studying in top ranked schools

5 Major Advantages of Studying in Top Ranked Universities

Raghu Study in USA 26 Comments

Do you want to know the real difference between studying in top Ranked vs Low Ranked Universities?

Kaicheng Liang, second year Ph.D. student at M.I.T, posted the following answer in Quora.
I consider this to be probably the best, damn good explanation for differences between studying in Top Ranked Universities and low ranked universities.

Actual question: As an engineering student from an Ivy League school, will I be at a disadvantage in graduate admissions compared to students from schools with higher-ranked engineering programs?

Studying in Top Ranked Universities

I assume that ‘an Ivy League school’ in this context means ‘a lower-ranked engineering school.’ Apologies for being direct. Let me answer this question in a way that will be most useful to you, where ‘most useful’ does not necessarily mean ‘most encouraging’ or ‘most comforting.’

I’ve been called out on Quora before for being overly negative in my admissions-related answers, but increasingly I’ve come to believe strongly in the Chinese proverb “The best medicine is bitter to swallow but good for the illness.”

The answer to your question is Yes, you are at a disadvantage coming from a lower-ranked engineering school. A lot of people will be howling their disagreement at this point.

Most graduate students at top engineering schools will tell you that they know plenty of people in their program from lower-ranked engineering schools, so it appears there are plenty of counterexamples that render my answer false.

Also, most professors will tell you that admissions committees look at your research, your letters of recommendation, your coursework, your statement of purpose, and that the last thing on their minds is the ranking of your school.

Even the concept of rankings is widely ridiculed, even reviled. It has become the norm to discount rankings as just manipulative marketing.

Even with rankings computed by reputed agencies that use a plethora of metrics, there are endless categories and subcategories such that there is a number one for everyone.

There is a nebulous idea that rankings mean something, but it is difficult to appreciate what they mean to a student or a prospective applicant. Excellence

I have found that a useful way to appreciate rankings, especially on graduate admissions, is that higher-ranked schools have a higher standard of what is considered to be than lower-ranked schools.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean with these drawings that I scratched out on my iPad. Sorry about how they look. This is a plot of a number of people versus awesomeness, at your undergrad institution. As you would expect, it is a typical Gaussian ‘bell’ curve. Nothing surprising here. top school vs low ranked The new curve in the following plot represents the same Gaussian but for a higher-ranked school. top ranked schools vs low ranked   My argument is that the Gaussian is simply shifted to the right. Are you precluded from the highest levels of awesomeness simply because your school is lower-ranked? No, because the Gaussian extends infinitely long. 5 Advantages in Single Line

But on average, the level of thinking, level of work ethic, level of teaching, level of student-led research, level of excellence, is simply that bit higher quality.

The new curve in the following plot represents the Gaussian for applicants to graduate school. People who apply to graduate school are better-performing and more motivated, and a mix of the best of all undergrad institutions. top schools rankings low rankings What matters isn’t how awesome your school is. What matters is, how awesome are you? Let’s consider a couple of cases. If you were on the dotted line in the following plot, you were average in school, but would be strict below average at a higher-ranked school, and pretty much bottom of the graduate school applicant pile. top schools 4 If you were on the dotted line here, you were a genius in school, but then you would be just quite smart at a higher-ranked school, and average in the applicant pile. top schools 5 There is a disadvantage, but it isn’t from the admissions process – obviously nobody is going to judge you simply on where you’re from. The disadvantage is that your school and your peers have left you comfortable with a relatively low standard of excellence.

What you think is great, others think meh. And this is a crippling disadvantage in your personal growth and training, which severely affect your prospects either in the workforce or graduate school.

A graduate admissions committee isn’t going to pick students because they are from the highest-ranked engineering schools, but it is going to pick the best engineers.

And the best engineers, not all, but most, come from the highest-ranked schools.

So here’s the plan: you should know that the ranking of your school doesn’t disadvantage you directly in the process, but you should also be starkly aware that you probably aren’t as good an engineer or graduate school applicant as you think you are, even if you are valedictorian.

Stop benchmarking yourself against your peers. Benchmark yourself against the most brilliant version of you that you can imagine.

You who studies diligently and understands fully the fundamental concepts from coursework, you who works tirelessly in the lab after class, you who learns earnestly from your research advisor and graduate student mentors, you who fights for the second author or even the first author on one or even two or three research publications.

For every success you achieve, remind yourself that there are 10 or 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 undergrads out there who have achieved more and have stopped congratulating themselves and gone back to work. If you can do that, then you are at no disadvantage.

Are you in Low Ranked University?

Now, you may ask, I’m studying in low ranked university, what can I do to improve my Awesomeness?

I explain few things you can do if you an in low ranked school at – Advantages of Attending High Ranked University.


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  1. Manish

    Dear Raghu,

    I need your advice regarding my son. He is currently pursuing Computer Engineering from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As he wants to get settled there so I need your advice how should he plan his fture years.Should he first join any company and have some experience and then join MS or PhD ? Will MS or PhD help him to get the faster Green card etc or he should continue doing job if that is interesting for him.

    Normally , how the Indian students plan their career in similar situation?

    Pls. advice.


  2. Agneeshwar

    Hi Raghu.. I got admission In AUBURN University… for mechanical engineering.. does it worth studying there.? Fees is too high. $57000 for 2 years..

    1. Author
      Raghuram Sukumar

      I’m about to publish an article on same topic. What other admits do you have and where else did you apply.

      Can you list them as Safe, Target vs Dream?

    2. Revathi Reddy

      Aurburn University is a great place to pursue your higher studies. One should be extremely luck to get an admission in Aurburn University. Here in this university the staff and professors are really very kind, gentle and humble and treat international students as their family members.

      Coming to academic terms, the educational programs are top notch, and resources provided by university are really helpful to students. It is also an amazing place to meet people from all over the world as well as it gives students to travel all over world.

  3. Srinidhi

    I love how every person posting here is Indian and perceives IIT as being great. Do you even understand where your university ranks globally. What this article does not tell you about is the fact that many standardized exams and high school grades tell people relatively little about how much of a genius a person really is. Doing actual research that contributes to society or making remarkable breakthroughs does not solely come from going to a top ranked university. It requires ingenuity and studying for the IIT exams and SATs is a lot of memorizing mixed with some understanding. Doing practice problems and doing something similar to what you have seen before on an exam does NOT make you a trailblazer or a pioneer. So if you can go to a high ranked university, excel there. If you go to a low ranked one, excel there too and make the most of things. Indian people have to stop circle jerking each other and trying to stroke their ego. People who know what they are talking about usually do not need affirmation of such qualities. Indian society in itself is too centered around one-upping the other family member or neighbor or friend.

  4. guest

    Dear Friends,

    ON what basis u r keeping SRM and VIT near to IIT. In india students give jee, aiee, state level engineering entrance examinations. Then according to their performance they get admission in IITs , Top state level engineering colleges. I want to know what is the basic scorings for getting admission in SRM and VIT. These two private universities are exapmle of a rampant level of corruption in education system also. They take huge amount of donation and fees and give degrees to less eligible guys. Now these guys become engineer who compete with those guys,who worked hard for getting admission in IITs and top level institutions in india. You guys tell me These two bastard smugglers universities SRM and VIT are not producing fake engineers only for their money profits.

  5. manigandan

    I read all d posts about universities, has per my experience just for name sake studying in a low ranked management schools your career brightness options will b lesser. Incase if u can afford good tution fee and grab opportunities in top universities ur future also would be brighter and career will be very good…….

  6. Go Blue

    I truly agree with the post that the curve just shifts to the right at any elite university.

    Love the way it has been portrayed.

  7. Devaraja

    Comparatively no better explanation can be given. stroke of a genius. Marvelous post.

  8. Bhala

    This is a great post ! Great eye opener. I was aware of the excellence-gap between IITs and other engineering institutes and have talked a lot about it to my friends, but never quite this clearly or in this context.
    “The disadvantage is that your school and your peers have left you comfortable with a relatively low standard of excellence.What you think is great, others think meh. ”
    For example,
    Designing & building a robot in my university had a WOW factor. But in IITs that was what every bored undergrad did ( who were interested in it). When we were struggling to implement computer vision algorithms in our robot, they designed and contributed algorithms to real world problems to some open source repos. !
    Once again, Nice post !

    1. Raghuram Sukumar

      Perfect Example. Not, scale that to Harvard and MIT. I read about a student who is like 17 from Harvard, who got mentioned by Obama multiple times for her research in Cancer.

  9. Sreekumar Menon

    Beautifully explained. I have a couple of questions but before getting to that, a bit of nit picking: Traditionally, “Ivy League” refers to eight universities on the East Coast – Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale; not exactly what you might call “lower ranked” schools. But, notwithstanding that clarification, Dr. Liang’s analysis stands. My question is a slightly different one. I don’t know if Dr. Liang is familiar with the Indian engineering colleges. But if a student completes her undergraduate degree from a major Indian Engg. college – let’s say the Vellore Institute of technology, not quite the Indian Institutes of Technology (the IITs) but close – with a 3.7 GPA where would she stand among her classmates at a place like MIT or Ann Arbor? Would she be able to hold her own among her peers at top American universities? Are the scores in standardized tests like GRE a good indicator of her intellectual level and preparedness for graduate study compared to her American classmates?

    1. Raghuram Sukumar

      I started responding to your comment and ended up writing a blog post.

      to answer your question, my guess would be at bottom of the class among his peers.

      1. Bhala

        Firstly, from what i observed from the IIT students i have interacted with IITs in itself is leagues above universities like VIT, SRM etc. The quality of professors are just too good. One can argue that VIT have been actively hiring former IIT Professors aggressively – my observation hold true even considering this.
        Almost all the IIT professors have very good research portfolios. Labs are funded by big corporate companies. Undergrads can take graduate level courses if they want to. Best of all is the “cumulative-beefed-up-high-IQ” student groups. Maybe 1 -5% of top students from universities are at par with 60 -75% of the students at IIT.
        But things are looking up, I don’t have that much information about VIT, but SRM University is beginning to realise the value of research and setting up labs with some hi tech equipments and recruiting renowned researchers from US to work in them. They even launched a mini satellite last year in collabration with ISRO.
        IMHO, GRE English and Math tests is never an indication of a persons intelluctual ability. Subject tests does to a level test your knowledge you have gained thus far. But even that i believe is ‘hackable’.

    2. Pratheek Ravoori

      I would advice anyone to never let go of a top class university if u get an opportunity. The only scenario when GPA would matter in grad school is when u try to apply for a PhD. Otherwise anything above 3.0 should be fine (which most can manage)
      The only thing recruiters see is the amount of knowledge u have in your field, which is (in most cases) directly proportional to the quality of graduate college u get into. Remember, good univ. implies greater employment opportunities. Also, the alumni will play a major role in referrals too!
      The connections that u make there are invaluable. The people that u mingle with will change the way u think. Money or fear of not performing at a top univ. should never be a factor. Graduate college will certainly be a career/life changing experience and it will certainly be better at good univ.

    3. Go Blue

      I just can’t restrain from commenting when I saw Raghuram’s remark.

      I don’t think that just because if you are from a university perceived elite you are intelligent. I have peers from Peking University whom I don’t find very smart.

      I am a graduate student at UMich and I have managed to pass with highest grades in the course (I am not an IITian). I believe anyone can do well as long as he/she have worked on building their foundation in the field. The atmosphere at elite universities is more congenial right from undergrad to have a good foundation. But in a not so elite university, it is your personal drive that determines your progress.

      A mango seed kept on the table will not grow into a plant or tree. But a seed grown in a good soil (with the right environment) will bear fruits one day.

  10. Vanan

    Hi HSB,
    Excellent post.. Now I have a question for you HSB..

    Though it relates to the post, it is an indirect kind of doubt though.. Please answer it..!

    Which is better or the ‘BEST’ among these two options which a student can face and in which case has the student great opportunities in future?

    Case 1: B-grade student with Average performance in a Top Ranking University


    Case 2: A-grade student with Outstanding performance in a Average/moderate Ranked University?

    1. Raghuram Sukumar

      I would read this sentence again “But on average, the level of thinking, level of work ethic, level of teaching, level of student-led research, level of excellence, is simply that bit higher quality.”

      So, my choice would be to get to the maximum possible school you can get in. I know students who picked a low ranked school just because they cannot pay $10,000 more in fees. Thats a huge mistake according to me.

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