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Let's say I have an undergraduate degree from a top university in my country which is, however, not renowned around the world. Does this have a negative impact on my chances of getting into a good graduate school?

Next year I will be a high school senior and I am thinking about where to go for undergraduate studies. The two options I have are:

  1. Attending a top programme in my country, Romania, which doesn't make any of the university rankings, but is nevertheless really well regarded in my country.

  2. Trying to get into some top 100-200 programmes in European universities which theoretically give me better chances to get into a top-tier graduate programme. This would be harder for me due to the financial costs (attending any university in my country would be a lot more cheaper).

I want to know your view on whether option 1 or 2 would boost or damage my chances of getting into a top graduate programme in North America or Europe.

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The school at which you got your undergraduate degree plays a huge role in your competitiveness on the grad school market. It is hard to give specific advice without knowing what country you are talking about, but purely numerically, for the vast majority of all countries worldwide, having top results and top references from the best university in that country will not get you into any of the top US or UK universities. The gulf between the undergrad programmes can be gigantic, and in some places you will just not develop your potential, almost regardless of how talented you are.

As I say, it is hard to be more specific without more information. Certainly, league tables mean almost nothing, and there are countries whose universities don't feature in league tables but offer solid education. If you live in such a country, then you are still relying on your grad admissions committee knowing it.

Edit: I have seen extremely strong students from Romania doing their undergraduate at top European universities (specifically in mathematics), and then getting into top Ph.D. programs in Europe; I do not recall having seen graduate students at top universities who did their undergraduate in Romania. That by itself does not mean much, after all it is a very small sample anyway.

If I read in a reference letter for a graduate programme that somebody was in the top 10% of their cohort at Bucharest, I would take that endorsement seriously. On the other hand, if you study there, you will have to be aware that the students that you see around you will not be representative of the competition that you will be facing when applying for the top graduate programmes, while if you are at Cambridge, or Bonn, say, then the best in your year are likely to actually be the primary candidates for the best Ph.D. programmes.

My view is that the main advantage of studying at the top places is not necessarily that they objectively offer the best education, but that you will be surrounded by very hard working and ambitious students, and that in turn will push you to develop your own full potential. If you manage to surround yourself with such a peer group at your university of choice in Romania, you will be fine. It's just that at the top places you will not have to look very hard to find such people. On the other hand Cambridge, say, is a much more expensive option than Bucharest. If you have the money, I would go for it; if not, then don't worry and just go to a top programme in Romania.

  • Thank you for your input, I appreciate it very much! I added my home country in my question now that you've suggested that it really matters. – Math Guy Jun 21 at 13:07
  • Thank you for your really well developed answer ! Your answer reassured me that I can still reach my potential even if I just attend a top programme in Romania due to my lack of finances. – Math Guy Jun 22 at 9:17
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    @Math Guy, yes, absolutely. In fact, worrying about finances while studying is very counterproductive, so you might learn more and enjoy the subject more at a good university in Romania. – Alex B. Jun 22 at 9:37
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Your schools has some effect, but it is much more what you do there than it is the place itself. A top student with good grades and great recommendations from your situation 1 school will be much more likely to gain admission than a mediocre student from situation 2.

But if you can be a great student in situation 2 then there are advantages. Perhaps, but not necessarily, you would have more access to educational resources (i.e. professors). You might get a broader view of your subject.

But thriving in situation 2 may come with additional problems, possibly language and/or culture.

If the faculty in your home country is good, as you suggest they are, then you can be a success starting there. It isn't the reputation of the school nearly as much as it is your reputation there.

  • Thank you for the thorough comparison between the two situations that you provided! In case the specific country I come from helps you to add any more advice, I added it in my question as another user suggested. – Math Guy Jun 21 at 13:11
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Super important. I got a 2.2 in my undergrad 22 years ago. With experience I was accepted at a top university after entrance exams 2 years ago. Even though I now have a Distinction at MA level to win phd funding I still need a 2.1 or first in undergrad. I'm now doing a phd at a low rank university.

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