View Full Version : How much does undergraduate reputation matter?

08-01-2007, 01:11 AM
I'm about to start my second full year at the University of Central Florida. Despite the fact that our acceptance rate isn't that high (~40%) and we have a strong honors program, we tend to be known more for our size (6th largest school in the nation) than our academic quality.

I'm currently majoring in economics and math and getting good grades in both. This year I will have a position as an undergraduate research assistant and before I graduate I will have written and defended an honors thesis.

That being said, I have not heard of anybody from my school going on to get a PHD in economics since Glenn Hubbard, more or less getting accepted into a top 10 program. Is it safe to to assume that my chances of getting into a good school are damaged because of my undergrad's reputation? If so could this be remedied with an Msc from somewhere such as UPF or Tilburg?

I really like my school. There are a lot of bright people here and the professors are all very helpful and knowledgeable. (Not to mention the in state tuition and full ride scholarship.) Sometimes, however, I wonder if transferring to a better school would be the only way I could get into a top program.

08-01-2007, 02:10 AM
To answer the question in the subject, probably more than you or I would like. However, I don't think it's at all insurmountable, particularly at schools outside of the top 5 but still very good. Plenty of people from directional state schools with far worse programs and student bodies than UCF have gone to very good econ PhD programs, so don't worry about not being considered at all.

I would encourage you to do well at UCF, get to know your professors, do research and otherwise cultivate connections that many other students won't have, and you'll be in good shape. At that point, an MSc would do you little good. If you excel and get a little lucky (everyone here has to get a little lucky), you could get into a top 10 program...but if you're forced to go to just a top 20 program, your academic life isn't over, really!

08-01-2007, 02:48 AM
I agree with notacolur. I just graduated from UF, which has a good reputation as far as state schools go, but is certainly not on par with the ivys or other elite institutions.
I firmly believe though that your undergraduate experience is what you make of it. If you seek out TA and RA positions in your department, and demonstrate a devotion to econ, you can go far. I ended up being accepted to Umich, Penn, and Cornell among a few others coming from UF, not to mention getting an NSF.
Its certainly true that you are at a disadvantage from UCF as I was at UF. But you do have the advantage that you may be the only student in your department looking at getting a PhD. This means that you won't have to face the same competition for TA and RA spots that a student at an Ivy would face.
If the only way that you could ever see yourself being happy is to attend a top 5, then maybe you should transfer. But if you work hard, take tons of math, and take advantage of every opportunity in your department there is no reason you can't get into a top 20.
Good luck!

08-01-2007, 04:46 AM
notacolour's advice is spot on. Yes, going to UCF is going to play a factor, however it is hardly detrimental to your chances. Do your best, work hard to get great LOR's and you never know how things will turn out. There was a member here at Test Magic this last year that got into Stanford, despite coming from a school with little to no reputation for either undergraduate or economics education. There's no reason that can't be you.

08-01-2007, 11:41 AM
I went to a large state school known, if for anything, for its partying.
I still managed to secure admission to a few top 20 schools, though without funding. I'd say that if your work hard and make sure that your experiences are as sparkling as you can make them, there's no reason to rule out top schools. For example, I made sure to snag both grading and tutoring positions in the department, and presented at about 6 conferences all told during undergrad. I included a writing sample of some of my research with my application. And I majored in math and economics (and psychology, but I don't think that had anything to do with anything, admissions-wise).
So, in answer to the original question, yes, your undergrad rep will definitely have an impact on your admissions chances. Is that impact insurmontable? Absolutely not.

08-01-2007, 12:33 PM
notacolour: You mention how an MSc at a solid school really wouldn't do much to improve the chances of getting in to a top school.

Econ PhD puts UCF at 292 overall, and my university doesn't appear in the rankings. Is there really little value-added by getting a MSc/MA at a much more highly ranked institution, e.g. UBC, Queens, Oxford, LSE, Tilburg, etc?

08-01-2007, 12:35 PM

08-01-2007, 12:35 PM
I'll agree with everyone else here. I'm from a respected public liberal arts college, but with almost no reputation in economics. (We've had only two or three people get into top-25 schools within the past fifteen years.) So reputation does play at least some kind of a role, but those of us not from the BCS schools (Bowl Championship Series in college football--the biggest and best endowed public schools, and a few private schools such as BC and Notre Dame) or the top-20 programs will always have to fight that.

08-01-2007, 01:13 PM
Thesus (http://www.urch.com/forums/members/thesus.html): Yes, I really don't think an MA/MSc would help much if you do well in your undergrad studies, seek out TA/RA opportunities, and cultivate relationships with professors that lead to good LORs.

Undergrads at the top schools have the luxury of LORs from people who are well-published in their fields and widely known. Everybody else relies on letters from people who the adcoms almost certainly haven't heard of. In this sense, I don't think things are that different for someone at UCF as for someone at, say, Rutgers or Florida or Virginia Tech, top-100 schools all by EconPhD measures.

If you came out of undergrad without a solid background in math, and lacking relationships with professors you could mine for LORs, then a master's degree could be useful. But if you do well now, it would just be spinning your wheels for a couple of years.

Guest Who
08-01-2007, 02:20 PM
Reputation plays a very significant role. If you need (more? ldoes anyone ever present more than hearsay and educated guesses (save asquare)) evidence, just call Princeton's economics department during admission season and ask them how they order applicants: by undergraduate institution. That is, you're not alphabetized by last name, but by undergrad. school.

(You can justify this a variety of ways: many asian applicants, say, have the same last name; etc. Nonetheless, which explanation do you believe?)

08-01-2007, 03:13 PM
I believe what matters more than the reputation of your institution is the rigour of your institution.
Since for most US school the reputation = rigour, it is obvious that applicants from a well-known institution with similar coursework and grades have a better chance. However, some schools especially european and asian universities are ranked well too low on econphd in regard to their rigour of teaching.
The best example is U Bocconi...they are constantly placing their students in top PhD programs...even though they are 101!!!! on econphd...

So, I definitely believe reputation plays a role however the econphd ranking is not a very good indicator of what adcoms might think of a school.

08-01-2007, 03:15 PM
I believe what matters more than the reputation of your institution is the rigour of your institution.
Since for most US school the reputation = rigour, it is obvious that applicants from a well-known institution with similar coursework and grades have a better chance. However, some schools especially european and asian universities are ranked well too low on econphd in regard to their rigour of teaching.
The best example is U Bocconi...they are constantly placing their students in top PhD programs...even though they are 101!!!! on econphd...

So, I definitely believe reputation plays a role however the econphd ranking is not a very good indicator of what adcoms might think of a school.

08-02-2007, 07:38 AM
The ranking on econphd.net--and, really, any ranking of graduate econ programs--isn't necessarily related very closely to the quality of undergraduate instruction at a particular university. If students at universities that have top Ph.D. programs have an advantage--and I haven't seen much evidence that they have much of an advantage--it seems more likely that it would come in because they'd have better access to well-known writers for the LORs.

08-02-2007, 07:33 PM
buckykatt, that's a good point. One of the reasons I wanted to go to a LAC was to avoid classes taught by TA's. (I may have to rethink the value of TAs when I go to grad school.)

08-02-2007, 08:13 PM
Hi Gang: I copied this from the other question because it is more applicable here:

Dear Kidairbag: At this point, I would also emphasize two things. First, working on research with one of UCF's good people--e.g., Dickie, Gerking, Harrison, Hofler, Rutstrom, etc. on the applied side, and Caputo on the theory side. When I say "working," I mean coauthoring. Then you can use one of these studies as your writing sample.

Second, if you can take, and ace, a micro and/or macro theory graduate course that would help alot. For this, perhaps go to Gainesville (I am unsure what UCF's grad theory courses look like (perhaps those will be fine too), though the signal will be stronger from Gainesville).


Karina 07
08-04-2007, 02:37 AM
Signalling theory just seems bogus to me. What's the actual value-added of the institution? Did you learn any skills at the more prestigious schools that you didn't at the less prestigious schools that make you a more valuable member of the team? I have to say, I attended a prestigious university and found there was a rigor and value-added (IMO) that was lacking at some of the less prestigious universities. So my skill set was broadened and deepened by my attendance at the More Prestigious University (MPU).

I don't know, it undoubtedly depends on the university. And probably even right down to which courses you took at the university. I know that personally, I'm much more impressed by someone who went to and got good grades at, say, a strong state school than someone who went to and got good grades at many more prestigious schools where I suspect grade inflation is higher. I don't know why, but to me grade inflation goes almost hand in hand with prestige, as though prestigious schools want to boost their students forward even more.

08-04-2007, 04:07 PM
I generally agree with the last post. I think the difference between most of the schools with a good reputation and say a very good state school with a lesser reputation in economics is that in the former students are necessarily exposed to a certain level of difficulty and mathematical riguor, simply by the core required economics classes, whereas in the latter it is up to the student to chose the more difficult and math based classes in and outside of their major to get the same level of preparation.

With respect to grade inflation at the more prestigeous schools, I went to a "prestigeous" school for undergrad at which I took a lot of economics and a fair amount of math. After graduating I ended up taking several higher level math classes (I was the only non senior math-major/engineering graduate student in the classes) at a very well respected state school. In my particular situation at least, while there was definately no grade inflation at the state school (the professors seemed to be very fair and unforgiving in using their set in stone grading scale, regardless of how the class was doing) I can honestly say that there were many classes at my undergraduate school where only one or two people got A's or A-'s and where the mean was set at a C. Clearly, the most difficult classes that I took were at my undergrad institution. I can't say that this is true for all the schools with a good reputation, I'm just pointing out that grade inflation definately does not go hand in hand with prestige.

08-04-2007, 11:03 PM
On a related note, someone here (sorry, I forget who) posted a link to an interesting paper discussing degree completion and employment outcomes during the 90s for the top five econ programs:

What Does Performance in Graduate School Predict? Graduate Economics Education and Student Outcomes (http://www.aeaweb.org/annual_mtg_papers/2007/0105_0800_0603.pdf)

The authors found that attendance at a top undergrad institution was a better predictor of job placement than graduate grades. Hard to say what that means, but food for thought...

08-08-2007, 04:13 PM
I hope that any potential damage to an application caused by undergraduate reputation can be off-balanced by other acheivements by the applicant such as good grades etc. If you are making the best out of what your school has to offer then you should be fine. Besides, even you mentioned that your school is very big so just because you have not heard about someone from your alma mater getting into top 10 recently, doesn't meant there aren't any. That being said, I do have one discouraging data point to offer. I am currently doing my Ph.D at one of the top programs. We have a relatively small class my year but only 1 received her undergraduate education from a public university. That being said, she is doing very well, at least much better than I, who was fortunate enough to attend one of the top private universities for undergraduate. The point is that admins probably recognize that there are talented aspiring economists from all schools regardless of the student population. Good luck on everything.

08-08-2007, 06:10 PM
I suspect those of us who don't attend prestigious undergrad institutions are at a slight disadvantage primarily because adcoms aren't familiar enough with the schools to know how to assesses our performance there. If they see applications from, say, MIT students every year (with LORs from the same professors) and admit some of them regularly, they're going to have a better idea how those students will perform once admitted to their program than they would for a student coming from Anytown State U, from which they see an applicant once in a blue moon. Even if they have no reason to think that Anytown U provides less rigorous preparation, it's a riskier investment.