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Importance of undergraduate institution for math

  1. Nov 28, 2009 #1
    i'm a senior in high school right now, and i have the academic ability to get into some good schools, unfortunately my family does not have the fiscal ability to send me there (even with financial aid), so i will be attending UF next year. Still a good school though. I'll be a math major. My question is, assuming (and this is a big assumption, but i'm just curious) that i do everything right at UF and get a stellar GPA, taking even a few graduate courses, do research, do well in the Putnam, do some REUs/internships, get a great GRE score, and in short somehow pull off the perfect 4 years at UF, will i be able to get into a top grad school (princeton, harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc.)? I know i'll be facing a little adversity here, i just want to know if it's even possible. I know recs are a big part of getting into a graduate school, and UF professors probably wouldn't be as renowned as people from top undergrad schools, so i'm just wondering how much of a shot i'd really have, assuming a really good undergraduate resume. Thanks!!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 29, 2009 #2
    Anything is possible. Don't pigeonhole your future, because the future won't play itself out the way you thought it would.
  4. Nov 30, 2009 #3
    I'd go as far as to say its easier from your position that it is from many kids on your level at "better" schools.

    Here at Duke for example, the math kids are pretty good (not actually true of the general population). As in, very good. I'm near the middle of the pack- I get B's in a good number of my math classes and the top grad schools will pass me over for kids who got more A's.

    However, I took a few math classes over at NC State in high school (as a 15 year old) and aced them. Without any difficulty at all. Over there I would have been the "exceptional" kid, with undoubtedly great grades. So I would have made it past the first pass of grad apps where the admissions committee threw out every B average kid...

    Basically its the same as high school. Kids who went to the magnet school down the road worked a lot harder than me, and kids at least as smart as me failed to get into schools more prestigious than mine. Over there, I would have been "average smart" while at my school I was the best, and got into a "good" university.

    If you become the big fish in a little pond, you might fare better than another guy who's average in his pond even if he's actually better prepared than you. You just have to do better relatively speaking. (then again, if you match your 4.0 with an caltech kid's 4.0, he'll still win. its just that the caltech kid who could have gotten a 4.0 at UF but got a 3.0 at caltech, well you could beat him).
  5. Nov 30, 2009 #4
    The really important thing is to not end up at an undergraduate school where they systematically try to weed out students. As long as you graduate with a math degree and decent recommendations/research etc. then you can make it to the next round. What you don't want to do is to end up somewhere that you get weeded out in a badly taught class.

    Also standard advice, don't expect to be a university professor where ever you go.

    Which is why grad schools don't automatically throw low graded applications. If you are getting D's and F's, then yes this is a bad thing. If you get a mix of A's and B's with a few C's, then it's not clear whether you aren't gaming the system to get good grades.

    That's going to work for undergraduate admission, but graduate admissions are a totally, totally different animal. Graduate committees are pretty wise to how people can inflate their GPA's and correct accordingly.

    At some point you just have to look in the mirror and say to yourself, I really want to learn this stuff even if it kills my GPA. If you don't do that before you get into graduate school, it's going to be very, very painful.

    But in the end you learn a lot less.

    It actually doesn't work this way. My experience with state schools is that they tend to grade tougher (and in some cases a ***lot*** tougher) than big name schools. Grades in the physics department at MIT and Harvard tend to be rather inflated compared to most large state schools that I've seen.

    Also you do need to shop around. Even if you have to pay in-state tuition, Florida has a number of state schools that you can choose from, so you should take a campus visit, talk to the professors and students, and see where you think you'll learn the most stuff.
  6. Nov 30, 2009 #5
    I must have explained myself badly, because there are a couple critical points to my argument that render your contradictions moot (I think).

    1) Grade inflation does not take into account the quality of peers. It is easier to be in the top 10% at crap U than it is to be in the top 50% at tough tech, even if the top 20% is an A at crap U while a "generous" top 30% is an A at tough tech. Grades will still be "inflated" at tough tech, but they will still be much harder.
    2) Similarly, its more of an upper bound argument as to how a kid could do better at a State school. It has nothing to do with going to an "easier" school and having an easily inflated GPA. Rather, we're assuming that the kid got a perfect score at that "easy" school. That same kid, with that same amount of work, would have gotten lesser than perfect scores at the harder school, maybe significantly lesser than perfect scores (significant enough so that they have very little chance at getting into a top tier school, whatever that is).

    Now, consider another kid, who could get a 4.0 both at the easy school and the hard school. Obviously, if both these kids went to the easy school, they'd both end up with 4.0's and they'd be considered "equals" but if they both went to the hard school, they'd have different grades. The harder school would tease out which was stronger.
    It could be better for the first kid to go to the easy school, get the 4.0, and then admissions MIGHT think that its possible the first kid was actually the second kid (had the ability to get a 4.0 at the harder school as well) whereas had he gone to the harder school, they would know he really wasn't that good and they'd toss him. There's NO way to differentiate, just from the GPA, if you have a "very good" 4.0 kid from an easy school, or "would have been a 2.0 at a hard school" kid from an easy school, which is why you're forcing grad schools to take a second look.

    Grad schools will have a harder time disqualifying you if your school isn't rigorous enough to differentiate ever finer levels of intellectual ability. That's all...

    You might have a better chance being the 4.0 kid at the easy school than being the 3.5 kid at the hard school because they could mistake you for the possibly 4.0 kid at the hard school (here's where the other parts of your app are huge) whereas had you actually gone to the hard school you'd be identified as the 3.5 kid, and gotten tossed from the Harvard waitlist.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2009
  7. Nov 30, 2009 #6
    My experience is that it isn't true. Having been to both, I'd say that it's considerably harder to get though as a physics major at University of Texas at Austin than at MIT. The thing about MIT is that it just does not weed out physics majors so that you end up with 90+% pass rates in the intro physics courses. UT Austin did try to weed out physics majors when I was there, and so you had much, much lower pass rates.

    The thing about MIT is that you can be in the bottom 20% and still survive, whereas this did not appear to be true at UT Austin.

    You aren't going to get anywhere near perfect scores at MIT. The tests aren't set up that way.

    As far as the amount of work that you have to do to survive. UT Austin is considerably harder than MIT.

    Which is why if you have decent grades, GPA is not a hugely important factor for getting accepted into grad school. There's too much variability between schools to tell what a GPA really means.

    1) You are just wrong about how graduate school admissions work. Committees are aware that people will try to game the system this way, and so GPA isn't given a huge amount of weight. What matters is less what your grades are than what courses you take, and you really want to take nasty, hard courses.

    2) You are assuming that MIT is a "harder school" than most state schools, which just isn't true. Two people with equal ability taking physics courses is likely to get a much higher GPA at MIT than at most public universities. MIT doesn't try to weed out physics students, whereas a lot of large public universities *do* try to weed students out. I have the advantage that I've taken courses at MIT and Harvard and I know how inflated the grades are compared to most public state schools.

    Also I think you are very, very much mistaken about the caliber of students that take physics. As far as math ability and general competence, I really didn't see that much of a difference between the people that signed up for physics at UT Austin and those that majored in physics at MIT. The average MIT student is probably mathematically sharper than the average student at UT Austin, but when you talk about physics and math major, you've got a self-selected group, and I didn't see that much of a difference in the caliber of student.

    This is important for the most part you don't learn physics and math from the teachers, you learn it working through problems with other students, and if you surround yourself with people that are somewhat smarter than you are, you'll end up learning more.
  8. Nov 30, 2009 #7
    My experiences are actually limited to Duke, NCSU and UNC-Chapel Hill (I've personally taken classes and been friends with many people who have taken classes at 2 or more of the universities). I can't comment on the the specific case of "MIT vs UT Austin."
    Agreed, but this is a general argument not a specific one. The point is "harder" schools will have more range for differentiation.
    Really, really doubt this. Unless UT Austin is actually the best kept secret in the world. I can tell you that Duke physics beats the crap out of NCSU physics (the students do anyways) and it has nothing to do with university teaching styles, its just statistics. Applications were huge weeders in themselves.

    Really doubting this, as it goes against the word of all my professors, my research advisor, my parents (university professors), and everyone in their circle of friends (many of whom work in university environments or are professors). Of course, I'm talking about getting into maybe the "top 20" grad programs. The actual merits of these programs, well that's a different discussion.
    I will admit that hard courses certainly play a role- and I'm assuming the physics students are taking pretty hard math and physics courses, the standard physics route plus some.
    Actually I was just using what I thought was a generally accepted example, but I'll defer to you as far as literal experience at MIT goes. Although the point still seems disingenuous. I would wager that my physics peers are already "weeded out" and probably smarter than most of the physics kids at large public universities. I have some quantitative proof for it in the math department anyways- I think Duke has one of the best Putnam records out there, finishing 3rd or up for 9 out of the last 10 years (I think Harvard can also claim this, and that's it).
    I might have to beg to differ. At least, this is definitely not how it happens around here. I mean, the Putnam is pretty good evidence as to the large differential between students of different schools.

    Agreed. Would you also agree that "smart" kids (I'm only measuring intelligence by academic success on paper by the way) tend to self select "elite" schools for stupid reasons (reasons of ego, tradition, etc). Actually from what you've said so far, you might not, but at least from what I've seen my peers are significantly stronger at academics than the kids at State. And Duke isn't even a big physics school....
  9. Nov 30, 2009 #8
    I don't know whether MIT counts as an "easy" or a "hard" school. The curriculum is very tough, but the pass rates are extremely high (90+%), and there things like freshman pass/fail.

    I can just tell you what I've seen. Graduate school committee in physics and astronomy put a huge amount of emphasis on undergraduate research, recommendations. Some weighting on GPA, but what's more important is the classes that you take, particularly upper division classes.

    I wouldn't say that they are stupid reasons. The reason I ended up at MIT and not a big state school was that there was a dean at the big state school that was introducing the honors program, and when I mentioned that I might want to major in both physics and writing, he didn't take me seriously.

    Getting back to the original poster. If you are limiting yourself to public universities in the state of Florida, you still have about a half dozen or so choices, so rather then settle with UF, you might want to also look at the other state universities to see what their math programs are like.
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