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I would like to generalize this question by asking for the general circumstances under which a strong university (in physics) like Harvard would accept a student from a much smaller/weaker undergraduate school.

I asked this question to my physics professors, and they said that while most of the movement in elite schools is "lateral" movement (e.g. Princeton to Harvard), upward movement certainly occurs for the "exceptional student".

Q: What are the criteria for a student to be classified as an "exceptional student" (such that they are accepted to an elite university), taking into consideration that their coursework was done in a weaker university?

Clearly, very strong letters and lots of research are a must; but how does a university identify this student as "exceptional" beyond other students coming from elite universities? Certainly they are not simply counting the number of publications for each, so how do they determine the quality?

Edit: To clarify, I note that I presume that the strength level of undergraduate schooling is a factor; getting A's and being "top of the class" (this might be in their LoR) in a weak university is much easier than doing so in a strong university. So I am trying to understand how graduate schools choose between A student at a weak university and B student at strong university; how does an exceptional undergraduate at a weak university distinguish themselves from regular students at strong universities.

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    "What are the criteria for a student from a weaker university to be accepted to elite graduate school?" The same as the criteria for a student from a stronger university. You may be misunderstanding what they said if you are interpreting it as: there is a two-track admissions process which sorts applicants into students from elite vs. non-elite universities and then places some additional hurdles that the latter category needs to overcome (e.g. proving that you are "exceptional"). The point is that elite universities attract stronger undergrads to begin with and give them more opportunities. Nov 28, 2023 at 8:20
  • @AdamPřenosil "The point is that elite universities attract stronger undergrads to begin with" I think the OP asks how would the admission committee determine "stronger" after four years ?
    – Nobody
    Nov 28, 2023 at 8:36
  • @Nobody I may be misunderstanding the OP, but the premise behind the second and third paragraphs seems to be that students from non-elite universities need to overcome an additional burden compared to students from elite universities, namely to show that they are "exceptional" (as opposed to students from elite universities, who are simply assumed to be exceptional by virtue of having gone to an elite university). The question "how would the admission committee determine "stronger" after four years" is precisely the same for students of elite and non-elite universities. Nov 28, 2023 at 8:57
  • There is a book "Good work if you can get it" by Jason Brennan who explains well the hierarchy relationship between different universities in the US. It might be useful for you.
    – AkiPhD
    Nov 28, 2023 at 10:02
  • @AdamPřenosil I clarified my question; while it is certainly true that elite universities attract stronger students to begin with, the quality of their grades are put into perspective that they are competing against other elite students; but a student at a weak university has much less competition, and I presume that this is a legitimate factor. Nov 29, 2023 at 3:11

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I'll speak as a person who has been on graduate admissions committees in a field that ends in "-physics" at the university with a top five ranked graduate program and also at one that is in the top ten, but not top five.

First, context. It is destructive to take on weak students who drain resources and then drop out or worse, stay to the bitter end and do a weak or failed PhD. They drag other students and faculty down and take the place of more worthy applicants. So committees are very hesitant to take risks. The admissions rate at these elite places is like 5-10%, and that's already among a self-selecting group of usually strong applicants.

If you attended a major research institution, the risks are lowered for the committee. If you did your undergrad at MIT and a reference letter mentions you were the top physics student there in five years, you would almost certainly be admitted to an elite graduate program. (An average undergrad physics student from an elite university is not going to get into a top graduate program.)

If you went to a small school, the same statement that you were the top student in the last five years gives no real information. How many physics students graduate in five years? 20 students? What was this physics cohort like, that you were the best among them? What is near-certain is that it wasn't MIT caliber. What was the quality of your education? Did your textbooks end with "...for scientists and engineers" or begin with "Principles of..."? You can understand these sorts of questions.

The old equalizer was the physics GRE, but unfortunately the current trend of ditching the physics GRE as an admission requirement, for "equity" reasons, definitively hurts strong students from smaller institutions, as it makes committees much less willing to take a chance on you. (If the institution accepts physics GRE scores, DEFINITELY submit yours if they are solid, like 800+.)

You will need concrete evidence that you can thrive in graduate school. This includes most of the below:

  1. refereed publications, especially as a lead author
  2. poster presentations or talks at major conferences
  3. solid research talent described in multiple letters of recommendation, especially strong if it comes from a mentor at an R1 who can compare you favorably to other excellent students who went on to elite graduate schools
  4. Basically perfect grades
  5. Academic awards, either from your university or better, at a national level
  6. Funded graduate fellowships (NSF, etc). These make you financially more easy to admit.

If you went to a small liberal arts school or something like it, to have a chance at a tippy-top program--eg, Harvard, Princeton, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, etc--you need all these things, and your chances are still not good. For example, my graduate school friend group at one of those places included an international physics olympiad gold medalist, a Rhodes scholar, and someone who got the highest score in all of India on the national college entrance exam. People like that are going to be your competition.

The good news is, you can still do exceptionally well at a say, top fifteen but not top five program, and there, your chances of admission are way, way, higher if you can meet conditions 1-5 above. Good luck!

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  • Thank you, this is what I was looking for. Could you clarify what an "R1" professor is? Nov 29, 2023 at 12:19
  • an R1 is a primarily research-intensive (doctoral degree granting) university. PS--if my above posting answers your question, please accept it.
    – Mike
    Nov 29, 2023 at 17:55
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A combination of close connection can work well here. First, the students needs a mentor/ letter writer who knows the student well. Just taking classes is not sufficient, you want some research experience, an undergrad thesis or something like that. Second, the mentor needs to have a close connection to a professor at the university you apply to, having written a joint paper or maybe being a former PhD student.

If you have a setup like that and the mentor honestly believes the students is strong enough to go to the top program they may be able to convince the professor and through them the graduate admissions committee.

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  • "Second, the mentor needs" - I think this is too strong, but good point, connections can certainly work Nov 30, 2023 at 14:46
  • @DavidRaveh My idea has was that the connection between the two professors is strong enough that they will not only read the recommendation letter but maybe call the other professor to get some individual personal feedback on the student. If the professor only knows the letter writer professionally from conferences that might be enough to get the application read but it will still be one among many.
    – quarague
    Dec 1, 2023 at 6:51
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It is pretty uncommon for the quality of the undergraduate institution to be the deciding factor in graduate school admissions. Admissions committees understand that there are a lot of factors that go into choosing an undergraduate school beyond scholastic achievement. Outstanding students often end up in low-tier undergraduate programs because of financial reasons, or because there are family constraints, etc. So, admissions committees recognize that top-tier graduate students can come from anywhere.

That said: for students coming from a low-tier university, it is especially important that they demonstrate their qualification through their academic record. When faculty evaluate applications from students at a low-tier (but ABET accredited) university, they will always take the applicant seriously if they get all As, have a strong GRE, and maybe some undergraduate research experience. If they have strong letters and statements of purpose, they are potentially as attractive as students from other top schools.

The distinction comes when looking at students who have mediocre academic records. A student from MIT with a B average will be a much stronger candidate than a student from a low-ranked school. If a student is getting Bs and Cs at a mid- to low-tier school, they should probably not expect much in terms of upward movement.

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  • How would a Harvard decide between A student from weaker university and B student from strong student? Even if the A student has a strong letter saying "top of the class", the competition levels don't compare since it is much easier to be top of the class at weak university; this is the heart of my question. Nov 29, 2023 at 3:00
  • Admissions committees do not work on the basis of transcripts alone. "Top of the class" is necessary but not sufficient for students at a weak university, yes. But if you add to that publications (especially first-author publications in top ranked journals) and experience at reputable research institutions, you will stand out above the B student from MIT.
    – mrp
    Nov 29, 2023 at 15:31
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Just to be clear: "exceptional" is not a thing that one can contrive by clever strategies. There has to be substance, that is (also) not a thing that can be arranged in a few moments. "You are who you are". (Yes, quite a few people have not had various advantages, but I'm not talking about those sorts of "disadvantaged" beginnings...)

So, in the end, although nowadays we may distrust such evaluations, (and with good reason...), if/when you are exceptional, some one of your faculty people will confirm that. You cannot "arrange" it!!! It'd be based on your body of work, and interactions with people.

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  • Isn't it true that a student who is called "exceptional" at a weak university is simply average at an elite university? I am presuming that this is a factor committees consider; my question is how does a truly exceptional student distinguish themselves as such? Nov 29, 2023 at 3:14
  • No, not in general. If you are doing everything you can do - straight As, undergraduate research, internships at reputable research institutions - you will stand out above average students at elite schools. They key is to show you are doing everything you can given the constraints of the institution you are at. Review committees will see this.
    – mrp
    Nov 29, 2023 at 15:28

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