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Consider the following scenario:

Bob goes to a top-tier university for his undergraduate degree. This university is known for its extra challenging curriculum and Bob also challenges himself while attending. Bob is able to learn the material, but due to the extra rigor of the college, Bob graduates with a 2.5 GPA (B/C Student).

John goes to a different university for the exact same undergraduate degree as Bob. His university has a significantly easier curriculum and as a result, John is able to graduate with a 3.5 GPA (A/B Student).

Other than going to a different undergraduate university and their GPA, Bob and John are identical. Both are now applying to the same grad school and the same program at that school. Which is a better graduate school candidate?

Note: I know this question is similiar to How are GPAs from different universities evaluated for admissions to MS programs in the USA?, but I am looking for an answer that is narrower. In my case, I would like to know how two candidates would be judged if there only differences was undergraduate GPA and undergraduate university. In all other aspects of the application process, these two hypothetical candidates are identical.

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Admissions don't come down to a single number or any single factor. Knowing no more it is impossible to say which of these two is a better candidate.

While it is true that some universities are considered "better" than others, it is an ephemeral thing. Some marvelous teachers work at some quite "modest" places. Moreover, the universities that have a really great reputation, often do so because they are able to offer more learning support to undergraduates, though that isn't always the case. They can often attract top faculty, of course, for financial reasons, but that doesn't necessarily translate to better undergraduate learning. Certainly not for every student.

Someone with a low GP from a top university, might have been somewhat disconnected from the learning process and had little contact with those top professors. Someone from a lower ranked place might have that higher GPA because he/she worked closely with the faculty and has a much better grasp overall. This, too isn't necessarily true, but it can happen.

Another factor, of course, is that not all of the "top" students go to the "top" schools. Money plays too big a part of who gets to go to, say, Harvard. Some people just go to a local State University of modest reputation due to family or other reasons. But they can get an excellent education there, and have done.

And don't assume that John had an easier path or that his university had a "significantly easier curriculum". There is no basis for saying that. Some graduates of highly ranked places are also quite weak in skills.

However, I suspect that there is a general feeling among academics that a student who has done well locally (high GPA) has taken advantage of the offerings and is well prepared, while one who has not done so well in the local environment may not be as well qualified to continue. But that "general feeling" needs additional evidence, so isn't considered definitive.

Admissions is a game of balancing. Many factors are looked at, grade point and college reputation among them. But those alone won't tell a useful story about a candidate.

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For me, a long-time admissions person (and now-and-then director of grad studies) in mathematics, in a large state school in the U.S.: I do not care very much about GPA. Reason: there are too many reasons, unrelated to mathematics, why someone might get good or bad grades. Even "chronic good grades" can be a somewhat negative indicator, potentially, if it means that the student is obedient and conformist above all else.

Undergrad programs (not so much "universities", and not so much "higher-ranked") with richer programs obviously tend to have more resources to offer students. Having inaccessible big shots does not guarantee a rich program, for example. Nor does everyone take advantage of the potential in their environment. And so on.

And, specifically, "identical in every other regard" would have to mean identical letters from the same faculty members. Well, this never happens, for many reasons, especially to students in different universities.

So, although I understand the intent of the apparent premise, on one hand if I play along with it then the answer is something like "they're still essentially identical", but/and, more realistically, this does not happen. That is, the premise is essentially never met in practice.

To amplify: being in different universities usually means that one has access to different faculty, and has different people in one's cohort. In my appraisal of grad school applicants, this distinction is the origin of my comparisons of applicants... which is manifest specifically in letters of recommendation (and applicants' statements of purpose, which reflect the students' perceptions of their experiences).

EDIT: Also, now that I review things, the notion of "easier curriculum" is quite a bit of a phantom, too. It can only sensibly refer to "minimum requirements", which are rarely an attractive profile to have, in the best of cases. It's not that mathematics (e.g.) itself is easier in some locales than others. Students can avoid engagement or not, especially with the internet, in nearly any physical location. The question of the local minimal requirements is hardly relevant to anything (apart from the unfortunately common misinterpretation of "minimum" as "desirable"...)

One can be passive and disinterested at an elite place, or proactive and engaged at a less-elite place... and in both cases it's still impossible to predict "GPA" since the latter is badly correlated with actual mathematical activity, etc.

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It's not realistic that a 2.5 at one school might equal 3.5 elsewhere. There's obviously some difference but not that much.

A 2.5 is a terrible GPA everywhere, even from a top school. Acceptance into any reasonably selective graduate school would be unlikely. A 3.5 is okay to excellent for a master's program, possibly a little low for a PhD program at a selective school, but should merit consideration no matter where you got it.

  • A key part the question is that these hypothetical students have gone to universities that have substantially different curriculums, and one is easier than the other. I would think that there is a point where a 3.5 GPA is not as good as a 2.5 GPA, such as if the student went to a university that barely received accreditation and goes out of its way to ensure its students get good grades. Please clarify if you believe that numeric GPA value is substantially more important than the source university? – Andrew Nov 5 '18 at 5:19
  • @Andrew I've clarified my answer. It's not a realistic hypothesis that a 2.5 at one school = 3.5 at another. – Nicole Hamilton Nov 5 '18 at 5:23
  • I totally agree that a 2.5 is a horrid GPA that would not be overcome simply by prestige. But with international students, the "low tier" universities in some developing countries really are that bad, that no matter what their lovely transcript says, I doubt they know any of the topics listed on it. And I would definitely prefer the barely-passing students from a rigorous school. – A Simple Algorithm Nov 5 '18 at 13:57

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