Undergrad Choice for Physics: Does it Matter?

In summary, it's important to have good grades and a prestigious undergraduate school to improve your chances of getting into a good graduate school. It's also important to focus on physics when you're choosing your undergraduate school, as this is the field in which you will specialize.f
  • #1
I'm a high school student deciding where to go for undergraduate school, but it's a difficult choice between a really prestigious (and expensive) college compared to another school in the top 50 from US News in physics programs that is much easier in cost. I want to do theoretical physics mostly, but I would happy in mostly all fields. I just don't know if that's going to be a focus directed in grad school and not in your undergrad. Any help please?
  • #2
Where you go for undergrad is one point in the graduate school decision process?

If you do well on the GRE and you've come from MIT or Harvard then they're going to look at your file over someone who has done just as well as or even a little better on the GRE but comes from an unknown school. So in that sense it matters.

The pros and cons come in for undergrad as to how well you personally will learn physics. Large schools mean large classes and less interaction with the profs and more with teaching assistants. I went to a small liberal arts school that was in the top 50 list where we were able to talk with the profs on a daily basis in the physics break room.

So basically its:
- your courses taken, you grades and your undergrad school prestige
- your recommendation letters
- your accomplishments (inventions, papers, programs, interests, comunity service ...)
- your essay

all figure into whether you'll get in. One other factor is whether the particular field of study has openings for new grad students. Being a grad student is like getting hired by a company, if the department doesn't have someone who can take you into their program then there's less chance they will choose you. Sometime your accomplishments will win some prof over but more likely something in your recommendation letters or who wrote will win the day (like a prof who had been a grad student there as connections count a lot).

Its not an exact science your application is screened by graduate admissions for completeness and if it meets certain minimums of the department before its forwarded to them then they look for things to either reject it or to keep it and eventually you either get in or you don't.

Lastly, the pricy-ness of schools really gets back to the FAFSA your parents have to fill out. A prestigious school will be higher priced but they will look at the FAFSA and decide how much to give you to come so as not to exceed the FAFSA estimate that your parents will have to pay. So a less school will do the same and so it comes down to the FAFSA as the upper limit in general.

I know some students concerned with costs will go to a community college and then switch to a 4 year school to save money. The trick though is to be able to transfer as the grade competition may be greater. As an example, the year you plan to switch you've maintained a 3.5 avg but that year there are many students with similar grades all applying for limited seats at the same school (seats vacated by freshman/sophomores who dropped out) will cause the bar to raise to 3.7 and thus you don't get in.
  • #3
The two particular colleges I'm looking out are both in the top 50, but one is in the top 20 and three times as more expensive than the other in the top 40 from the US News. I felt very strong about both, but the price I feel will allow me to have less debt after grad school, and since it's still in the top 50, I have a good chance at going to a great grad school tha studies strongly on theoretical physics.

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