We get this question fairly often: “I went to a relatively low-ranked school. Do I have a shot at attending an Ivy League graduate program?” The short answer to this is yes, you do have a shot! The full answer is a little bit more complicated than that, so read on for more information!
How Much Does Undergrad Prestige Actually Matter?
Graduating from a prestigious undergraduate institution will not in and of itself grant you admissions into an Ivy League or similarly top graduate institution. What it will do for you, however, is give you a leg up on similarly qualified applicants. If you graduate with a 3.9 GPA from Duke University, and your competitor graduated from Greendale Community College with a 3.9, you’re definitely going to have an advantage there. Admissions officers will view your application in its context; a somewhat lower (~0.2 points, roughly) GPA from a highly regarded institution will likely be viewed more favorably than a somewhat higher GPA from a less well-known institution. Similarly, a letter of recommendation from a well-known researcher in the field will hold more weight than a letter of recommendation from a researcher who hasn’t published as much.
Well, What Can I Do About This?
Plenty! Not graduating from a “top” undergrad school doesn’t mean you don’t have a shot! Plenty of students from relatively unknown schools matriculate in top graduate programs, but you really have to prove yourself to do so.
- Publish, publish, publish: For STEM fields especially, publications are key to success in graduate programs. Even getting last author on a paper is impressive as an undergrad, as it shows that you’re capable of finding and completing research, which is essentially the entirety of academia nowadays.
- Find an advisor or professor who you can really get to know: You want a STRONG letter of recommendation going into your file, not a mediocre one. You want a professor who has known you for a while and who can speak to your strengths and character. This is usually only achieved through knowing an advisor for several years or by completing an intensive research project with him/her. Get working on that!
- Maintain a high GPA: This is a no brainer, but you want to have as close to a 4.0 GPA as you can possibly manage. A 3.9 from an unknown school looks infinitely better than a 3.3 from a prestigious institution. You need to ensure that your GPA is high enough to hopefully counteract any bias the admissions council might have against your institution
- Destroy the GRE: The GRE, as are all standardized tests, is the great equalizer in terms of admissions. It’s an objective standard by which all students are measured — no bias in terms of institution or curriculum here. Make sure to prepare well and absolutely dominate the exam so you can show admissions officers how rigorous your curriculum was and how much you’ve learned!