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Does prestige matter?


cbsag123
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Yes, it matters. Hard to 'get on the track' when you are competing with people already 'on the track.' One of the biggest reasons is because letters from less known universities/departments are less likely to carry as much weight as letters from top scholars that people on admission committees know. Secondly, undergrads at top programs have access to a significantly greater amount of resources (research projects, funding, grants, ect.) than those who went to 'lesser' institutions. Thirdly, signalling matters - we all have cognitive biases that make us think applicants are more impressive if they went to top institutions.

That being said, these obstacles can be overcome and every cycle applicants from many different undergrad institutions get into top programs. But it's an uphill battle.

Lastly, there's no point in stressing about it - it's out of your control and nothing you can do about it (besides make your profile more competitive).

Edited by Comparativist
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So, how do I know if my institution is prestigious enough? Which rankings are the ones the adcom people take into consideration? Also, does it matter if it's an overall university ranking or major-specific ranking?

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I'd agree with everything Comparativist says -- especially the part about not stressing about it! Yes, search committees certainly use it as a heuristic along with grades, GRE, and GPA, especially for the first pass. To answer your question, think of the USNWR rankings; the political science rankings also matter marginally because it influences the likelihood we know your recommender. However, many students in the supposed "top 5" programs went to colleges outside of the top 50 USNWR national or liberal arts college list. So while not helping you, it does not exclude you from consideration. 

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Yes, it matters. This is true for a number of reasons. It's also true that you can succeed coming from a lower ranked/unranked school. It's just an uphill battle. 

"Prestige" in this context involves a lot of things. First, it signals (almost certainly unfairly) that you are a brighter student/had a better education. Second, you likely had better training, or at the very least, training that was more "recent" and in tune with current trends in research. Third, you may have had better access to research funding, grants, etc. Fourth, your recommenders are much more likely to have national or regional recognition, or relationships with professors at the schools you apply to. 

These are all things you can overcome. Anecdotally, I'm currently enrolled in a very good Ph.D. program (not CHYMPS, but close), and I graduated from a tiny teaching LAC. I had the unanimous recommendation of our Political Science faculty, because there were only three of them (none of which have published significant research in (literally) decades). I counteracted it by working my butt off to have a good GRE and GPA, great writing sample, conference presentations, and having the sorts of academic relationships that led to glowing recommendation letters. It's not impossible to overcome the bias towards higher ranked programs that carry more cachet, but it can be hard.

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If you are not sure whether your institution is prestigious or not, this means in most cases, it isn't.

If you are coming from an institution outside the United States, I think you can check the academic output of your institution (I mean how many students from your school went to the mainstream graduate schools after they graduated) to guess how your institution is perceived by the admission committees.

Edited by stonehouse
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I think that it's important to point out here that just because your institution might not be "prestigious," that doesn't make it unattractive to institutions. There are many institutions that are quite excellent, but that doesn't make them prestigious. For example, my undergraduate institution, a liberal arts university, is highly ranked on a variety of indicators and has several well-known, influential faculty members (both in and outside of my discipline), yet I wouldn't call it prestigious. 

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On 16.11.2017 at 3:12 PM, StrengthandHonor said:


These are all things you can overcome. Anecdotally, I'm currently enrolled in a very good Ph.D. program (not CHYMPS, but close), and I graduated from a tiny teaching LAC. I had the unanimous recommendation of our Political Science faculty, because there were only three of them (none of which have published significant research in (literally) decades). 

Could you explain what you mean by CHYMPS?

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24 minutes ago, cbsag123 said:

Could you explain what you mean by CHYMPS?

Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Princeton, Stanford.  Historically, the top programs in political science in terms of prestige. There are many other amazing programs in or near the top-10 (Berkeley, Duke, UNC, MIT, etc.) but they are second to the CHYMPS schools in terms of prestige. 

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I'm sorry for asking so many questions about this, but when you guys say that prestige of the undergrad institution matters, do you also mean these "chymps" schools? Would a person that went to Michigan (not remarkably prestigious compared to the other chymps schools, otherwise) have an advantage over a person that went to a top 20 college? This is all very confusing to me tbh

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3 hours ago, cbsag123 said:

I'm sorry for asking so many questions about this, but when you guys say that prestige of the undergrad institution matters, do you also mean these "chymps" schools? Would a person that went to Michigan (not remarkably prestigious compared to the other chymps schools, otherwise) have an advantage over a person that went to a top 20 college? This is all very confusing to me tbh

You are overthinking this. If, as others have noted, you are unsure of whether your school is prestigious/excellent/whatever, then it likely isn't. 

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@cbsag123, I would be loath to say that Michigan is not as prestigious as the other schools; they consistently rank in the top ten for most concentrations...

Frankly, prestige for admissions is null if you don't have the grades, writing skills, experience, and letters of recommendation. Stop concerning yourself with "brand name" schools, and focus on what you have to offer a graduate program and what you want to achieve with a graduate degree.

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Hate to feed to the rankings juggernaut, but just look at the USNWR lists for national universities and national liberal arts colleges. If your school is on the first page, great, you're at a slight advantage. Next couple pages, your school is fine. Not on the list, or way down? Maybe a slight disadvantage, but what can you do about it? In most cases it's a marginal factor.

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  • 3 weeks later...

This may have been said and I missed it... but based on how the OP was worded, just to say it explicitly: I would not mention your institutions reputation under any circumstances. It is either evident to adcomms, or irrelevant. The real estate you have to pitch yourself is limited. Spend your time talking about your research puzzle, career goals, etc... the things unique to you and your hopefully-new institution. Again, as an echo, solid training comes through in writing, not in mentioning rankings/reputation.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think even cursory research will show that the type of prestige that matters is whether admissions committee members recognize and are impressed by your undergrad and masters granting universities (which is mostly a question of whether its an Ivy, Cal, MIT, Stanford, Duke, Oxbridge, or the five most famous SLACs), which helps, whether they've heard of your college (which is neutral), and if they've never heard of your college it is at best neutral and at worst harmful.  Actually referring to your college's reputation as RevTheory1126 mentions is probably a kiss of death on a SoP...so really this conversation only matters to people who are either high school students or planning to take a terminal masters degree...and if you're in either of those categories you would be should go to the most prestigious university you can because it has a lifelong impact on your applications (at least until you have a PhD.)  

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