According to Stanford's Computer Science graduate admissions department this year:

110 students were accepted. Nearly all accepted applicants were from Stanford (BS/MS), MIT, Berkeley, Princeton, Michigan, Texas, Washington, Tsinghua, and the other ivy leagues. About 10-20 were from non-top schools.

I am one of these 10-20. I go to a state college and our curriculum is imaginably not up to par with the elite schools. I'm scared. Did anyone experience the similar situation? How would I prepare myself to hang with the smartest people in this Ph.D. process?

If you're a professor, how much does this affect you in choosing a Ph.D. student?

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    I doubt undergraduate institution is a very good predictor of success in a PhD program. The main difference is that elite institutions are able to offer advanced courses other places cannot. I think it looks bad for a department to imply that they select students based on pedigree, rather than achievements. Feb 15, 2018 at 22:18
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    As an observation, there is a bias toward pretentiousness. And despite that bias - despite the fact that they'd have preferred to have selected a student from an Ivy - they still picked you.
    – Nat
    Feb 15, 2018 at 22:26
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    Kinda odd phrasing "the other ivy leagues" following a list of a bunch of schools of which only one is an Ivy League school Feb 15, 2018 at 22:33
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    no need to feel inferior. I know an IMO medalist, Putnam top 100 guy from elite school and there are at least a dozen students with less stellar undergrad background that are doing much better than him in our department. Work rate and resilience and good advisor are everything in PhD.
    – dezdichado
    Feb 15, 2018 at 22:47
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    This is anecdotal and thus just a comment but during my stint as a postdoc in Cambridge, it was common knowledge that summer students who were University of Cambridge undergraduates systematically performed worse than their peers from less prestigious Universities: they were less knowledgeable, less experienced and less willing to work hard. I urge not to generalise from this but it should show you that you should not be scared for not coming from an “ivy league” Uni. Feb 16, 2018 at 8:34

5 Answers 5


(Source: I am a math professor at Stanford, with connections to the CS department and many former students in the CS Master's program, and experience with graduate admissions.)

Nothing about this situation suggests that you are any less intelligent than your classmates. The admissions committee isn't running a charity: if they thought you weren't prepared to excel, they would have admitted another student from MIT instead of you. They invest a lot of effort into determining which students are positioned to be successful; it's not a perfect system by any means, but I think they know better than you do whether you're prepared.

I have never considered undergraduate institution or background when considering who to work with, and I haven't heard of any colleague doing so either. As a grad student you get better and better at learning, so it's easy to patch any holes in your background.

If you are concerned that you haven't had the opportunity to take all the classes that the CS undergrads at Stanford have: well good news, the majority of CS courses are online, including all the lectures, slides, and homeworks. And you have 7 months before you'll start grad school this fall -- that is plenty of time to complete all the courses you're worried you've missed, if you really feel that's the best use of your time.

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    By the way, welcome to the university! Feel free to come by the math building and introduce yourself when you get to campus this fall.
    – Tom Church
    Feb 15, 2018 at 22:57
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    One of my friends was literally kicked out of undergrad for poor marks. Went back later and completed, got into a top-20 program, got PhD, is very successful. Undergrad performance is a poor predictor of overall ability and success.
    – HEITZ
    Feb 15, 2018 at 23:00
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    As a side note, what might be the purpose of admission's department original note, if nobody considers undergraduate institution.
    – Gnudiff
    Feb 16, 2018 at 8:03
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    @HEITZ was going to post a similar comment. I went to a university considered among the top bases for my subject and my tutor there was the most cited-professor on the whole campus, He confided in me that he'd graduated with third class honours.
    – Bob Tway
    Feb 16, 2018 at 13:54
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    Can you confirm that the OP's quote is correct? Seems more like fake news to me.
    – resu
    Feb 17, 2018 at 14:12

This was me years ago! Tom Church's answer is a good one, but here's my idiot opinion: yes it's super intimidating and my first year I was sure I would get kicked out. Part of it was undeniably the fact that my lower ranked institution really didn't offer the same/as many classes as what my colleagues from MIT and Caltech got, and I really was less prepared. But part of it was also that those colleagues were extremely confident, having come from those top ranked institutions (and also had some of the garden variety arrogance that seems to come standard with STEM majors, which amplifies that confidence). What's more, the grad classes were extremely difficult and some of my colleagues weren't as used to having to struggle to understand things. But annnnnyway- most of us did fine and graduated (including me yay). Some- including some ivy leaguers- dropped/failed out. The main difference was in work ethic, determination, and being a personable non-asshole (you'd be surprised how far that last one will get you).

  • 7
    "my idiot opinion" - Why do you have an idiot's opinion? It can't be yours, because you aren't one.
    – anon
    Feb 16, 2018 at 4:29
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    The last sentence is most enlightening.
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 16, 2018 at 6:24
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    Not many want to work with a smart asshole, they prefer smart, non-asshole. :)
    – Mafii
    Feb 16, 2018 at 14:09
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    I don't mean to simply +1 this answer with a comment, but I think this is very common at top tier graduate institutions. I got great advice, being one of the less prepared in a top tier math grad program. Incoming first years have a wide array of preparedness, but somewhere in the second year this levels out and more important people start specializing and everyone is more expert in at least one subject that everyone else. By the time we graduated, the original ordering was irrelevant. Feb 16, 2018 at 21:21

I did undergrad at a non-R1 private university that does well but not excellent in national rankings. I did my Ph.D. at the top school in my discipline, and almost all of my classmates had undergrads from R1 public schools or Ivy-caliber private ones.

If anything, my experience showed me that the fever surrounding admissions to undergraduate institutions is way overblown. I was well-equipped and never felt out of my league. The difference between a Harvard or decent public school undergraduate degree is less than you think.


You are looking this the opposite way.

You're a success story.

Indeed, comparing yourself with students from top schools can be intimidating. However, to some extend (1), graduating from a top school can be a ticket to a PhD program by itself. On the contrary, you managed to get into this program without having this advantage.

This wasn't luck. You were accepted because you're capable, even more so, since you don't have this advantage.

It's going to be ok. Relax, work hard, and enjoy the ride. And congrats!

(1) I'm not in any way diminishing the abilities of students graduating from these schools.


I did my undergrad at a state school; it is a huge R1 research university and I got a lot of experience, but its ranking in some lists is anywhere from 20-60 globally.

I did my PhD in a top 10 ranked university and I worked with people who did their undergrads/masters/PhDs at these universities as well.

I was a bit nervous before I went, but frankly I found very little difference in the capabilities of the students. In fact, many people I worked with in undergrad could run rings around the PhD students I worked with as a grad student. I'm working in a different field, but I assume there's not much difference across fields.

What makes a difference more so than your background, previous experience, and certainly the rank of the school you went to is your interest in your subject. Deficits, should they exist, can easily be overcome if you are passionate about your project and are willing to put in the time.

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