I will be starting as a freshman in August 2018 in an undergrad institution. My school does not have the best reputation for mathematics in my country. Although it has a tie-up with another nearby graduate institution, which is the well known to top 10 US graduate program in Mathematics. Some Faculties from it teach courses at my institution. As from there, I do have hopes of getting good LOR's. Because of fewer facilities, many students in my undergrad pursue their honors thesis at a different location. Few of them pursued outside of my country under AMS fellows.

Ph.D. placements at my school include Dartmouth ,Northwestern, Paris, UIUC etc.

I do have the option of taking a gap year and target two other schools A & B.

School A has recently started its undergrad program. Although it is fairly reputed in my country and abroad. Their placements include Chicago, Ohio State, Wisconsin etc.

School B has the best math undergrad program in my country. It has a stellar reputation in top 10 grad schools in the US and many students are pursuing PhDs in those schools.

I know Harvard or Princeton is beyond my reach, but do schools like Chicago or Berkeley care more about elite undergrad status. Should I take a gap year? Can stellar letters of recommendation and good honor's thesis outweigh undergrad reputation?

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    It's better to be a stellar undergraduate at a lesser known institution than a middle or bottom of the pack student at an "elite" institution. Admissions committees care far more about what the student has done than where the student comes from. The latter matters because the standards of a well known institution are also well known, and that contextual familiarity makes it easier to judge the merits of an applicant from such an institution. The main reason bigname places get more students into top graduate programs is that they admit more strong students as undergraduates.
    – Dan Fox
    May 4, 2018 at 16:34
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    @DanFox If you posted that as an answer, I would vote for it. May 4, 2018 at 17:51
  • What on earth is a bottom ivy? May 4, 2018 at 20:29
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    @cactus_pardner Sure. In my country admission to undergraduate schools usually occurs by entrance examinations. I do have the option of deferring admission for a year and applying for entrance examinations next year. If not I will be going to my current undergrad institution this year. May 5, 2018 at 14:30
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    @astronat "Bottom Ivy" is a slightly silly way of putting it, but for graduate school in math, the Ivy League doesn't have the cachet that it does in many other fields. Dartmouth especially would be ranked by pretty much anyone in the field below most of the well-known state flagships and most prestigious private programs (USNWR ranks Dartmouth 53rd, tied with North Carolina State, which sounds about right to me). May 6, 2018 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


Unfortunately, this is not really a trade-off we are qualified to help you with. There are just too many unquantifiable factors (we don't even know what country you are in!); I generally don't really recommend students putting off the rest of their lives for a year to try something like an entrance exam again. Even if you can get in, it could be that going A and B will make a big difference, but you can't possibly know that (maybe Chicago had a really bad experience with the last student that came from A; you just can't control this stuff). Who can possibly guess what the general political situation for foreign graduate students in the US will be in a few years?

So my advice is to start at your current institution, and do the best work you can. That's what you can control.

  • Was going to add my own answer, but it's so close to this one, I'll just comment. As I mentioned answering one of your other 3 (!) questions asking pretty much the same thing as this one, I took a track similar to the one you're worried about and it worked out fine. I would also say that had I decided on math by 19 at the institution I went to, I could have done that much better. Being a top student at a less prestigious university can afford you MUCH greater access to professors and research, which can jumpstart your academic career much more than putting a top named school on your resume May 17, 2018 at 16:51

If your school doesn't have a fine mathematics department, you should not limit your doctoral options. There are over 200 US universities offering the doctorate in mathematics. Focus on getting the best preparation you can and look at other schools. It's so hard to get into the best schools even with everything going for you. btw, I thought Harvard was beyond my reach. I was shocked when they admitted me despite my horrible undergrad and my graduate school grades, mostly A's but quite a few B's and even a B-. Harvard considered my age (university at 15) and graduate course load (42 courses in 2-years) and paid me to be part of their genius program ... any 16-graduate courses I wanted to take at any Harvard school or MIT. I didn't think I was worthy. They saw past my grades because I told my story. Tell your story. (I spent 10-years as a Harvard interviewer. Tell your story as if your future depends on it. It does. Best of luck to you.)

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