I am currently applying for two universities for graduate studies at the US, assuming both universities accept me (Hopefully) should I choose the university that fits me better or the university which is more selective (like ivy league universities).

My concern is that smarter students will overrun me in the top university, is this a valid concern or there is no academic competition between students since the admissions office and the designated department would not have accepted me in the first place if I had a non competitive enough profile?

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    Don't count your chickens before they hatch? – Shion Nov 15 '13 at 16:47
  • @Shion I don't have anything else to do! – The Hiary Nov 15 '13 at 17:02
  • to be honest, you are asking very wrong questions. or rather, you are thinking in a wrong direction. Why you worry about other people etc? Just study well and do your best! – avi Nov 15 '13 at 17:50
  • @avi I might have phrased my question in a wrong way, but what I am concerned about is: does the university evaluation (acceptance) mean that I am capable of performing perfectly in their program !? – The Hiary Nov 15 '13 at 18:14

My concern is that smarter students will overrun me in the top university

Well, the good news is that the smarter students will be concerned about you overrunning them. It's called impostor syndrome, and virtually everyone at a top institution has it. (And I don't just mean the students...)

Also: being around people who are (much) smarter than you is a good thing, because it means you will learn more. (That's why you're hanging around a university, right?) The other good news is that in grad school, you will no longer be competing against your peers. The bad news is that you will now be competing against the entire academic community in your chosen area of study. So, it's probably good to have some other smart students around to talk to. Right?

My experience as a student at a Extremely Well-Ranked School is that other students are very supportive, and empathetic to the experience of getting through a tough program. In short: don't worry. It will be ok.

should I choose the university that fits me better or the university which is more selective

Isn't this a tautology? The university that fits you better will fit you better.

A less sarcastic reply is: there is nothing that matters more in grad school (or in life in general...) than your relationships with the people immediately around you, namely, your advisor and the other members of your research group / lab. Even brilliant students who do not have a good working environment or a supportive advisor will flounder—I have seen it time and time and time again. In contrast, students who are not exceptionally brilliant but have a good relationship with their advisor / group tend to do well, at least well enough to move on to a satisfying career after grad school. Prestige, fame, money, and beauty are all higher-order terms. Pick the place where you will be happy.


should I choose the university that fits me better or the university which is more selective

Assuming you're lucky enough to have that choice....


You should choose the environment that gives you the greater likelihood of future success, as defined by your own academic and career goals.

This may be correlated with the overall reputation of the university, but any such correlation will be very loose. The overall reputation of the department is a better proxy, but still loose. The reputations of your (probable) advisor or advisors, or even better, of their former students, is even closer, but still not the whole story, because not every student wanted to do what you want to do.

Strong universities have weak departments and vice versa. Strong departments have weak research areas, or toxic work environments, and vice versa. Strong advisors in strong departments may have no interests that overlap yours, or may have working styles that badly clash with yours, or may have insufficient funding to support you, or may be located in places that you find unlivable for financial or cultural reasons.

does the university evaluation (acceptance) mean that I am capable of performing perfectly in their program !?

Of course not! There's no such thing as "performing perfectly".

But acceptance with funding usually means that the faculty—or at least the admissions committee—believes you have a strong potential for success in that graduate program.

(I write "usually" because a few lazy/unethical departments do intentionally accept more students than they reasonably believe can succeed. Especially if this is a serious concern, talk to current students in the department before you accept. And acceptance without funding only means that they're willing to take your money; run away fast.)

Finally: Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome.


Short answer: why don't you come back and ask again when you got the acceptance letters from both schools? These worries seem premature.

Anyway, assuming this is more about applying to schools... I cannot tell you which to apply, but here are the components you should consider:

  • It depends on the department you are going to. Not all departments in the selective schools are reputable. Meanwhile, some department in smaller schools can be the field's leader.
  • It depends on your career aspiration. Graduates from reputable schools may face fewer barriers in advancing to become a researcher or apply for a faculty position. But this is only one piece of the puzzle; other factors such as research topics, track records, etc. matter greatly as well. If it's a skill-based degree, then check the field and ask around which institutes seem to be better recognized.
  • It depends on what do you mean by "fits me better." At the very least, the chosen school should not give you more stress/misery beyond necessary (e.g. beyond stresses that is due to class work, high standard, etc.) If you have to endure extra burdens such as tension brought about by different value and culture of the organization's, then you better not go there.
  • Competition happens everywhere. Organizational and personal cultures have a lot to do with it. There are departments/schools that particularly favor competitive students, either due to the professional nature of their degree, pride, or scarcity of resources. Personality of the classmates can also matter. Some people just love to compete, even in the most minor things of their life. Anyhow, to expect less competition because the people are more homogeneous is unrealistic; in fact, competition is the likeliest outcome to see in a homogeneous population.
  • Some schools may consider accepting students from developing countries even the students deem slightly less competitive than the rest of the crowd. They do this for many reasons: to expand their influence, to leverage the intellectual bargaining power of the applicants' countries, to establish their department that is specialized in global work, etc. Regardless if this system is in place or not, there is always a spectrum of competency among the student body, whatever the makeup of the body is.
  • Generally, I think you can benefit from some attitude readjustment. Unless you need excellent grades for scholarship or assistantship, graduate school is more of a competition within oneself than between people. As a foreign student, try your best to integrate into the local culture, make friends, build support networks, consult some cultural and study specialists at school, pay attention to your grades, ask questions, participate in discussion, bring what's unique about your experience to the table, and enjoy the stay and study. The whole process is a lot more than worrying about how not to make mistakes or fall behind.
  • At the time I get the acceptance letters I might not be as relaxed as I am now (not enough time to think it through) so that is why I am asking for the future – The Hiary Nov 15 '13 at 17:04

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