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Difference between top colleges and the average college?

  1. Oct 6, 2013 #1
    I'm a physics major in my second year of undergrad. I am taking physics 1 and am also trying to study the MIT opencourseware for physics 1 in conjunction with my course. I have to say, the MIT course seems FAR more comprehensive and requires a lot more study time to get it all down. Maybe it is just the order they are teaching it in comparison to our instructor, but from what I've seen of it so far, it really is far more in-depth and challenging.

    So, I am curious now. Is going to an average college at this point going to hurt my ability to keep up later on in grad school if I manage to get into somewhere like MIT or Caltech? I ask because I am doing all I can from the ground up to have the best chance, but after comparing the coursework from MIT to my current college, I have to say I am a bit discouraged. Despite being a straight 4.0 student, I feel like I might not be learning enough to be able to keep up with their expectations down the road.

    Maybe it just depends on the course, but based on this one particular course, I feel MIT would be helping me to learn far more, basically because I'd be forced to based on the assignments and exams. Has anyone else been in this situation that can give me some insight?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 6, 2013 #2


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    My university's undergraduate physics (UG) program is sub-par compared to MIT's and Caltech's. Would I like to go to MIT or Caltech? Definitely without a doubt. Does it bother me that I'm not there and am instead in a school with an inferior UG physics program? Not really because whatever I feel is lacking from the curriculum here, relative to coursework from other schools such as MIT, I almost always just try to self-study 1. because I don't want to feel ill-prepared down the road and 2. because self-studying physics/math is really fun and that's motivation in and of itself :)

    Good luck!
  4. Oct 6, 2013 #3


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    You are way ahead of the game. The people who are losing are those who do not engage in introspection, who do not question what's put on their plate but rather eat whatever they are served.

    I can't speak to MIT, but there are plenty of Caltech students who get little or nothing from their challenging courses. Sure their classes are harder, require more thought, more creativity. But in the end it's what you make of it. What you're doing is seeking out challenges; keep doing that and you'll be the one people want for whatever: grad school, first job, team lead, ....

    So keep making your courses and your extras as difficult as you can handle. Find similarly inclined students to work with. The race always goes to those who can make more from less. The ones who really benefit most from top schools are those who push themselves at the higher level -- there are a few.
  5. Oct 6, 2013 #4

    College, like like, is what you make of it.
  6. Oct 6, 2013 #5
    Well thanks for the feedback guys. I guess on the good side, my courses aren't forcing me to have to cram so much every week that I can't retain all of it. I'm assuming that is what you were talking about IGU in regards to students that sometimes get little to nothing out of a course.

    Anyway, I do plan to keep studying as much on the side as I can. It is just hard to put the time into my classes and their homework, then on top of that, find time for the opencourseware too. It's like increasing my workload by about 60-70% per course.
  7. Oct 6, 2013 #6
    Let me tell you something about myself. I was possibly the worst in college you can ever be in and in the worst country on Earth (Google worst country on earth and you'll know where I'm from). The thing is I know more than all the guys who teach me. The way I did that was by watching courses online. Thanks to the internet. In fact right at this moment I am using a 128kbits connection. So what I used to do was beg people who lived elsewhere to download courses for me. Just like that I was able to self educate myself on multivariable calculus, linear algebra, signals, systems, circuits, control etc etc with also a lot and a lot of books. I tell you I do things the hard way. I used to go to college just because I'm afraid not to be kicked out for being indefinitely absent.
    The good thing is I can finish a 30video lecture series in 3 days. In the 4th day I write them all down in order not to forget the important details. In the 5th day I practice a little. And believe me once you understand the subject solving problems will appear a waste of time.
    However my math is a good as the lectures I can find. I'm still looking for courses in abstract algebra and differential geometry.
    My top courses of all time
    1. UC Berkeley course on multivariable calculus
    2. Electricity and magnetism from MIT
    3. Fundamentals of physics from Yale
    4. Prof Susskind lectures on special relativity
    5. Computer organisation from Nptel
  8. Oct 6, 2013 #7
    That is awesome. There are not many people in the world with that level of self-motivation.
  9. Oct 7, 2013 #8
    I'll give the other perspective :) It is true, college is what you make of it. However, if you end up in grad school at MIT or Caltech, you might find yourself a bit disadvantaged. You might have to play make up that first year or two. It's doable though. If you get into a top notch program, it's because the program thinks you have what it takes, regardless of your background.

    So I do think it might put you a bit behind the eight ball that first year or so, but it is something that you can overcome. It sounds like you are putting in extra time right now, which is a good thing and will help out a lot in the long run.
  10. Oct 7, 2013 #9
    I thought MIT physics 1 was pass fail? So they can force down quite a bit more material in the first year, make their students cry in agony, and grade somewhat softly.

    My understanding is that upper division courses at top universities and lower universities vary much less. It truly depends upon the program. Where I'm going the program seems less intense and comprehensive. Another public university has an extmrely intense program, arguably as intense as anywhere in the country, even though it's a top 40 public university.
  11. Oct 7, 2013 #10
    1+1 is always 2, no matter if you study it at MIT or in a school in New Papa Guinea.
    My professor told me that what he does only accounts to about 1% of my learning and 99% of it is due to myself and what i do.
  12. Oct 7, 2013 #11
    8.01 is exactly like any other freshman physics class I dont see the difference. 8.012 is the version with harder problems to solve however harder problem solving doesnt necessarily mean better understanding.

    Eric Mazur's talk on this is good in regards to physics teaching

    I think upper division courses vary more than intro classes in both what is offered and the approach to teaching it. An example would be how the ratio of thermo to stat phys in upper division courses for stat phys.
  13. Oct 8, 2013 #12


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    Aren't you in Hans Bethe's and Kenneth Wilson's (the greatest theorist of the second half of the twentieth century) department?
  14. Oct 8, 2013 #13


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    Yes but it's still no MIT or Caltech! :tongue2:
  15. Oct 8, 2013 #14
    I can assure you, my physics course falls well short of what they cover in that course. Theirs is far more comprehensive than what we are learning. So, despite your personal experience, it is not "exactly like any other freshman physics class."
  16. Oct 8, 2013 #15
    I never heard about that pass/fail deal before. Interesting. Anyway, I am certainly sure you can find amazing professors at plenty of universities that fall well short of a "top" college. Mine just isn't one of them regretfully. Well, excluding my calc instructor.
  17. Oct 8, 2013 #16
    I think the upper level courses might be vaguely similar, but often the cohort quality at top universities is really high which makes it harder to do well and means that the professors can set harder assignments and exams. Even if 30% of people get an A or A- due to grade inflation, the average student in the class went to IPhO/got 5s on 17APs in high school/worked at fermilab in high school or whatever (listing real examples from a handful of my friends).
  18. Oct 8, 2013 #17
    8.01 is the physics 1 equivalent at MIT. The average student in any class/seminar outside of a seminar for Putnam preparationdid not go to IPhO or IMO independent of the university.
    The student who has taken part in IPhO/IMO or taken 17 AP classes is not going to be in 8.01 for multiple reasons like passing/petitioning out or taking 8.012 instead.
  19. Oct 8, 2013 #18

    Unless you're at a truly shoddy college (like bordering on diploma mill) a degree is a degree. If you're planning on working in a physics related field, your graduate program will matter a lot more, and you can easily make up for the fact that you're not in an elite undergrad with plenty of research and experience and good grades. A few years down the line, your references will matter more than your degree anyway.

    The practical difference is that the top tier programs will have harder but more varied classes, more decorated professors (but not necessarily better, depending on your learning style or preferences), and higher-caliber classmates. But depending on your goal, graduating with a 4.0 from Safety School University of Nowhere, USA with 1500 students with plenty of work and research experience can take you a lot farther than a 3.2 with a gold-plated diploma and not much else.

    If you're really concerned, maybe you should start figuring out what your deficits in knowledge that might give you trouble in a harder program are and work to correct them. The best (but unfortunately, most expensive) route would be to order copies of the textbooks that are used there and study from them independently of your classes. Or you could find some more advanced books at your school library. Or bug one of your professors for help :P
  20. Oct 8, 2013 #19
    I was quoting my experience in upper level classes at a top Ivy - sorry for the confusion. Out of my reasonably small study group, we have an IPhO award winner (myself), about three others who came in the top 7 in their countries (including the US) in the chemistry/math olympiads, people who did really good research early on (fermilab in high school, first author math papers published as sophomores in college...) and the list goes on. I'm sure my study group isn't extraordinarily good; I just know the people really well so I know some of their accomplishments and people don't really talk about their achievements.
  21. Oct 9, 2013 #20
    And this was in an intro physics 1 class ?

    I somehow dont believe you because my experience with an engineering school with more math/phys majors and IPhO/IMO winners than ivies would have many of these students passing out of physics 1 or taking an honors/advanced version like 8.012. My experience with IPhO/IMO winners is that many of the very top are from eastern european countries and dont stay in physics or math but rather do finance or other high paying majors or in some cases go the other direction and do more artistic majors.

    I dont quite understand why in the world an IPhO winner would enroll in the regular version of physics 1 when honors/advanced options/flavors are offered aside from looking to pump their GPA. MIT has 8.012/8.022 and Harvard has an equivalent honors flavor as well.

    If what you say is true than it really just says that students at ivies (possibly your top ivy) care more about grades than pushing themselves if they arent enrolling themselves in advanced versions of courses that are clearly designed for them rather than the regular flavor. They must also be choosing not to pressure their departments to offer these challenges courses like 8.012 and 8.022 despite other institutions offering them.
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2013
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