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Out of 9 applications to graduate schools ranked in the top 25 according to US News, I was accepted to only one PhD program in Electrical Engineering, and just barely (see note below). According to my GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and previous relevant research/industry experience I thought that I had a much better chance of being accepted to these programs. The only thing that I can see that sets me apart from many of my peers is that my undergraduate alma mater is pretty obscure (barely top 200 R2 university).

Here's some extra information about my application in case something else here sticks out:

Undergraduate Majors - Dual Computer Science & Electrical Engineering

Undergraduate GPA - 3.97

Research/Industry Experience - Two summer internships at NASA resulting in two conference publications. Four years as a professional Electrical Engineer doing R&D for a defense contractor which resulted in two more conference publications.

GRE - 166 Quantitative, 159 Verbal, 5.0 Writing

Maybe these schools are just monumentally difficult to be accepted into? I'm curious if anyone here has some insider insights.

Note: The reason I say just barely is because, after not hearing back from most schools, and being rejected outright from 3, I called the one I was most interested in going to and told them if they still had me on their list of viable candidates and were willing to make me an offer that I would accept. I received an offer letter the next day, two weeks before the deadline. I received rejections from the remaining schools not long thereafter.

  • The only thing that I can see that sets me apart from many of my peers is that my undergraduate alma mater is pretty obscure, what about your 4 years in industry? – StrongBad Aug 15 '16 at 19:57
  • I guess I worded that poorly. I meant negatively sets me apart, although I guess it's possible that some reviewers may see the 4 years in industry as a negative. – jodag Aug 15 '16 at 20:16
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    I think it's not a "bias", but an appreciation for the palpable fact that there is a significant advantage possible from studying in one of the best departments. Oppositely, often there are innate limitations in what can happen in a much-less-notable department. So, statistically, it is entirely reasonable for admissions committees to have expectations based on reputation and past experience. "Bias" suggests to me something irrational or prejudicial, and I don't think that's happening much. – paul garrett Aug 15 '16 at 22:06
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    You don't mention anything about your letters of recommendation, which makes me suspect you aren't valuing them correctly in your assessment of your chances. The reputation of your letter writers will be far more important to the admissions committee than the reputation of your school. – Chan-Ho Suh Aug 16 '16 at 0:06
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Excuse my short answer: absolutely.

Obviously, a school with a good, or even a great name, will give a candidate a big boost in his/her application. This is a rational decision: the recruiting committee wants to minimize any risks and they don't have much time to delve seriously into the history of each candidate. So if you graduated from a top school with excellent credentials you will have an edge over those with equal credentials but lesser perceived schools.

Good references from colleagues of faculty in the department you're applying to, and good ties with your school are also strong factors for admission.

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    I went to grad school at MIT. Almost all of the students did their undergraduate work at MIT, Stanford, UCB, or other top tier schools. – Ellen Spertus Aug 16 '16 at 16:18
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Congrats on getting accepted!

There are a lot of variables here, so it isn't just where you went to undergrad, but that is definitely something admissions look at. Why wouldn't they? There is likely a correlation with going to a great undergrad, doing well, and then being successful in grad school.

Top schools get the top applicants from around the world. I can't imagine how difficult it is to compare such great applicants in any meaningful way. All else being equal, where the student went for undergrad could very well be the deciding factor. It is also a measurement that certainly anyone reviewing applicants knows a fair amount about.

There is also a lot of info we don't know about you (e.g., what you wrote in your letter, what your letters of rec said, etc.)

Again, congrats on getting admitted!

  • Thanks you! I spoke to professors at the schools before applying and most of them echoed what you've said. It's certainly possible that I wasn't as convincing in my SOP as I had hoped! There aren't any well known professors teaching at my undergraduate but I did research for the chair of the CS department and was able to get recommendations from him, the EE department chair, the Senior Scientist that I worked with at NASA, and the Chief Scientist I worked with in industry. Although I can't be sure what they said. – jodag Aug 15 '16 at 20:26
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It's simply impossible for two very different schools to offer equivalent classes and equivalent grades. Classes at better schools tend to be much more rigorous and it's harder to get an A at them. So of course if you have applicants with similar classes and GPA from different schools, the one from the stronger school is going to be the stronger applicant. Now this is certainly somewhat unfair for the very best students from weaker schools because they didn't have the opportunity to do better than an A, but it's still sensible behavior on the part of admissions committees to pick someone they know to be strong rather than take a risk on someone who might or might not be strong. It can be very hard for students from weaker schools to quickly adjust to the rigor of graduate classes.

Fortunately, the Ph.D. Is not the final step of one's career. Very strong students from weaker schools often get into a slightly less good graduate school than they deserve, but then they can excel at that school and get a better next job. So long as you get into one good school (which you did!) you'll have the opportunity to excel and prove that you deserved to be accepted at the others.

  • Noah, I believe you and I went to a school where it was quite easy to get A's :). (I agree with the general thrust of your answer, just replace A's with strong recommendations when coming from a school with massive grade inflation.) – David E Speyer Aug 16 '16 at 14:59
  • I've actually come around to the viewpoint that much of "grade inflation" isn't low standards but instead lots of strong students. I stand by the claim that it's harder to get an A at top schools than at a 200th ranked one. (Which isn't to say that there aren't real significant differences in grading standards among the top schools. Just that those differences aren't relevant to the question.) – Noah Snyder Aug 16 '16 at 19:41
  • You are probably right about 200th ranked; I was thinking about the difference between 1-5 and 20-40. I see that the OP lists his school as barely top 200, so your answer is more relevant. – David E Speyer Aug 17 '16 at 1:36
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In my last year in graduate school, I sat on the admissions committee for our program - and realized that there are a wide variety of considerations that go into admissions decisions that have very little to do with what applicants think matters. They included: geographical distribution of students (not just those from the immediate region), whether an applicant was genuinely applying to the Ph.D. (we had a highly regarded, specialized M.A. program, and the last years had seen repeated examples of students claiming to want to get their Ph.Ds but dropping out once they had the coveted M.A.), whether the areas graduate students were planning on focusing on reflected the faculty balance (otherwise, a few faculty would have many Ph.D. students, and many faculty would have few), what kinds of financial aid packages we could offer to how many students, and so forth.

I do remember one case we had that is pertinent to you, though: two students (both women), one of whom was a top performer at a not so good school, the other of whom was a less good performer at a top school. In virtually all other relevant aspects, the two applicants were nearly identical. We opted to offer admission to the former - and not to the latter. So graduating from a "not so good" institution may not have been the relevant factor in your case at all. There are numerous elements to these decisions, many of which you as an applicant don't see and can't control.

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