Advice to a prospective student

Wonderful letter from Philip Greenspun to two college-age children of a friend.

Your dad says that you’re applying to college. Remember that nearly all careers in the U.S. now require a graduate degree. Nobody will ever ask where you went for undergrad. It is not especially helpful to go to a prestige university undergrad because the professors won’t know who you are and won’t be persuasive about getting you into grad school. Economists found that people admitted to Ivy League schools who chose to attend state schools instead ended up with the same income. Being smart enough to get accepted to a top school has some value but actually attending the top school doesn’t have any value compared to U. Mass. And the most prestigious schools are research universities (e.g., MIT, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). It isn’t really even part of a professor’s job to teach undergrads and, in fact, they do very poorly at teaching. Check my analysis of a lecture by one of Yale’s top professors within

http://philip.greenspun.com/teaching/universities-and-economic-growth

You need a bachelor’s degree, of course, but don’t succumb to the undergraduate admissions industry’s efforts to convince you that your whole life depends on what happens in the next few months. I was an undergrad at George Washington University and MIT. My fellow students at MIT were smarter/more interesting. My professors at GWU were much more interested and engaged with me. I wouldn’t say that MIT was vastly better than GWU or vice versa.

I’m always amazed by how American families subscribe to the myth that just because an institution is a great research university then the tuition is, by definition, better. One of things that really marks out Oxbridge (and some of the other leading UK universities) is that they remain committed to providing good undergraduate teaching as well as to doing frontline research.

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