Best Pre-Med Colleges in California

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 10/11/23

Curious about the best pre-med colleges in California? Read on to learn about the top five schools, how to get accepted, and making the most of your pre-med education! 

California medical schools, such as UC Davis, have reported a whopping 40% increase in submitted applications. For students just starting their journeys toward becoming medical professionals, there are questions to consider in these shifting circumstances.

To give yourself the best chance of acceptance at your dream med school, we’ll outline the best pre-med colleges in California and summarize the essential information you need to start your medical career on the West Coast.  

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Best Pre-Med Schools in California

We have ranked in the best pre-med schools in California using three factors:

  • The combined ranking of pre-med programs
  • The number of students sent to top medical schools
  • The range of health-related extracurricular activities available

Let’s summarize what you need to know about the top five schools. 

1. Stanford University 

Occupying the 3rd spot in US News’s 2023 Best Colleges ranking, Stanford University is arguably the best California pre-med school. 

picture of a Stanford university building
Source: Stanford University

It supplies the second largest number of students to elite medical schools after Harvard University and has many student advising services available for pre-med students. 

2. UC Berkeley 

With its Biomedical and Chemistry departments ranked 7th and 4th, UC Berkeley is an attractive option for prospective pre-med students. 

3. UCLA  

As the No. 1 public university, UCLA’s pre-med offerings make it an excellent choice.

picture of the UCLA pre-med school
Source: UCLA 

In a recent medical school application cycle, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) stated that UCLA registered the highest number of undergrad students submitting applications to medical school. 

4. USC 

Ranked 28th according to US News, USC is a great place for students to kickstart their medical education.

USC is known for its Office of Pre-Health Advisement, which helps students get into medical school through curriculum planning, interview skills training, and other health-related student services.  

5. UC San Diego 

UC San Diego is an excellent school for students considering pre-med studies. According to recent AAMC data, 757 UC San Diego students applied to medical school. 

picture of a uc san diego building with a rainbow behind it.
Source: UCSD 

It’s likely that most of these students were successful – UC San Diego ranked No. 28 in the top feeder list of undergraduate institutions supplying the most students to elite medical schools. That’s more than many of its rivals on the East Coast, including NYU. 

Getting Into a Top Pre-Med School in California

When applying to pre-med schools, students can mention their ambition to enter medical school. However, California’s top colleges are especially interested in how applicants can contribute to undergraduate communities and programs. Here are our tips for getting into a top pre-med school in California.

Explain Your Proposed Pre-Med Major

Schools with rigorous pre-med tracks want to understand your motivations for choosing one major over another. For example, if you choose psychology over biology or chemistry, you should articulate why. 

Was it your curiosity for neuroscience that motivated you to choose psychology? Have you struggled with mental health yourself and now wish to understand it scientifically? Confident answers to these questions that combine personal and academic insights can help you stand out. 

Justify Why California is Right For You

Though California universities attract students globally, applicants need to highlight the geographical considerations behind their application. For in-state students, the idea of easier commutes or reduced tuition fees won’t woo admissions officers. You must reflect on why you’re more equipped to attend a California college. 

Out-of-state or international students would have to explain why they’re not better off staying local. These students are encouraged to get acquainted with local California culture and history. 

For example, an East Coast student applying to UCLA can use their high school foreign language units to demonstrate their interest in the differences in Hispanic cultures within the Los Angeles area rather than their tacit concern for sunnier climates.

Emphasize Your Role in a Community

California universities want to learn about prospective students’ community work. Has volunteering experience in homeless shelters equipped you to tackle the housing crisis in LA? Do these extracurricular experiences push you to probe further into San Francisco’s urban planning? 

Schools also want to know how you’ll contribute on campus. Among Stanford’s essay questions, students can “write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—get to know you better.” 

This essay prompt reveals how the best colleges in California seek students with community spirit. 

How to Make the Most of Your Time in Pre-Med

UC Berkeley is right to claim there is “no better way to demonstrate your readiness for medical school than through experience as a helper, leader, and thinker.” We encourage students to build a college career around that trinity and strike a balanced lifestyle in and out of school. The following experiences can help prepare you for medical school

Experience As a Helper

Since care is at the heart of medical schools’ ethos, admissions officers appreciate applicants who invest time in helping others and in medical education through

  • Volunteer work 
  • Community service projects 
  • Paid/unpaid work 
  • Clinical experience 
  • Physician shadowing 
  • Research

Various experiences and extracurriculars can help you stand out. 

Physician Shadowing 

Regarding medical-related extracurriculars, students can volunteer to shadow doctors whose expertise appeals to their academic interests. 

For example, through Stanford’s SIMS program, students “are paired with a physician mentor and learn from a breadth of experiences including shadowing in clinics and on rounds, observing in the operating room, attending departmental Grand Rounds lectures, and other opportunities as identified.”

Healthcare-Related Volunteer Work 

Though shadowing experience is useful, you may also volunteer at hospitals to acquire more general exposure to what daily life is like at medical institutions. For example, UCLA Health regularly invites students to volunteer at its Santa Monica Facility. 

Accepted students are immersed in hospital operations as “positions range from administrative, to hospitality areas, to patient care settings.” Students from such volunteering programs have a better chance of convincing med schools they’re aware of the complex environment they’d like to enter.

Working With Underserved Communities

Besides helping doctors and hospitals, you can be creative and dedicate time to helping underserved communities. Stanford recommends options like working “with the physically or emotionally disabled, on a crisis hot-line, as a peer contraceptive counselor, or at an alternative health care clinic, to name just a few.” 

These recommendations are health-related yet take place at various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social welfare agencies, broadening students’ horizons beyond the local hospital.

Other Volunteer Work

Likewise, students can consider volunteering opportunities that aren’t healthcare-related but are still relevant. For example, an internship with a nonprofit working for the integration of asylum seekers can expose students to the lived experiences of people from regions where healthcare access is scarce. 

Admissions officers are eager to hear about the lessons learned from the act of helping others.

Experience As a Leader

Medical schools seek students who can lead future research laboratories, hospital units, and academic conferences. Students are encouraged to take up leading positions during their undergraduate careers. Pre-meds at UCLA participate in creative, student-centered leadership opportunities.


An interesting UCLA collective is THINQ, “a motivated group of undergraduate and graduate students working with physicians at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to conduct clinical research and make proposals for the betterment of healthcare quality.” 

Having established direct communication channels with doctors, researchers, and hospital administrators and access to survey data, THINQ invites students to benefit from these networks and resources and potentially build their own hands-on projects. 

One of THINQ’s past projects involved survey analysis that sought to improve the relationship between doctors and nurses. Undergraduate students design and run these surveys.

Community Leaders

UCLA commits to serving Los Angeles communities. For example, the university has an SWC CPR & First Aid Program that aims to “curb the rising trend of increasing pre-hospital deaths around the nation by teaching basic life-saving skills to community members.” 

The instructors are UCLA students. When students become teachers, medical schools appreciate their sense of leadership in health-related pedagogical settings. 

We recommend starting your own if you find a gap in student clubs. This shows your sense of initiative and leadership capacity.

Experience As a Thinker

Medical school graduates are expected to become effective doctors and curious scientists. In its student profile, Stanford Medicine mentions 53% of its accepted students have published works in peer-reviewed publications.

Top medical schools desire promising scholars. You can cultivate research interests that speak to you and your goals. Is there a cellular behavior in your first-year biology class that’s too fascinating to leave unquestioned? Did an elective history course spark your interest in 19th-century medical practices?

Your capacity for independent research or publications are attractive to medical schools. Therefore, pre-med students should take advantage of grants, summer residencies, and independent study electives for research purposes available in college.

Stanford University students posing for a picture.
Source: Stanford VPUE

For example, Stanford tells its students if they’re “working on an independent project, [they] may be eligible to apply for a VPUE Undergraduate Research grant: a Small Grant, a Chappell Lougee Scholarship, a Major Grant, or a Beagle II Award.” 

Moreover, UC Berkeley has an Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, providing students with the opportunity to work closely with faculty and contribute to ongoing research projects individually and within a larger unit. Pre-med students can be paired with mentors from the human health sciences or other areas that involve similar skills.    

Students immersed in apprenticeships can demonstrate their readiness to grow as thinkers within and beyond specialized disciplines.

Does Pre-Med School Choice Really Matter? 

Medical school admissions committees know that top universities, regardless of their rank, often provide high-quality education. That said, pre-meds who went to a prestigious university may hold an advantage, especially if their alma mater also boasts its own medical school. 

picture of Stanford school of medicine building

Source: Stanford Medicine

For example, it’s unsurprising that the undergraduate school with the most Stanford Medicine admits in a recent admissions cycle was Stanford, with 12 successful applicants. Among the remaining Stanford feeder schools were UCLA and USC.

Other statistics show a clear advantage for California pre-med students who want to remain in-state for medical school. For example, the Keck School of Medicine at USC’s incoming class represented mostly California students at 83%. 

The value of attending a California pre-med college isn’t limited to intrastate student exchanges – it also can send students to the other end of the country. For example, UC Berkeley is one of the schools that contributes the most students to Tufts University School of Medicine

picture of a tufts school of medicine building
Source: Tufts School of Medicine

California has a long history of providing numerous students to some of the country’s top medical schools. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has kept track of the universities supplying med school students since 2011. The top-five schools include two of California’s best colleges:

School Number of Successful Students
Harvard University 4
Washington University 23
Yale University 3
Duke University 9

Despite California schools leading the front in medical school admissions, Harvard’s class profile provides a more holistic answer to whether it matters which pre-med school you attend. 

The 124 students accepted into HMS come from 52 colleges across 31 states and eight countries. These figures should encourage you to aim high with your medical school list, no matter what undergraduate program you attend.

California Pre-Med Schools FAQs

Many questions arise among pre-med students preparing for medical school applications. If you have more questions, read on for more clarity. 

1. What's the Best UC School for Pre-Med?

Based on its reputation as a top feeder school, resources, and rankings, UC Berkeley’s pre-med path is considered the best out of the UC system. 

2. What Schools Are Best for Pre-Med in California?

The top pre-med schools in California are Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, and UC San Diego. 

3. Is USC Good for Pre-Med?

Being a pre-med at USC can help you prepare for the rigorous instruction medical schools have to offer. For pre-meds, USC is the fourth-best school in California. 

4. What Are Pre-Med Requirements for UCLA?

UCLA pre-med hopefuls must meet the general requirements for all UCLA applicants. You must take courses in high school, such as four years of English, three years of math, etc. You must also meet the minimum GPA requirements: 3.0 if you’re a California resident and 3.4 if you’re an out-of-state student. 

5. Is UC Berkeley Good for Pre-Med?

UC Berkeley is an excellent pre-med school: it’s the second-best school in California and the best out of the UC system. 

6. Is UCSD Good for Pre-Med?

Yes, becoming a pre-med at UCSD can give you the tools needed to eventually apply to medical school. UC San Diego is ranked among the top feeder schools to elite med schools. 

Final Thoughts

Top pre-med students would have a competitive edge at some of the world’s best medical schools, especially if they studied at prestigious institutions like Stanford or UC Berkeley.  

Nevertheless, there is no one standard path to success, whether your dream medical school is UCLA or HMS. However, if you’re ready to begin your medical journey, attending any of the best pre-med schools in California can give you a leg up you need to reach your dreams. 

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