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I studied math and economics at a poorly ranked university, and I will graduate in the near future. I have a position lined up at a prestigious, data-heavy research institution, where I'll work with numerous economists for a few years before applying to top PhD programs (Berkeley, Chicago, MIT, Harvard, etc.) I took two courses in analysis and did well, although per the quality of my institution, the courses were not challenging.

I also worked as a research assistant and conducted self-guided researched (not published outside my university), so I have several professors willing to write detailed recommendations for me. Apart from a few hiccups in non math/econ courses, my grades are perfect.

Will the fact that my undergraduate degree comes from an unranked institution affect my chances of attending a top PhD program? Will it affect my chances even though my experience after undergrad should speak in my favor?

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What matters more is usually your recommendations. i.e. who and what they wrote. –  picakhu Dec 13 '12 at 18:40
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@picakhu It's sad about this system, that recommendations are so important. Guy from a poor university (or a poor country) has little chance to get a well-recognized prof to write him a recommendation, no matter how smart, creative or hard working the student is. –  Piotr Migdal Dec 13 '12 at 21:07
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@Piotr, yes, sad, but unfortunately, taking someone who doesn't have a credible recommendation is a big liability. I think people tend to avoid it. (There are plenty of people in top universities from poor countries and or universities) –  picakhu Dec 13 '12 at 21:18
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@PiotrMigdal I have found that when applying for jobs, fellowships, etc. similar candidates from my university are simply ignored because we don't come from top schools, even before recommendations go through. I think some of that is more a conspiracy theory than reality, but I have had people mention to me that they haven't heard of my university so they're sceptical of the coursework. Will my position at a prestigious research institution (not a university) be enough? –  John Bensin Dec 13 '12 at 22:54
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Your letters will need to demonstrate that you are as well-prepared as other students at the top universities you would like to attend. In the first place, are you? Look at the first year grad courses, would you be ready to start them? It will help enormously if your recommenders, in addition to being enthusiastic, demonstrate familiarity with the demands of the programs you're applying to, and are able to write honestly that you'll be able to meet them. –  Frank Thorne Feb 16 '13 at 3:59
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As the commenters have pointed out, a lot will depend on your ability to get good letters of recommendation. However, there is an important issue to note: a good letter of recommendation does not mean the same thing as "a letter from someone famous." You can get a letter of recommendation from a big name that is completely useless, if it doesn't provide any real information of value about the candidate.

Instead, what you want are people who can testify that you are a good student, and show evidence that you can become a good researcher. Since you have excellent records, and are working with a research group before applying to graduate school, I think you have the right groundwork for getting good letters. To make sure that you do so, you'll want to meet with the people who will be writing the letters, make sure that they are willing and enthusiastic about writing the letters (hint: if they are at all hesitant, do not get a letter from them!), and then provide them with the necessary material they'll need (CV's, samples of writing and research work, citations and awards, etc.) to write the letter.

Ultimately, the only way attending an unranked school will affect your chances of getting in as a graduate student is if the admissions committee at the school you're applying to shows such a bias. If you're concerned about such a possibility, and have the resources (time, money, motivation) to do so, setting up a meeting with the person in charge of graduate admissions at the department you're interested in probably can't hurt.

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From experience of my friends (then, undergraduates in Warsaw), unfortunately, it turned out that it is much better to ask a prof. who knows your name (but is recognized), that a postdoc who know your work really well. Surely, it may work differently when you are from a top tier US univ., but otherwise I have an impression that in recommendation letters the first think they look at is the surname, only then - content. –  Piotr Migdal Dec 14 '12 at 13:50
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@PiotrMigdal: It could be location dependent. But in US departments, quality matters more than pedigree, particularly since it's for graduate positions—and the likelihood of getting a big name to write a letter as an undergrad is quite small. However, you are correct that a letter from a professor will carry more weight than a letter from a postdoc. –  aeismail Dec 14 '12 at 17:08
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@aeismail The difference was not big names vs small names, but small names vs no names. To be more precise, one year a friend of mine (from Poland, smartest in his year) applied for PhD in US. He got rejected everywhere. The next year he learnt how to write applications, how to find the right one for recommendations letters, etc - and he got everywhere (and he aimed only top universities). I would argue that you need to be good and know how to apply (apparently, for US students or some elite UE universities it may be 'obvious', but for the rest of the world - not necessarily). –  Piotr Migdal Dec 14 '12 at 17:50
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@aeismail You are right, maybe I drawn too many conclusions. Still, it was a case "got nowhere" vs "got everywhere" with the same skill and very similar achievements. However, besides that, he knew to apply for the Fulbright scholarship (and he got it), whit might have been the decisive factor. And the first cover letter was not bad for my taste (I saw it), but comparing to the second one - it was less professional (still, application skills increased, not neither scientific nor social). –  Piotr Migdal Dec 15 '12 at 1:19
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@PiotrMigdal: Having a portable fellowship would definitely increase his chances of getting in everywhere. That's a pretty important change in his situation, and by itself could be enough to tip many graduate admissions committees from "lean no" to "yes." –  aeismail Dec 15 '12 at 11:02
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It will probably affect your chances. But it's not a show-stopper.

Coming from a top school means students are more likely to get that second look and it means that students are more likely to have recommendations from people than the folks on the admission committee already know and trust. For those reasons, coming from a top school affords a real advantage over unranked schools. It's not fair but there are lots of reasons to believe that an applicant from a top school will get more bites than an identical one from an unranked school.

That said, if you think you can put together a solid application, you shouldn't get too hung up about the status symbols you won't have and others might. Nobody is making decisions based only on where the applicant went to college.

If you have great test scores, a history of excellent academic performance (sounds like you do), a demonstrated ability to do solid research, and a glowing set of letters from a good set of letter writers, you have a good chance at a top program. Focus on the things you can change, improve, and build on and not on the stuff you can't.

FWIW: I did my undergrad at an unranked liberal arts college and graduate school at a top school — although not in economics. Moving up the status hierarchy is always harder than lateral or downward moves, but it happens all the time.

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I would advise to develop a relationship via email with professors at your target schools. Dig in and learn about their research and show how interested you are in working with them. Also target assistant and associate professors at those schools as they are more likely to be in the admissions committee paying their dues. They might be the difference if everything else is good. I know Penn accepts some students from schools I had never heard at all. They try to diversify, just the odds might be different.

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