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Undergraduate and Beyond…?

  1. Apr 18, 2015 #1
    Hey folks,
    I'm a junior in high school, and I was wondering some things (and I don't have lots of knowledge in how this all works, so please point out any false ideas I have about anything in the whole college process):
    First, how critical is the prestige of the undergraduate if I want to get into a really good grad school? …to be specific, what I might want to do is start in a program like Pitt (or, if that's not enough, CMU). Would that make it pretty much impossible to get into a high-level graduate program, (e.g. Ivy League (like University of Pennsylvania) or even MIT) even if I do really well? (consider the same question for CMU as well)
    …I guess for now that's the only question.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 18, 2015 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    No. Getting into grad school depends much more on what you accomplish as an undergraduate (grades, research experience, GRE scores) than on the prestige of the school that you go to. In any event, getting into one of the schools you name as a grad student has a large element of luck involved, just like for undergraduate admissions. They receive many more qualified applicants at both levels than they have spaces for.

    Don't turn your nose up at Pitt. When I was a grad student at Michigan (where people call Harvard the "Michigan of the East" :oldwink:) my roommate was another physics grad student who was a Pitt alumnus. He finished his Ph.D. a bit after I did and ended up working on laser fusion at Livermore.
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2015
  4. Apr 18, 2015 #3
    I would have to second the fact that your undergrad reputation isn't all that important when applying to grad school. In fact, of all the factors that go into graduate admissions, I would dare to say that undergrad reputation is among the least important on the list...

    As for my anecdotal story, I am finishing up at a large state school with little reputation for physics. However, I've worked my tail off doing lots of research, getting good letters of recommendation, and keeping my grades up. Due to my effort, I managed to make it into my dream grad school.

    There are actually some benefits to going to a lesser known school. For example it will probably won't be cut-throat competitive, and you will have a better chance to stand out among the crowd if you are willing to work hard. Not to mention, it's probably cheaper. Just make sure - wherever you go - that there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in research.
  5. Apr 20, 2015 #4
    Definitely doable, I am currently at a big state school with an ok physics reputation and several friends got into top 20-top ten schools (from UCLA to Caltech); I got into a top school for something other than pure physics just fine (dunno what would have happened if I had sent an app to Stanford and waxed lyrical about how much I love high energy particle physics in my SoP though).
  6. Apr 20, 2015 #5


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    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    It's definitely not necessary to go to a top school but it does help. The benefits are that you will most likely have more opportunities in really great research, the ability to get letters from well connected people, and in general the students are very smart so you can learn a lot from your peers.

    There are also a lot of very smart students at state schools since they are in general more affordable. If finances are an issue, then going to a place like Penn State would be very good (I assume you live in Pennsylvania from your post). Penn state has a great physics program as well.

    I actually don't think that being a big fish in a small pond is necessarily a good thing. The world is an ocean, and the sooner you get used to that the better. Competition can be unhealthy at some point, but being with highly motivated students should just motivate you to succeed.
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