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Thread: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

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    The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

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    There is one truth about top 10 admissions that I hope everyone here knows in order to adjust their expectations.

    By top 10, I refer to MIT, Harvard, Stanford (and GSB), Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, Northwestern, and NYU.

    Economic admissions is elitist. Which means that if you come from an "unknown state school," or from a "top Southeast Asian university," you're not going to get admitted. Forget it. It's the cold hard truth of economics admissions that you have a near-zero chance of being admitted to a top program if you do not come from a top undergraduate.

    To set this a little bit straighter, this has nothing to do with your ability. I'm sure most of the self-selected applicants who apply to top 10 programs will pass their quals just fine. It is just the way things are. If you want to know why, read on.

    According to the many more "prominent" advisors on this website, as long as you take a lot of mathematics and statistics courses, get As in all of them, ace your GRE, do a lot of RA work, you have a greater chance at being admitted. This is true, but it is not helpful.

    Because while you can improve your chances of being admitted as a whitebread economics-mathematics major with a 4.0 GPA, your chances will still be near-zero, unless you have letters of recommendation from prominent economists who has connections to economists on the adcom on the other side. If you're from an "unranked state school," or from an "unknown" school in some remote country, the chances that there exist prominent economists on the faculty of your school is measly.

    Make no mistake, your letters of recommendation and connections to the department you wish to be admitted at are the most important aspects of your application, to the point that your GPA, math courses, and GRE will play a small secondary role. Make no mistake, your chances at being admitted to a top economics department has already been determined the minute you choose which undergraduate school to attend.

    I've heard many on this forum make the argument that they are giving advice to the "regular" applicants, not to the applicants who have had the luxury of being in a top 10 undergraduate. My response to that is these people over-estimate the number of spaces that are reserved for "regular" applicants. In most years, classes can be filled by people whose recommenders who have connections to the adcom entirely. This means that apart from the handful (less than a handful) of students that a typical department will admit from Japan, China, Russia, France, Britain, Argentina, Chile, Mexico etc, there are years when ALL the "American" admits are "backdoor" admits. These are full-time RAs of economists on the adcom, students of Nobel Laureates, or students of economists who are friends of economists on the adcom.

    The community of economists is very tight-knit and elitist. Economists in the top 10 often mingle only within the same group. If your professor was a classmate of an MIT professor in graduate school at Harvard, and now your professor teaches at some unranked state school, don't expect that to be a good connection. But if you go to Yale, and one of your letter writers is William Nordhaus, you will get in anywhere you go because adcoms are usually made up of professors who might know him personally, and would not want to risk the embarrassment of answering the question "why didn't you admit my student that year?"

    So what should someone from a weak undergrad program do?

    1. Do an MA/MS. Certain top universities offer terminal MA/MS programs in economics, or in statistics. What you learn in the program does not matter. The goal of joining a terminal MA/MS programs is to get better letters. Always have that in mind. The goal is the letters, not the additional math/stats courses that you can take which adcom doesn't care about anyway.

    The Stanford MS in Statistics, the Harvard AM in Statistics, the Columbia MA in Quantitative Methods, Economics, or Statistics, are good ways for someone from a low-ranked undergraduate to get the "elite" exposure that is so crucial. Of course, this is the route for the wealthy. These programs are extremely expensive. Unless you have a scholarship, take the full-time RA route. Be willing to travel to places like Indonesia or Kenya for a couple of years to get letters from Olken, Banerjee, or Duflo.

    2. Switch fields. Economics is one of the most competitive fields in which to do a PhD. But certain other fields, such as sociology, have very low barriers to entry because they are not that popular (or useful) in the first place. It is far more likely to get into an elite sociology program.

    3. Figure out if doing a PhD in Economics is what you truly want to do. A lot of people interested in economics are not particularly interested in economic research. For a 5-year time investment, this should be the sole consideration—do you want to be an academic economist? Otherwise, there are MPP/MPA programs, MBA programs, MA programs, or British MS programs which give you exposure to economics without the bureaucracy of economics PhD admissions.

    4. Do a PhD in Economics in Britain. Many MPhil programs in Britain allow students to carry on to complete a PhD without making another application. But I shall warn you that the training of a researcher is very mediocre in Britain and academic placements are the same. You get to slap on a DPhil in Economics from Oxford at the back of your name but this will only impress people outside of the world of economics. We all know British PhD economists are trained more adequately for professional placements, not academic ones.

    Ultimately, I personally do not think it is worth it do commit 5 years to any economics PhD program for the sake of getting a PhD in Economics. If you did not get into a program that you truly like, and I mean truly like, there are better ways to spend your time.

    The world of economics is full of elitism. You are not going to be a very successful or famous economist if you're at a top program because journals are also elitist. You are also not going to be placed at a top department if you did not graduate from a top program. You will not be placed in a top graduate school if you did not graduate from a top undergraduate. Your whole career in economics is defined the minute you start college, and if you do not come from a wealthy family, there is no way to salvage the situation by spending hundreds of thousands for an MA/MS at a top department to get letters.

    There are certainly other ways to spend your life which will give you much better utility.

    Background:

    I have an S.B in Economics and Political Science from MIT. I audited Linear Algebra (which means I have no grade in it), I took Multivariable Calculus P/NP, my Differential Equations was a B, and my Real Analysis was a B. This was it for my mathematics preparation. I did two years of JPAL, and was admitted to MIT, Harvard, and all of the top 10 except Princeton. I became an tenure-track AP at a top 5 (where I was on the adcom for a while), but left for the private sector, where people earning the same amount as I do, doing the same job, are much much younger and a lot less qualified. My boss, earning 7 figures, only has a BA in English from Oxford.

    There's more to life than getting a PhD in Economics.

    Feel free to ask for any advice or profile evaluation on this thread.

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    Thanks for this post. I found it really insightful and honest!

    I'm a recent Canadian b-school graduate just starting to explore the idea of pursuing a career in economic research, particularly in development economics. You have summarized my apprehensions quite adequately, that without the elite undergraduate background and careful planning from day 1 in my mother's womb, the costs might be too great for even a chance of admission into a Top 20 program.

    That being said, I would love to hear your advice `given your time at JPAL. I graduated from the #1 business program in Canada with a 3.86 CGPA. I took a smattering of introductory econ, calculus, statistics, and applied math courses like finance and operations research, all As or A+s. After school I started my career in consulting/market research for private and non-profit sector (1.5 years), and then decided that I wanted to switch careers and move into development. Currently I'm volunteering in Nepal, kind of like a Peace Corps volunteer but Canadian. I'm a quasi-research role at a vocational school where I'm designing and administering surveys on gender biases, student satisfaction, tracing graduates, etc. In my free time I've been completing the MicroMasters credential from MIT and JPAL online, and getting 90%+ in all my courses.

    Ideally after my time in Nepal and completion of the MicroMasters, I want to land some sort of entry-level RA role like at JPAL, IPA, etc. Is this realistic, given your experience? Or should I be thinking about trying to get accepted into the best MA/MS/MPA/MBA program I can? I don't know if I specifically want to pursue a career in academia as an economist, but I would like my career to be involved in the understanding and delivery of empirical, effective solutions to helping the world's poor.

    Thanks for your advice!

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    I enjoyed reading this, it’s the cold hard truth. Since you mentioned it at the bottom, I was hoping to get somewhat of a profile review along with future advice from you. I posted one a while back but got no real response.

    I just graduated from a US uni ranked ~50. Think like BU level. I double majored in economics and statistics (and had a social science minor as well) and had a 3.85 overall gpa along with 3.97 GPAs in both Econ and Stat.

    Econ Grades: A’s in every class except one elective where I got an A- (important As - Econometrics, Intermediate Micro, and Intermediate macro with math. No grad school courses)

    Stat Grades: All As except for Mathematical statistics 1 where I got an A- (important As - Mathematical Statistics 2, Time Series Analysis, Data Mining)

    Math Grades: Calc 1 & 2 - A, Calc 3 - A-, Linear Algebra - A, Real Analysis - B (I never took an intro to proofs course which made adjusting to this class very difficult)

    GRE: Q/V/AW: 168/163/5 (I could probably bump this up a point or two if needed)

    Research: RA for 2 professors at my Uni throughout the entirety my junior year

    LOR: 1 prof from a top 5, 2 from the same top 30. All three publish heavily within their fields and seem to be well respected.


    Next Year: I’m working at a top economic consulting firm (think NERA/AG/Cornerstone)

    What schools should I be shooting for and what should I be doing to enhance my chances of a PHD?

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    Économie du bien commun AnhKnight's Avatar
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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    Are you kidding ? It is a shocking story for me. I'm going to do M1 Econ in TSE and preparing for admitting US PhD Econ. in your view, is TSE a good stepping stone for US PhD?
    Attending: M1 Econ TSE; Pending: M1 APE PSE; Rejected: M1 Sarclay, Bocconi, QEM, BGSE

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    This is not entirely true masstech. We take a couple charity cases every year and sometimes they pass. Also, elitism is not unique to economics. It is especially bad in economics but we do not hold the monopoly in it. Everything you described in your post happens in every other profession on earth. If you think otherwise, you're oblivious to reality.

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    OP's advice seems correct and valid to me, and we should appreciate that someone with his/her credentials/experience took the time to type it out.

    Personally, in all my years at a top 5 program, I was only one of 2 admits from a non-top 30 U.S. undergrad, and I arguably had a "backdoor" connection. The top-end of econ PhD admissions is *very* exclusive. Part of the problem is the rampant grade inflation in U.S. undergrad institutions, which makes it impossible to separate out the extreme top end of undergrad talent by grades, without the personal observation that comes with RA experience.

    But Kaysa is probably correct also that elitism isn't an exclusive feature of economics. IIRC there was a paper showing that sociology, history and most of the humanities are even more top-ended in PhD admissions as well as job market placement. There's also an unusually high proportion of econ PhDs from mid-ranked institutions who place into top-ranked departments every year. For an academic discipline, economics seems relatively meritocratic; though I can understand why some prefer the private sector.

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    Hi, I am currently a junior in the top 10 list of the schools you mentioned above.
    My questions are the following:
    I don't know if the "top 10 UNDERGRADUATE" schools are necessarily the same as the list of "top 10" schools you mentioned above since some undergraduate programs that are not in the top 10 list according to USNWR are generally considered to be top 10 for Econ Ph.D.

    Furthermore, would better performance in the upper version of the courses compensate for a few B+s on my profile?
    For instance, would As in Topology, Grad level Analysis, Grad level Probability, Complex Analysis compensate for B+ in Honors Analysis and Probability Theory? I also took a regular version of Analysis 1 as pass/fail in the early year of my undergraduate career after getting an A-;(back then, I did not think about applying to econ phd programs and just wanted to get an exposure to math).

    I was recently accepted into Bachelor-Masters program in Mathematics with funding and coauthored a math paper that involves PDE. Will a masters degree in math and having graduate math courses (some phd level math courses) on the transcript send strong signal if I also supplement the math masters coursework with 1~2 Econ Ph.D courses?

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    OP, I think for readers who are future applicants it would be helpful to more clearly distinguish whether the problem of attending particular undergrad institutions is (1) having relatively useless letters of recommendation / connections or (2) the actual undergrad institution per se. Letters can be remedied, as you touch on regarding MS/MA or RA positions. It is not at all infeasible for a 4.0GPA from an "unknown state school" to get an RA job in a top department (of course undergrad pedigree is still useful here, but far from deterministic) and then apply to PhD programs having letters from well-known top-5 or top-10 department economists. My prior is that this back door to the back door is effective, but readers would probably benefit from your distinction here.

    Directly: If someone comes from an "unranked state school" with great grades etc, and RA'd full time with a top 5 professor(s) who will write a solid letter of recommendation, what is your view on the extent to which a weak undergrad institution penalty still applies?

    (And, agreed with above that it's great you chose to share your insights.)

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    Re: The Truth About Top 10 Admissions

    Quote Originally Posted by jjrousseau View Post
    OP, I think for readers who are future applicants it would be helpful to more clearly distinguish whether the problem of attending particular undergrad institutions is (1) having relatively useless letters of recommendation / connections or (2) the actual undergrad institution per se. Letters can be remedied, as you touch on regarding MS/MA or RA positions. It is not at all infeasible for a 4.0GPA from an "unknown state school" to get an RA job in a top department (of course undergrad pedigree is still useful here, but far from deterministic) and then apply to PhD programs having letters from well-known top-5 or top-10 department economists. My prior is that this back door to the back door is effective, but readers would probably benefit from your distinction here.

    Directly: If someone comes from an "unranked state school" with great grades etc, and RA'd full time with a top 5 professor(s) who will write a solid letter of recommendation, what is your view on the extent to which a weak undergrad institution penalty still applies?

    (And, agreed with above that it's great you chose to share your insights.)
    I would like to add for point (2) that for getting into good MA/MS programs or getting good RA positions not all "unknown" institutions are the same. There are some institutions that are not well known on the national level but are well regarded regionally for providing a quality education, and if an applicant concentrates on MA/MS programs or RA programs at top tier schools in their region, it increases your chances a lot. Other institutions are unknown even regionally. If someone is coming from one of those schools, getting a good RA job is nearly impossible without some type of connection and getting into a serious (i.e. non cash cow) MA/MS program will also be nearly impossible.

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