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How much does choice of undergrad school effect grad school admission?

  1. Jan 31, 2010 #1
    I think the title pretty much sums up my question. I would like to get into the most prestigious grad school that I can (particularly MIT) but am worried that my choice in undergrad school might not be prestigious enough to get into a higher profile school. Do the ivy league(rs) really just let a certain pedigree in? Or will they look at what/how well I did at the school I attended? Can GRE scores, good essays, and recommendations help my cause or am I just wishing on a star that I can never really obtain regardless of my personal achievements. I am still far away from graduation so if there are some immediate changes I need to make, I still have time. Any help concerning this matter would really be appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2010 #2
    A senior from Bryn Mawr was accepted to MIT last year, for a PhD program in physics.
  4. Feb 1, 2010 #3
    First of all, I think you are more concerned about prestige than you should be.

    Second, the prestige or lack thereof for an undergraduate school has very little impact on graduate school admissions as long as the undergraduate school has a quality physics program.

    One curious thing is that if you want to go to MIT as a graduate school, you should avoid MIT as an undergraduate, as the physics department wants MIT undergraduates to go elsewhere for graduate school. On the other hand, MIT does have a very good undergraduate physics program. Personally, I think I would have had a higher chance of getting into a "prestige" university had I gone elsewhere for undergraduate, but looking back, the fact that I didn't get into a big name graduate school, was one of the better things that happened to me.

    MIT is not Ivy League, MIT ***hates*** the Ivy League. Most good physics schools are not Ivy League, and some of the Ivy League schools do not have well known good physics departments.

    I think you care a bit more about prestige than you should. One of the really good things about an MIT education is that they teach you to hate prestige (and to hate MIT).
  5. Feb 1, 2010 #4
    From what I've heard and researched, that's because the label "Ivy League" suggests several things: Good for general studies/overall the programs are good(e.g a school where you can do business, natural sciences, law, medical, etc.), very selective(students must meet a criteria that will make it so the student body at a minimum is good whereas with less selective schools it might be some good and some bad students), and a large endowment.

    If you know exactly what you want to study, it's a good idea to look up schools by their programs for your specific area of study rather than overall ranking.

    I thought MIT was one of the nicer selective schools since they have so many free lecture videos online.
  6. Feb 1, 2010 #5
    I've heard MIT called many things, but never nice. It's a top notch school, but it has a real "chew'em up and spit'em out" reputation. People who have actually been there can tell you if this is an accurate view or not.
  7. Feb 1, 2010 #6
    That's expected with any top tier school.
  8. Feb 1, 2010 #7
    It's a real "chew'em up" but it's not spit you out. One way of thinking about MIT is the "physics marines." Tough, hard, elitist, but most people that enter basic training in the Marines make it through. It's a very caring place in a masochistic way.
  9. Feb 1, 2010 #8
    It's really not. One thing about top tier schools is that the grades tend to be inflated so it's really hard to fail out. Part of the reason that MIT has a good undergraduate physics program is that at the end of the day, the faculty wants you to learn the material, then they aren't trying to weed you out.

    Harvard does everything it can to inflate your ego, whereas MIT does everything it can to deflate it.
  10. Feb 1, 2010 #9
    One reason that I dislike the use of the term Ivy League, is that the Ivy League is specifically defined. The eight Ivy League universities are Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, UPenn, Princeton, and Yale.

    Stanford, UChicago, Berkeley, Caltech are not Ivy League, and MIT sure as hell isn't Ivy League. There are MIT grads (like me) that are slightly offended if you call MIT, Ivy League. Personally, I like to think of MIT as a technical community college that happen to have the right political connections.

    It's nice in odd way. One thing that I did like about MIT is that the professors and upper classmen are a lot more helpful than in other schools I've seen.
  11. Feb 1, 2010 #10
    I'm sure that all top notch schools serve as a reality check on your ability... but this was more what I meant by being a "chew'em up" place.

    It's an interesting point that MIT doesn't really spit'em out though... although maybe you are just suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? :-)
  12. Feb 1, 2010 #11
    Interesting. What do you mean by this? Harvard is more of a "spit-em-out" type of place?
  13. Feb 1, 2010 #12
    Part of it involves funding. The prestige schools do everything they can to get you to learn the material so that you graduate, end up with nice well-paying jobs in various parts of the political and economic power structure, which you then direct back at the university.

    One thing that is true about MIT is that you have enough teachers to teach everyone that wants to learn physics. This isn't true with other places, and some places have weed out courses to disguise that.

    Some people like life in the marines.

    This gets to the point about undergraduate physics. The most important criterion for a school is to go somewhere that you won't end up hating physics at the end of it.
  14. Feb 1, 2010 #13
    So I just got back from class and decided to check out the forum to see if I had any responses to my questions. I was elated to find 11 reply's on this topic as I have not really received any reply's to my other questions. To my dismay, I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed to find that only 2 people really took a shot at answering my question while the rest just ended up being a "talk amongst yourselves". So, I guess hopefully to further this discussion and maybe get back to the question at hand, I will clarify some things that maybe didn't come out quite how I meant them in my post:

    1) My apologies for categorizing MIT as an Ivy League school. I guess with the location, acceptance percentage, and tuition costs, I placed it on the "only certain people get into this school" kind of category, or "pedestal" if you will.

    2) I do think that prestige should be important. I think one should try to get into the best school one can get and strive to achieve that goal. I understand that sometimes you have to find the school that works "best" for you but at the same time I feel as if that's sort of a cop-out. Like getting a 7th place trophy or something. The college that I think would be the "best" for me would be the one that is going to push me to my educational limit and has the funding, resources, and the brightest faculty to do so. I would hate not to care about prestige now and later find out that my employer kind of does, and would rather hire that guy (or girl) that went to MIT over say, a lower tier university. There is a reason these schools raise eyebrows.

    3) I am not currently going to MIT. I am attending a public college in my state. The PRIMARY reason for asking this question is because though I feel like I am getting an excellent education, I DON'T know if I am learning what these top grad schools are expecting me to know. I have never taken the GRE nor do I know what is on it so I DON'T know if upon graduating, if I will be prepared to compete with the other applicants. I just want to make sure that if I can control my own destiny and make the grades and do the things expected of me like research and stuff, that I can have an equal chance in getting into a top tier program.

    I was under the impression that this forum was created not only for current physicists and engineers to congregate, but for upcoming students to be able to ask questions and gain insight from people who have been in the exact situation as myself. I hope that I am not coming off as rude as I respect all of your opinions, I just hope that maybe someone can take this situation as serious as I do and possibly pass on some useful insight. Thanks.
  15. Feb 1, 2010 #14
    That is a terrible attitude. It's not at all a "cop-out" to choose to go to a school which is perhaps less prestigious than an Ivy League school but more suited to your interests and needs (and not to mention your budget, if applicable). You are setting yourself up for disappointment if you fail to take advantage of the individual qualities that are great at your institution. For instance, some less prestigious places may make it a priority to get lots of undergraduates involved in research.

    I can't speak about employers from experience, but I would have to imagine that all but the most pig-headed of employers would hire a candidate with useful skills over a candidate with a shiny degree (and really, do you want to spend a large part of your life working for people who put more importance on your school than on your useful skills?) .

    That's easy enough to find out with some internet searching and possibly some e-mails/phone calls. There are tons of books available concerning what material is on the various GREs and grad school websites generally outline what tests incoming students need to pass within their first few semesters. Also try sharing these concerns with your advisor and see what s/he has to say.

    TL;DR: owlpride's post. Good recommendations, good grades, good GRE scores, and research participation can all only help you when it comes time to apply to grad schools.
  16. Feb 1, 2010 #15
    The trouble is that prestige has very little to do with good schools. One thing that you will learn very quickly at MIT is that the classroom instruction there is not particularly good, and the professors in general are that not great at classroom teaching. If you learn well in classroom settings, then MIT is not a very good school for you.

    Like any school, there are good things about MIT. There are bad things about MIT. MIT can be a very, very hellish place if you aren't prepared for it.

    One of the great things about MIT is that it teaches you to deal with the fact that you are not at the top. You take someone that has been getting 95% and 1st place all of their lives, and then you suddenly put them in a situation were they are getting 35% on a test, and is near the bottom of the class. It is an extremely traumatic experience when that happens, which is why the grading is relaxed freshmen year.

    If you want to be first place, then MIT is a bad school for you. If you want to be anywhere near first place, the MIT is a very bad school for you. Personally, if you take a test at MIT, and you get 7th place, that's cause for jumping for joy.

    MIT will push you to your limit, but so will dozens of other schools. Also MIT faculty tend to be great researchers, but MIT professors are *NOT* hired based on their teaching ability and some of them are hideously bad at it.

    Why do you want to work for a boss that is a jerk and a bad judge of character?

    I should point out that this is one big advantage of going to Harvard, in that you become a little arrogant, and a little arrogance isn't a bad thing. When someone from Harvard gets turned down for a job, there's a little voice that says "How DARE they turn me down, I went to Harvard!!!!" And that little voice causes them to go to the next interview instead of giving up.

    If you go to MIT, what that voice tends to say is "Those guys are *idiots* for turning me down for that Harvard know-nothing. I'm going to take my marbles and start my own company and show them."

    Good sales and marketing. People thing Harvard is cool for the same reason that people think that Coca-Cola tastes great. It's all social brainwashing. Not necessarily a bad thing, but you just have to realize that it's going on. People think MIT and Harvard are cool, because MIT and Harvard have vast amounts of money which they put into social brainwashing.

    The undergraduate physics curriculum tends to be pretty standard. What does change from place to place is that social attitudes and culture that you pick up. It's not what you know, it's how fast you can learn.

    It's also important to have a healthy disrespect for authority. At some point, you'll have to start learning things not because someone else thinks it's important, but because you think it is important.

    The one piece of insight that I have is that chasing after prestige is a bad idea. At some point you will realize that it's all a silly game that you really can't win at.
  17. Feb 1, 2010 #16
    I'm pretty sure that's all hard majors. I go to public college in a big ole city and the same thing happens (we've got lots of weeding, so first year there's a ton of honor's kids dropping engineering 'cause they can't keep their scholarships and stay in the major). You also quickly learn that a 35 is average for some engineering courses and move on with your life (or cheat, which unfortunately is endemic.)

    As for the op? A friend of mine graduated my school last year, she's at MIT this year. Another friend won the Rhodes, is at Oxford. Guy in my psych class was off to Harvard? for law. Most of the people I know don't particularly want to leave our school system for shiny schools for a variety of reasons, but the ones who try do go on to some great places/win some awesome fellowships. It's all about having excellent grades, and solid research (which in turn leads to good recs).

    *shrugs* I turned down the best schools in the country for my major/program for my two bit school 'cause I didn't want the loans, and ended up with some awesome opportunities 'cause of it. We don't have enough grad students to go around, so I get to do all sorts of cool research in a million fields, with a ton of flexibility. And public schools have some of the coolest people 'cause you get 2nd degree students and guys who work and all sorts of really cool stories.

    Besides the whole undergrad prestige debate, you have to remember that (especially at the grad level) it's the program that matters. Most everyone in the field knows who has really good programs and who has not so good ones. You're much better off going to a no-name school with an excellent program in your field of interest ('cause they will probably have funding for your interest 'cause they do enough work in it), than a really prestigious school that does almost no work in it (and a professor's pet unfunded project rarely counts as work unless he publishes a lot in it and has a strong reputation in the field.) You don't want to be in the position of going to a school where there's only one guy doing anything even vaguely similar to your field, 'cause then you're in heaps of trouble if he doesn't take on students, you don't get along, or he loses his funding (and you don't have a fellowship).
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2010
  18. Feb 1, 2010 #17
    One interesting thing is that this is *NOT* the way that MIT works. There are no weed out classes at MIT. The really nasty classes are back loaded.

    You go to MIT, you find that you are no longer in the top 10% of the class, but you find that life is not so bad in the bottom of the class, and unless something seriously goes wrong, people make it through the course. The other thing is that MIT financial aid is all need-based. What this means is that the calculate the amount that you are supposed to pay based on financial aid available, and if you have any scholarships those are subtracted from your financial aid.

    What this means is that you aren't going going to run into financial difficulties if your grades go too low, unless they are so seriously low that you are in danger of getting kicked out.

    The other thing is that you should go into grad school with the expectation that you will *NOT* get a faculty position in a research university.
  19. Feb 1, 2010 #18
    And for universities like Oxford and Cambridge, the brainwashing has had an 800 year head-start...
  20. Feb 2, 2010 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    It's called a "community". It's what people do. You have no right to demand that people cease discussing amongst themselves and snap to it and answer your questions.

    It's a pity you are so dismissive of those messages, because there is a ton of good advice in them.

    Going to the place where you will learn the most is not a cop-out. It's a sign of maturity and wisdom: having your priorities in the right place. Just a few short years after you graduate, nobody will care where you got your PhD. They will care what you did with it.

    I don't think you're ready go to MIT. You may have learned enough physics, but you haven't yet learned enough about life.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2010
  21. Feb 2, 2010 #20
    I'm not sure I've ever disliked something posted by you or twofish.
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