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I did my bachelor's degree at an unknown school and got a very decent GPA. I picked it randomly and am now regretting that did not opt for a better school, although I had an opportunity.

Currently I am doing a master's at a school which is quite respected in my field (top 100 in the world rank). My grades are also expected to be high.

I want to apply for PhD. Could my bachelor's school be an obstacle to enter top PhD programs in Europe? I also have research experience + a lot of extracurriculars. If the prestige of a first degree is important, are there any ways to make my application look better?

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Since your masters is from a well regarded institution it is very unlikely that where you did your bachelors will raise any issues. You will have proven yourself on advanced topics in your field. The masters institution already decided that the bachelors place wasn't an issue and that will reinforce later judgements. In general, what you have done most recently is weighted over earlier work. Some top academics had a late start, actually.

However, be aware that if you limit applications in Europe or elsewhere to only top schools you may wind up disappointed, since the competition can be fierce. While you shouldn't omit those sorts of places you will have better luck overall if you cast a wide net. You will find good advisors/supervisors at most accredited institutions, even those without a "top" world ranking.

And, some top academics are other places than top institutions for various reasons, even a preference about where to live, even the quality of, for example, bagels. ;-)

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The fact that you're applying to (continental) Europe makes a huge difference for two reasons:

  1. Many countries here (e.g. Germany) don't have "top-tier" and "lower-tier" universities, so they likely won't mind it if your undergrad (or master's, on that matter) is from a lesser-known school, as long as it's accredited.
  2. Most likely the admission committees will look at your master's grades, not your BA ones.

However, the situation is very different in the UK and in North America, where your undergrad GPA (and the reputation of your school) might make more of a difference.

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  • As a German myself, I fully agree. No German professor thinks that one institution is superior to other. Feb 29 at 14:41
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To add to the great answer by Buffy, PhD applications are considered on multiple factors, and the school the candidate went to, is just one of them. As mentioned above, you have a master's school to balance out with undergraduate school. I think you have done the right thing by adding research experience and other skills to your resume and that will be considered favorably too.

Also, something to ask yourself is what you want out of the grad school - do you want your own research lab in a university or are you looking to pursue research in industry? At least in the USA, getting into academia is hard because an unfair amount of weight is given to the university where one gets their PhD. If you are reasonably certain or open to considering industry positions, it does not matter if you went to a top grad school and instead more weight is given to the quality of your work.

Finally, for the statement letter and all interviews going forward, I recommend identifying your story and then drawing relevant pieces from all your experiences to match the narrative of your story. As long as you can identify what you learned and gained from your undergraduate and master's schools and tie them to your story, you can highlight them as your strengths instead of something that holds you back. Good luck!

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As a former professor, I can say that a degree from a highly respected undergrad school will catch my attention. At the school where I taught, professors individually offered admission (and support) to students who met minimum standards. For example, I found a student from TSinghua (China's MIT) who didn't have the money to pay the application fee and I was about to pay it out of my own pocket when I found that he had been accepted to Stanford with a full ride.

Realize that most undergrad schools are teaching exactly the same subjects from exactly the same textbooks and e.g. i think even John Bardeen went to Wisconsin for his undergrad and m.s. and still won 2 physics nobel prizes including one for inventing the transistor. Smart professors know that a great student can come from almost anywhere if they must live at home while in college, but the sorting process begins at the undergrad school and students from top-30 undergrad schools will get more attention that students from the-rest-of-the-250 schools in the usa.

Focus on standing out in some way. Publish a paper in a good journal, have a good MS Thesis, find a famous MS adviser in an area where you want to continue, or get well known people to give you recommendations, get into an academic competition and place highly or win it (note you'll have to enter more than one for this), etc. Also, target the school and professor you want to work for and even ask them how you could earn a spot in their team. Acting shy will almost always hurt your academic career.

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I live in Germany and the only thing a professor ever cared was if you have enough experience or projects relevant to the PhD you're applying to and good grades. Like Buffy mentioned it's your Masters degree that's giving an entry point since in Europe it's mandatory to have one except for a few exceptions.

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