still complete the pre-med program and get accepted to medical school. So as you make your college choices, you may want to consider places that offer classes in a range of fields that interest you and not only in the pre-med realm.