Unsolicited Advice, Part Three: Choosing an Undergraduate School

In comments, JMG3Y asks, “Where should a smart science-oriented high school student with a breadth of interests go to college?” This deserves a much more careful answer, but time is precious, so consider this a rough draft of an answer, which people are welcome to amplify in the comments. (Past installments here and here. At some future date there will be an installment on “How to be a good graduate student.”)

In reality, colleges and universities are very different from each other, and each should be considered separately. Also in reality, any such institution is huge and multifaceted, and two people can have wildly divergent experiences at the same place. Furthermore, sticking again to reality, this is a question that depends mostly on the individual student, and for which there is no right answer. Being all that as it may, for purposes of exposition let’s lump the possibilities into four categories:

  1. Liberal-Arts College (LAC), such as Swarthmore or Amherst.
  2. Specialized Technical School (STS), such as MIT or Caltech.
  3. Elite Private University (EPU), such as Harvard or Stanford.
  4. Large State School (LSS), such as UCLA or Michigan.

These are fuzzy and incomplete categories, of course, but hopefully the ideas will come across clearly enough.

At an LAC or STS, you will be forced to learn a lot, like it or not. I’m a big fan of LAC’s; the professors are typically talented and dedicated to teaching, and students get invaluable up-close-and-personal time with the faculty. But for people who want to go to grad school, they face something of a disadvantage because the these schools typically won’t have graduate programs. That means (1) you can’t take any grad classes, and (2) you can’t buttonhole grad students about advice for the next step. I went to one, and received a great education, but keenly felt those disadvantages.

The STS’s are also great (I work at one now). Your fellow students will be interested in similar things, and the coursework will challenge you. There will be plenty of opportunities for research experience, rubbing elbows with grad students and postdocs doing work at the forefront of science. Both MIT and Caltech have a feeling at being at the center of the scientific universe. Of course, they generally won’t give you a broader academic experience, if that’s what you’re after. For me personally, one of the best parts of being an undergraduate was being exposed to ideas in the arts and humanities (and people, both faculty and students, in those areas) that I never would have experienced otherwise.

At an EPU or LSS, it’s generally much easier to slide by without stretching yourself, if that’s your thing; on the other hand, the resources are tremendous, and if you have the initiative to take advantage of them, you can have a great experience.

The best thing about an EPU is the other students. So much so, that at a place like Harvard it’s generally acknowledged that a large fraction of your education comes from extracurricular activities. You’ll meet people, in your field and out, who will be running the world a few years down the line. The professors will be great researchers who may or may not be interested in teaching; there will likely be some opportunities for research and individual contact, but not all that much.

An LSS will also have great resources, in terms of faculty and research opportunities. There might be more close contact with professors than at an EPU, but that’s quite a generalization. Your fellow students will be more of a mixed bag; some will be geniuses and future world-changers, while many will be there to tread water for four years to get a degree. Of all the choices, the education you get at a large state school will depend the most on your own initiative; the school will almost certainly have more to offer than you possibly have time to take advantage of, but nobody will force you to do any of it.

For the particular goal of advancing to grad school, there are certain specialized factors to keep in mind. Having grad students around to ask questions to is certainly helpful. The choice of undergrad advisor is also important, I suppose, but depends much more on individuals than on schools, so I don’t know what to say there. It’s important to get some research experience, but this can often be done off-campus at other places during the summer (see the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates and similar programs). Getting good letters of recommendation is certainly helpful — for that, it’s less important where you are, and more important that people there know you well enough to write sensible letters. When it comes to actually applying to grad schools and making choices, it’s nice to get advice from people who know what they’re talking about; don’t be afraid to ask around.

Perhaps my own perspective on this kind of question is coming through clearly enough: wherever you go, your educational experience can vary wildly depending on how much you put into it. If you stick to what’s required, slide through with just enough work to get whatever GPA you’re aiming for, and spend the rest of your time playing video games, you’ll manage not to get much out of it no matter where you are. If you seek out new and challenging courses and activities, spend your summers doing research or interesting off-campus activities, and make an effort to talk individually to your best professors and hang out with other students who enjoy ideas, it will be an invaluable experience.

If you ask most 40-something professors what they would think of going back to school for four years, to do nothing but take interesting courses and discuss deep ideas with their friends, their eyes would light up with unvarnished pleasure at the prospect. Whatever you’re studying, college is a unique opportunity to stretch your mind; make the most of it.

  1. Caltech is certainly a technically oriented institution, but I was surprised (initially not too pleasantly) to discover how much emphasis was placed on humanities in the undergraduate curriculum. I took a lot of classes in Baxter Hall: European history with David Elliott, recent U.S. history with Dan Kevles (we read his book The Physicists while it was still in typescript), comparative religion with Peter Fay, history of the Far West with Rodman Paul, and history of the Supreme Court with Morgan Kousser. I forget who my music teacher was.

    They’re serious about that breadth stuff at Tech.

  2. MIT is the same way — the extensive humanities requirements surprised my friends at more conventional institutions. The literature and music departments are hidden gems.

    That said, the “vibe” is (was?) more about hacking Linux boxes and playing intramural sports than debating Wittgenstein or 3rd world development. This went on of course, but when I was there they weren’t dominant themes of campus discourse.

  3. In the UK, student choices are limited because:



    Since 1982 A-level physics entries have halved. Only just over 3.8 per cent of 16-year-olds took A-level physics in 2004 compared with about 6 per cent in 1990.

    More than a quarter (from 57 to 42) of universities with significant numbers of physics undergraduates have stopped teaching the subject since 1994, while the number of home students on first-degree physics courses has decreased by more than 28 per cent. Even in the 26 elite universities with the highest ratings for research the trend in student numbers has been downwards.

    Fewer graduates in physics than in the other sciences are training to be teachers, and a fifth of those are training to be maths teachers. A-level entries have fallen most sharply in FE colleges where 40 per cent of the feeder schools lack anyone who has studied physics to any level at university.

    I wrote about the causes of this in the Leader column of the magazine Electronics World, October 2003, but funnily enough received abusive responses. The British attitude to bad news is always “shoot the messenger”. πŸ˜‰

  4. I went to Harvey Mudd, which I thought was idea for somebody like me. It’s a cross between a LAC and a STS. It’s speciallized– when I was there, there were only four majors (math, physics, chemistry, and engineering). Today there are two more : computer science and biology.

    When I was there, there were only 560 or so students at HMC. It’s a bit bigger now, but still less than 800. In other words, it’s tiny, smaller than most LAC’s. The Physics department, however, had 12 faculty– which is nearly double the size of the Physics department you will find at the best Physicsy LAC’s out there. I really wanted the LAC environment, but I also wanted a rich science atmosphere; Harvey Mudd was ideal for me, given that. The faculty are also very good, and students do some solid research working with faculty there. And, yeah, you have a lot of contact with faculty members.

    As Zeno and Sourav say about Caltech and MIT, HMC really cares about and puts empahsis on humanities. Given the size of the college, it should come as no surprise that there is a “Department of Humanities & Social Sciences” to encapsulate all of English, History, Sociology, Ecnomics, Psychology, Philosophy, Political Science, and perhaps a few other fields I should have mentioned. However, my observation was that the H&SS professors at HMC were truly excellent. There aren’t a lot of them, but those that are there are good. At HMC, we all took something like 12 classes in Humanities and Social Sciences, which at the time was more than Physics majors at Harvard had to take.

    In addition, there are the other Claremont Colleges, at which you can take classes, so in fact there is a pretty big diversity of non-science things avialable to you.

    All of which sounds like an advertisement, and I guess it is.

    However, HMC is only the right place for a special subset of people. Even many people who will end up majoring in Physics will not find HMC the right place for them. It was the right place for me, but it clearly isn’t for everybody.

    What Sean says at the end is the most important: wherever you go, make the most of it. Recognize not just that it’s a lot of work and stress, but a tremendous opportunity in college to study and think about a wide varieity of things. Take classes on things you don’t think you’re interested in, and invest your heart into them. You may surprise yourself about the depth of thinking that’s out there in things you didn’t think were worth spending brainpower on.

    Specifically for the field, if you already know what you want to study: try to talk to students at colleges you are considering. Definitely talk to some professors there. Find out if undergraduates do much research with professors. Find out how well the professors get to know the students as people, not just as anonymous faces to whom a grade is delivered. Choose the place that “feels” right.

  5. As an undergrad I went to one of the STSs Sean mentioned. For graduate school, I attended an LSS. The great advantage of the latter over the former was that it was much easier to get laid make friends.

  6. Sean, given that you’re writing this post from Feynman’s desk, I find it difficult to buy the idea that your going to a LAC created any real disadvantages for you :)

    I certainly was less well prepared in my first-year grad classes than some of my classmates from , e.g., Caltech. And I think this was largely because I didn’t have access to grad classes as an undergrad at Williams. But then, four years of being treated as a capable and worthy student gave me more than enough self-confidence to persevere. I definitely would make the same choice again.

    BTW, Williams is totally the LAC to go to if you’re planning on a career in science. Their rate of grad school acceptance in the sciences is disproportionately high. But I’m biased, of course.

  7. If you ask most 40-something professors what they would think of going back to school for four years, to do nothing but take interesting courses and discuss deep ideas with their friends, their eyes would light up with unvarnished pleasure at the prospect.

    After reading the thread on proposes to change curricula, i became re-enthralled with how cool it would be to go back to that realm; and i am a 60 year old retiree. There is nothing as cool and as invigorating than the opportunity to learn something new everyday from people who are actively engaged in discovery and “peeling the layers off the onion” (or lotus) of mystery. I matriculated through the same LSS as both an undergraduate and graduate, taught at a SLSS (small large state school), and enjoyed the world pretty much each and every day. Now i just hang out with a bunch of LSS and LAC folks being grumpy and critical of everything (not unlike the theater critics on the Muppets show).

  8. Yale. Best combination of smart, varied, and (this is important) happy students out there.

    (unbiased observer here πŸ˜‰ )

  9. Good post. I will also offer this bit of advice to any high schoolers looking into college: despite the fact that everyone at your high school is no doubt freaking out over college applications and many people want you to think you will fail at life if you don’t get into MIT, it doesn’t matter at this stage. Really. I swear. Down the line if you want to go to graduate school you will take this into consideration, but at this point in your life a lot more matters in the equation, like student life and if the college is the right fit for you. Financial aid is also a big factor: unless your financial worries are already set through inheritance, you do not want to go $100k in debt for the name on the diploma. Such a move is just silly.

    Another thought at this point in your life is how the undergraduate cirriculum compares to the graduate school one at the institution. Who teaches the classes, professors or TAs? Do undergrads get research jobs, or is the focus on the graduate students? There are a lot of fine institutions out there which focus more on one instead of the other, and it’s best to not get the two mixed up.

    Finally, I know everyone knows this so I’m wasting my breath, but do not consider going to X University because they are really awesome at physics even if you hate a bunch of things about the school. You are going to live there for the rest of your life, so you don’t want to be miserable! Plus a countless number of prospective scientists have come into their university only to realize a new passion or that the field wasn’t what they imagined, and subsequently switch majors. This is a perfectly fine thing to do, of course, but you want your university to be versatile enough to accomadate such changes in lifestyle.

    Last of all don’t stress out too much about your applications, no one cares about your stats once you reach campus, and be sure to join the Society of Physics Students once you get to school. Us physicsfolk are social people (well, the ones who matter) and love new faces, and we can’t wait to meet you!

  10. Despite its tiny size, I wonder how much attention undergrads really get at a place like Caltech. True story: on graduation day a senior phys major was showing parents Feynman’s office and other sights. His advisor passed them in the hall without even an acknowledgement.

  11. There’s one thing people frequently say when talking about colleges which is an annoying myth: that one can only really work with professors at smaller schools, whereas at the Elite Private University, the professors are unwilling to deal with undergraduates. One frequently hears that research institutions are not good at teaching and leave undergraduates adrift. This is, as a rule, nonsense, though of course it might apply to some individual professors. I attended such an Elite Private University, and I and many of my friends were extensively involved in research as undergraduates. The opportunities are there for anyone who looks for them. Of course, other sorts of schools also provide such opportunities, but whenever I hear someone praising liberal arts colleges over research institutions because of the lack of opportunities for undergraduate research at research institutions, I’m vicariously annoyed on behalf of the many excellent professors at the EPUs who involve undergraduates in their work.

  12. anon — I think that the teaching is more consistently good at the best small liberal arts colleges. They select professors primarily for teaching there, and that helps.

    This is not to say that there isn’t excellent teaching at any good University! However, it’s also true at some big research Universities that you can get tenure in spite of being a crappy teacher, and that some of the profs there really don’t care about teaching. It may be a hit and miss sort of thing. Some universities will be better than others, and certainly some individuals are better than others.

    Re: undergrad research opportunities, this may also vary somewhat from university to university. It’s definitely something to ask about ahead of time; find out how much of that sort of thing really goes on. Also find out what sorts of things undergrads do.

    I’m at a semi-Elite Private University (Vanderbilt — top-20ish for undergrad, less so for physics grad school), and I’ve certainly involved undergrads in my research here. Indeed, the Physics undergrads do pretty well here; we graduate 8-15 a year, and there are 29 profs on the faculty. As such, the undergrads can get a good amount of personal attention if they just do a little bit of seeking it out.

    One difference is that an EPU, undergraduates can get involved in research, whereas the best professors at LACs will be coming up with research projects that are ideal for undergraduates. This may be true at EPUs as well, but will be less the rule. In any case, though, it’s going to vary from institution to institution, and from professor to professor. Choose the place that suits your temperment best.


  13. I went to an LSS for undergrad which sort of had a “party school” reputation. There was very little in terms of breadth requirements for the engineering and science majors. We were only required to take two liberal arts courses, of our choice. Most science and engineering majors I knew in those days ended up doing things the “lazy” way by taking “bonehead” courses where all the exams were “multiple guess” questions, such as freshman psychology (to satisfy the liberal arts course requirements).

    It turned out the physics department was kind of on the small side, and there were not many physics majors. The professors got to know us well, despite the large size of the university.

  14. I’ve done the whole round: undergrad at an LAC (Carleton), grad at an EPU (Princeton), postdoc at an STS (Caltech), a faculty position at an EPU (Princeton) and both faculty and academic administration at an LSS (a University of California campus). I’ve even spent time at an Elite International University along the way.

    Let me echo many others and say that for the quality of the education available, it really doesn’t matter. Every school I’ve been associated with turns out outstanding science graduates who go on to success in grad school and great careers. I’ve got colleagues today that took each of these routes.

    But there are lots of practical issues. Yvette mentions money, which can be counterintuitive. With resources for outstanding need-based aid, my LAC was much cheaper than an LSS would have been for me, but that won’t be true for everyone and the difference in pricetag between an LSS and the others can be astonishing given the small quality difference (in some states). Personality matters a lot too: not just the motivation factors that Sean mentioned, but also confidence and assertiveness. No matter how shy, a physics major will never just disappear at an LAC (or at Caltech!), and odds are that he or she will eventually be sucked into research. But I’ve also seen wildly self-confident freshmen at Princeton take advantage of resources that no LAC could provide — but only a small fraction of LSS or EPU undergrads actually take advantage of such resources. And despite anon’s annoyance at the thought, the truth is that undergrads at any institution with a big grad program (EPU or LSS) have to struggle to be noticed. The simple fact is that when the faculty reward structure is based on external grant funding and research accomplishment, spending time with undergrads is a risk many faculty avoid.

    An important thing to consider is the climate in the prospective home department, rather than just the atmosphere at the school. As an example, my graduating LAC class had 26 physics majors: 13 men, 13 women. My incoming EPU physics grad program had 26 students: 25 men and 1 woman. That was an unpleasant shock — not just the numbers, but the difference in attitudes and culture that drove them. It is really tough to figure out these climate issues from outside; there aren’t any college guides that burrow down to that level. The only thing is to visit schools, talk to students doing what you think you want to do, ask them what they enjoy or dislike about what they are doing, try to filter the random outliers from the general feeling of the place.

    The bottom line is that if you want to be a physicist, you better think first and foremost about where you will enjoy (and can afford) being a physicist.

  15. “And despite anon’s annoyance at the thought, the truth is that undergrads at any institution with a big grad program (EPU or LSS) have to struggle to be noticed.”

    Wow, apparently I struggled to be noticed without even realizing it!

    I think the real point is that there is an enormous diversity of schools, departments, and individual professors, and generalities about different types of schools are not terribly useful. Granted, what I’m saying is anecdotal; but anecdotal evidence about the particular schools someone is considering might be better than general statistical evidence about broad categories of schools. So, people should ask around; it might turn out that research opportunities for undergrads at a given EPU or LSS, in a given field, are abundant.

    I’m reminded of some magazine article I read about college choices, where they interviewed people who said things like “I didn’t go to [e.g.] Harvard for [financial/personal/etc.] reasons, but it worked out better because I was able to work with a professor on real research at [random other school].” But it’s not as if undergraduates at Harvard (for instance) never get involved in research; in fact, many of them do. It doesn’t mean the people being interviewed made bad choices, but it gives the wrong impression of the EPUs.

    In fact, I’ve occasionally heard claims to the effect that if one wants a job right out of college, one should go to a prestigious school, but if one wants to go into academia, one is better off at a less prestigious school because one is able to do research there. And that’s simply a flawed statement. One might have the opportunity to work with a really first-rate researcher at the prestigious schools, and without investigating such opportunities at a particular school, it would be a mistake to turn it down on the basis of generalities.

  16. Sometimes the choices and/or flexiblity of undergraduate courses may be more limited in a particular university physics department, whether because of a small number of physics majors, the size of the university, and/or other factors.

    Despite being at an LSS for undergrad, the physics department was on the small side and there were hardly any physics majors. Because of this, all of the mandatory courses only had one section offered each school year (except for freshman year physics). We essentially had very little flexibility about when we could take these courses. It didn’t give us any opportunities to take anything like graduate level physics courses.

    At other LSS universities with more physics majors, there may be more than one section offered each year for the mandatory courses. I had colleagues who went to LSS universities which had more physics majors, where they were able to juggle their course choices more easily such that they were able to take graduate level courses in their senior year of undergrad.

    When I was an undergrad, I tried learning quantum field theory on my own since my advisor wouldn’t let me take any of the graduate qft courses. (This guy was sort of a “hardass” when it came to course prerequisites). Though on the other hand, he did answer my questions on qft and gave me pointers on what calculations to do. Years later I found out the theory prof who normally taught QFT was on sabbatical for more than two years, during the years I was an undergrad. The other profs didn’t seem interested in teaching qft when they were already teaching a full load each term of 1 or 2 courses. QFT was only offered as a “reading” course over those years, where the prof would just tell you what sections to read in the textbook and what problems you should do. In some sense, I pretty much did QFT in the “reading” course format without getting any academic credit for it.

    Years later I asked my old undergrad advisor why he didn’t let me take the graduate QFT course, and why he wouldn’t give me any academic credit for doing QFT under his guidance as a informal “reading” course. He basically said that I didn’t need to take a “course” to learn something I was interested in, and that it was for my own good. He basically felt that I was motivated enough to do things independently on my own, without the formal structure of the classroom.

  17. I think there’s also a disadvantage to going to a liberal arts college that was not mentioned here: many profs on the admission committees at good grad schools will not think that you went to a good undergraduate institution, and will discount your application accordingly. This is because they will be judging universities by the strength of their graduate programs in their own discipline.

    This tends to be especially true of professors who were born outside the united states.

  18. I’m sure Alex is right about the ignorance of some foreign-born faculty about the workings of the US system of higher ed, but I’ve served on grad admissions committees in two different top-tier departments and I don’t think there is any discrimination against LAC grads. Indeed, every department I’ve been in (except perhaps at the STS) has been far overweighted in LAC grads at both the faculty and grad levels given the small fraction of students LACs graduate.

  19. many profs on the admission committees at good grad schools will not think that you went to a good undergraduate institution, and will discount your application accordingly. This is because they will be judging universities by the strength of their graduate programs in their own discipline.

    Indeed, I have seen this bias. At Vanderbilt, it works a little differently — since we’re not a first-tier physics grad school in ranking, the attitude that floats around here is that we may be able to find the “diamonds in the rough” by picking up the strong students who went to smaller schools. But there is this idea that you don’t get as good a physics education from smaller schools.

    Sometimes there is some rationality to it. Schools with very small Physics departments may not be able, for example, to offer a real junior- or senior-level quantum mechanics course; I’ve seen some programs that offer no quantum mechanics beyond the sophomore level “modern physics” course that most programs have. By and large, however, this is not the rule, and it’s the uninformed bias of the profs at larger universities that drives it.

    (Indeed, my own undergraduate physics education included a lot of material that, in hindsight, many consier to be part of the first-year grad level stuff.)


  20. Caltech is the best playground for science. No question about it. And even humanitites/arts/social sciences are just that sciences. You learn by the numbers. Ever taken a psychology class there that is not based on game theory? or a music class which doesn’t teach the science of music? or history class which only talks about balancing hte budget? That’s Tech.

    About being noticed. It is in the student to be noticed wherever he is. Caltech is small but there are enough niches to hide. My sophomore year I did not attend a single class, I turned my sets at around 1:30am, and I slept until noon, read until 4pm, did sports until 6pm.
    Even within the housing system you can be obscure and there are enough for whom the title is not inappropriate. While an academic outcast, I was a social incast within my house. There were enough who were the other way around and who were a bit of both universes. It’s up to the kid. Its the kids responsibility to make himself noticed, it is part of the education and the training, and part of the surviving you need to learn.

    Enough folk with bright ideas out there in hte real world but only the ones who have the guts to be noticed ‘make it’. So while indeed in college you can slide by unnoticed and get the gpa you need, it is a good opportunity to learn some life skills and stand for your ground.

    I believe that college and universities dont prepare you for anything particularly useful. They fill your head with stuff you end up forgetting anyway. But what they do is train you to be responsible and to stnd up for yousrself and recognize when adn how you do so. Thats the only value I see in college education.

    The size of the school ois of some importance but not too great because the size of the department you primamrily belong to will shape your existence.I think

  21. I echo many of the opinions based above, but perhaps with a twist.

    I went to an LSS for my undergrad, an EPU for grad school, did a postdoc at an LSS, and am now at an EPU as junior faculty.

    Upon entering grad school, I found that in contrast to many of my classmates (most of whom had gone to EPUs or STSs) I was incredibly unprepared for what lay ahead. I had done very well in my undergrad institution, but had no idea of where the bar was actually set!… It took me about a year to get my act together. It wasn’t that my professors were bad at the LSS, it is just that there is always an element of teaching to some average of student’s abilities. I probably could have benefited from some better advising and taken some grad classes at the LSS.

    Did it hurt me going to the LSS? ‘Yes’, in the beginning, but in the end… ‘No’ probably not. I figured out what I needed to do and did it.

  22. Yvette:

    Finally, I know everyone knows this so I’m wasting my breath, but do not consider going to X University because they are really awesome at physics even if you hate a bunch of things about the school. You are going to live there for the rest of your life, so you don’t want to be miserable!

    I know that many college students take longer than four years to graduate nowadays, but I think you are being unduly pessimistic here …

  23. many profs on the admission committees at good grad schools will not think that you went to a good undergraduate institution, and will discount your application accordingly. This is because they will be judging universities by the strength of their graduate programs in their own discipline.

    Oddly, at MIT, if anything I’ve seen the opposite. Some of our absolute best students have originated in fairly small programs. There’s a sense that the students from these programs tend to be really good at seeking out and taking advantage of opportunities. Some of them may need to take an extra semester of classes to fill in some gaps; so be it. By the time they’re done their second year, they’re usually in good shape and ready to go. This is taken into account when we review their grad applications.

    One nice feature of the students from smaller colleges is that their letters of recommendation tend to be VERY useful and informative. This is in stark contrast to the form letters we sometimes get, where an advisor sends 8 identical letters, only changing the name at the top. When someone tells you that 8 different candidates are “the best I’ve ever seen”, it really ain’t doing anyone any favors …