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.

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50 Responses to Unsolicited Advice, Part Three: Choosing an Undergraduate School

  1. Chad Orzel says:

    Since TrackBack is pretty comprehensively broken: Ping.

  2. I would disregard all the categories, and say “Go to a medium-size or large school in a large city, but be in a small program where you’ll get to know and interact directly with your professors.” You get the best of everything, that way.

  3. spyder says:

    now successfl mentions hints at something that i haven’t seen mentioned yet about LSS’s (i didn’t think about it either when i first posted). I started at UCLA as a freshman in 1965. It was a big school even then, with an average daily attendence of 50, 000 on campus (faculty, staff, students, workers, adminstration, etc). I came from a high school of 4000; my graduating class alone had 1019 many in the very top tier in the state of CA. I didn’t find UCLA to be overwhelming in size, because i had grown up in LA and experienced those levels of crowding and competition. It takes a certain level of comfort, and those coming from small towns and/or small schools (LAC’s for example) can be shocked by the intensity of it all. There also exists issues of discipline isolation, where students rarely, or never, discover that there are parts of the campus.

  4. Being essentially at the antipode of almost everyone else posting, I would offer a young person this thought-

    If you know you want to be a university professor, and you’re doing well academically, it doesn’t matter much where you go to college, because you’ll probably be spending the rest of your life at college anyway. This would suggest leaving the liberal arts for later and looking for the strongest possible career pathway.

    If you’re not so sure what you’ll do eventually, it might make sense to seek the broadening effects of a liberal arts education early on. It may help provide order to a less driven career path, and might be your best opportunity to enjoy the liberal arts education.

    Or, you could assume that “the best laid plans of men and mice, aft gang aglie”.

  5. Elliot says:

    I went to Caltech and unfortunately did not realize what a wonderful opportunity I had and wound up dropping out and getting an English and Law degree. I wish I had it to do over again.

    I imagine MIT is about the same.

    I also think that a lot of state universities (University of Illinois etc.) provide an excellent undergrad science program.

    Princeton and Cornell also have excellent programs.

    Elliot

  6. Rob Knop says:

    If you know you want to be a university professor, and you’re doing well academically, it doesn’t matter much where you go to college, because you’ll probably be spending the rest of your life at college anyway. This would suggest leaving the liberal arts for later and looking for the strongest possible career pathway.

    I would disagree with this. From grad school onward, if you’re a University professor you will spend your life utterly and completely focused on your area of research.

    College is the last chance you’re going to have to sample the diversity of academia and of human intellectual exploration. Take advantage of it then!

    (I skipped the advanced astrophysics class (after taking the earlier one, which is more like the advanced one at some other places) becuase it conflicted with a Renaissance Literature course I wanted to take. This was my Senior year; I figured I’d be taking a lot more astrophysics in coming years, but would never again have the opportunity to take something like that Renaissance Literature class.) (I did the same thing in high school; I didn’t take AP Computer Science because it conflicted with Chorus.)

    -Rob

  7. Suz says:

    “I went to Caltech and unfortunately did not realize what a wonderful opportunity I had and wound up dropping out and getting an English and Law degree. I wish I had it to do over again.

    I imagine MIT is about the same.”

    I don’t think so. I realize something is lost in the undergrad-to-grad translation (i.e. I can’t compare directly my undergrad experience at Caltech to my grad experience at MIT), but I was surprised how different the two schools are.
    Mostly I like that MIT is bigger and there are more non-science activities available. I guess it’s that stage of my life where I care about those things.

    But I miss the science environment at Caltech. I felt like (almost) everyone there was excited about science, and wanted to explore things in a geeky way, and it was fun (though painful at times). But I feel like at MIT, people are not interested in the science so much as they are interested in stardom or flashy papers. Again, this is only at the grad level and based on my interactions with postdocs, other grad students, and faculty here.

    Also I can’t stand that people here (at MIT) don’t all know how to use error bars. I think that would have been inexcusable at Caltech no matter what your major was.

    The other thing I miss about Caltech is how easy it is to form inter-departmental (divisional) collaborations, because professors in different departments go to lunch together. In my undergrad lab, there were developmental biologists working side by side with chemists (who developed some of the reagents we used) and electrical engineers and physicists (who built some of the microscopes we used). It was freakin’ awesome. Though there is that potential there, it just doesn’t happen as easily at MIT.

  8. citrine says:

    Many entering freshmen are unaware of departmental research concentrations and opportunities. Someone may think that just because a Physics department, say, offers courses in Astrophysics that he/she could do research in that subject by enrolling as a Physics major.

    Good advising both at the High School and undergrad level go a long way in helping enthusiastic students make the most of college, avoiding common pitfalls. Sadly, the advising process often turns into a hurried 10 minute appointment geared towards making sure the student abides by some prefabricated checklist.

  9. Belizean says:

    Despite its tiny size, I wonder how much attention undergrads really get at a place like Caltech.

    It was pretty easy to become involved in research there an undergrad. In fact, it was much easier than doing so as a grad student at an LSS. When I graduated from Tech, I had my name on two papers. [I could have been on more, but I was a bit of a slacker.]

    At my LSS grad school I had to be the single author on all of my papers. It was pretty much an every-grad-student-for-himself situation with an uncaring faculty. The sole purpose of the grad students there, it seemed to me, was to provide the faculty with employment as teachers in accordance with state regulations.

  10. Nicholas says:

    My question, as a senior applying to physics graduate programs, is that should one differentiate between these groups for possible graduate programs? or really do these classes largely break down and are based more on the individual programs…(as I have largely been lead to believe)

    NM

  11. Nicholas says:

    P.S. I did read the other sections on getting into and choosing a grad school

  12. Rob Knop says:

    Also I can’t stand that people here (at MIT) don’t all know how to use error bars. I think that would have been inexcusable at Caltech no matter what your major was.

    Are you a TA now?

    One thing that is a universal truth : when you are teaching, the things that the students don’t know how to do would have been inexcuasable when you were a student.

    I’m a prof now, and I’m always surprised by the things that the beginning grad students don’t know how to do.

    -Rob

  13. Banerjee says:

    The most important experience that an undergraduate can have is to interact with the best and the brightest. Anyone who is interested in learning and is bright enough will be able to learn the basics of their field on their own. But if they have bright peers and teachers, they’ll be able to learn how to think in innovative ways and grow much more during their four years in college that they would otherwise. These conditions are not available at the average US university. Therefore, any prospective student should try to get an education at an elite school that attracts the best people in the country. There will always be exceptional people who can achieve their potential independent of the university that they go to. But going to an elite school is absolutely a must for the average bright student for whom this post was presumably intended.

  14. thm says:

    I think the most important part of choosing a college is to find a place where you’ll have intellectual and social peers. Many have commented that it doesn’t matter where you go to college, and to a certain extent this is true: certainly from my own grad school cohort I can’t pick up much of a correlation between undergrad institution and success as a physicist.

    But if you want to go into physics, or other sciences I imagine, you will want to avoid the lesser state schools and the lower-tier private universities. They simply don’t attract enough talented students to offer a curriculum sufficient to prepare you for grad school, or at least a top-tier grad school. My grad school (which, depending on the ranking scheme, is usually in the top half of the top ten physics grad schools, at least for condensed matter physics) was, I believe, more generous than its peer schools in offering admission to promising graduates of lower-tier colleges. These students, on average, did not do very well. It’s no fun to arrive at grad school and find yourself significantly less prepared than your classmates.

    In college, nobody cares where you went to high school; in grad school, nobody cares where you went to college. However, if you decide in college not to pursue physics, or anything academic, your choice of college matters tremendously. I do know that many of the firms offering the most elite ‘real-world’ jobs–investment banking and management consulting, for example–recruit strictly from elite universities. That’s not to say that graduating from an elite school is sufficient to get an elite job, but it is necessary.

  15. Suz says:

    Rob wrote:

    “Are you a TA now?

    One thing that is a universal truth : when you are teaching, the things that the students don’t know how to do would have been inexcuasable when you were a student.

    I’m a prof now, and I’m always surprised by the things that the beginning grad students don’t know how to do.

    -Rob”

    Actually I was referring to my colleagues, i.e. postdocs and grad students…
    and professors… who cannot critically analyze data or understand what a p-value is, or understand what error bars are for, or how to calculate standard error, etc. Undergrads are probably taught that at some point at MIT. When I TAed I wasn’t frustrated by their lack of understanding in any topic – they’re here to learn, and I bonded with a lot of them. But a few were spoiled brats who wanted answers spoonfed to them.

  16. JMG3Y says:

    So how does one identify a truly elite program from the entering freshman’s perspective? As I suspect being at an elite school is not a sufficient condition, what makes a program truly elite and can this be assessed through department and faculty websites? The number of Nobel Laureates in Physics? The texts used? If so, what are the positive and negative indicator texts? Some measure of productivity and impact? The number of papers published per faculty? Number of citations per faculty or the top 5 faculty in the ISI Web of Science? Indicators or opportunity, such as the number of undergrads on papers?

  17. thm says:

    As a general rule: all elite private universities, elite liberal arts colleges, and selective public universities can provide sufficient preparation for the top physics grad schools. The rankings published by, e.g. US News, are useful if you consider the rankings to have error bars of 5 or 6 places. Whether an undergrad eventually becomes a successful physicist has far more to do with what the student does in the program than with the program itself: the students make the program, not the other way around.

    That said, schools with the top physics grad programs can be relied on to prepare undergraduates for their own grad programs. For liberal arts colleges, look at the size of the physics faculty and the number of physics majors. There is a feedback loop, where liberal arts faculty send their best undergrads to and hire new faculty from their own graduate alma maters. So check where the faculty got their graduate degrees from.

    The top part of the top tier of physics graduate programs are, roughly in geographic order: Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, Illinois, Chicago, Cornell, Princeton, Harvard, MIT. Also in the top tier are UCLA, UCSB, Texas, Michigan, Maryland and probably a few others depending on one’s criteria.

  18. Count Iblis says:

    I think that the best thing 15 year olds can do if they want to study physics, is to study the undergraduate courses on their own and then go straight to grad school. You don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to learn relativity, statistical mechanics, electrodynamics quantum mechanics, etc.

  19. Sean says:

    JMG3Y, none of those criteria is really much good for judging the research in a physics department. Certainly not Nobel laureates or textbooks (the latter of which are remarkably similar). Better to look at something like the NRC rankings:

    http://www.stat.tamu.edu/~jnewton/nrc_rankings/area33.html

    Of course, what you care about is what life is like as an undergrad, not how good the research is; but that’s much harder to quantify. You really have to visit the schools and see for yourself. Talking to other students is by far the best gauge, but you need to talk to several and average over the individual inclinations (or, even better, find someone whose inclinations match with yours).

  20. Cygnus says:

    Sean, how about a new edition of Unsolicited Advice for Grad school, again this year? With all the new experience and added insights over the year?

    Would be really helpful to some of us I’m sure.

  21. Belizean says:

    Although this point has been made before, I think that it should be emphasized. Lack of access to graduate-level physics courses is an enormous disadvantage.

    In my day very basic physics such as quantum field theory and general relativity were only available in graduate courses. A huge fraction of my course load during my junior and senior years were grad courses.

    Because there is no benefit in arriving at a decent grad school without this basic knowledge, I would rule out any undergrad schools (typically LACs and the more bureaucratic LSSs) that don’t offer grad courses.

  22. Scott H. says:

    Because there is no benefit in arriving at a decent grad school without this basic knowledge, I would rule out any undergrad schools (typically LACs and the more bureaucratic LSSs) that don’t offer grad courses.

    This is contrary to the evidence I see as faculty at an STS: Many of our best graduate students, and many of our best recent graduates, did not have access to grad courses as undergrads. They take a few extra courses at the beginning, get a good research program going; life goes on. The lack of grad courses in their undergrad years is completely irrelevant.

  23. JC says:

    One thing you may want to check out is how competitive and/or stressful a particular university is. If you’re the type of person who can’t handle stress very well at all, then you may very well be better off at a school which is more “laid back”. On the other hand, if you thrive in a really stressful and/or competitive environment, then you may want to be at a top university with other “type A’ personality types.

    Many places will use freshman and sophomore courses in physics and math as their “weedout” courses, where their intent is to flunk out and eliminate as many engineering and science majors as possible. (I suppose most majors will have their own set of “weedout” courses). I’ve known many physics and math majors who really hated freshman physics and math courses, for this very reason.

  24. Emily says:

    Not everybody can go to a school in those 4 categories. Some people can’t afford it, or are limited in geographic area, or didn’t get a strong enough high school education to be admitted. There are lots of smart, motivated students at 2 year colleges and non-name 4 year colleges. Should they just give up?

    Considering that minorities are overrepresented in the lower income brackets as compared to their overall percentage in the population, we may be hitting on one reason that they are underrepresented in physics. Your advice is great for the middle class, which was definately overrepresented in all my college experiences. What can people who don’t have that advantage do?

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