The advantages of attending a prestigious name-brand university
September 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
I describe some of the advantages of attending a prestigious name-brand university like MIT, Stanford, or Harvard, as told through the experiences of my friends in the high-tech sector. In short, a name-brand diploma will help you get better entry-level job offers at big companies and provide you with more initial respect from your superiors. However, as you get older, actual work experiences and ability to get along with people are much more important than simply having a name-brand diploma.
Note: Some readers have criticized the tone of this article as elitist. Unfortunately I can't see a way to approach this subject matter without drawing such attacks. I acknowledge the fact that there are many people who cannot afford to attend expensive private universities, even with generous financial aid offers. This article is written for kids whose parents can afford such luxuries. Perhaps a more fitting title for this article would be: "If you can afford to attend a private university, then what are the advantages of attending a prestigious name-brand one?" If you simply can't afford it, then the point is moot.
This article attempts to provide one specific perspective on the following frequently-asked question:
How much of a difference does it make for your career if you attended a prestigious name-brand university like MIT, Stanford, or Harvard?
I will use the adjective 'name-brand' to refer to prestigious well-known universities (e.g., Ivy League schools, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, etc.), and the adjective 'normal' to refer to all other universities (e.g., most state schools and lesser-known private schools).
This article only describes the impact of college reputation on knowledge workers in the high-tech industry. For many types of jobs, where you attended college doesn't matter as much (as long as you have the proper degree), so this article might not be as relevant for aspiring accountants, beauticians, doctors, dentists, electricians, high school teachers, etc. However, I believe that these observations generalize well to many fields outside of my own.
The reason I focus on high-tech engineering careers is because my friends and I are most familiar with this sector. I graduated from MIT with bachelor's and master's degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and I'm currently pursuing my Ph.D. in Computer Science at Stanford University. During my summers, I've interned at several well-known companies (Google and Microsoft), as well as a few lesser-known ones.
I've talked with many friends both at MIT and Stanford about this topic. Some of the most interesting insights came from my friends who went to a normal (non-name-brand) undergraduate college but then to a name-brand university for their Ph.D. program. They saw first-hand the stark contrast between being an engineering major at a lesser-known college and at a name-brand institution like MIT or Stanford.
Summary of advantages
Attending a name-brand university will give you the following professional advantages over those who attended normal universities:
Carrying a name-brand diploma gives you the largest boost in credibility right when you graduate, the proverbial "helping to get your foot into the door." Most recent college grads have little to no real job experience, so potential employers often use college reputation as a metric of intelligence, work ethic, and technical skill. They might be thinking that since it's tough to get into and graduate from MIT, even a mediocre MIT student might do the job as well as an exceptional student at a normal (lesser-known) university.
As you progress in your career and move onto successive jobs, then carrying a name-brand college diploma matters less: Intermediate and senior job candidates are evaluated mainly based on their prior work experience, so if you've done a great job and received positive recommendations, then that could more than make up for your lack of a name-brand diploma.
That said, though, the impact of an initial boost upon graduation can be tremendous. If you land a more prestigious job straight out of college, then you will get better opportunities to work on more challenging projects, command more respect, and also get better-connected with other people in equally-prestigious jobs, which will all help you land your next even more prestigious job, and so on and so forth. There is a natural positive feedback "snowball" effect where prestige begets more prestige.
The rest of this article discusses each of the advantages I just listed in detail.
1. It will be easier for you to get interviews and job offers at prestigious big companies
Prestigious universities feed students into prestigious big companies. When I was an undergrad at MIT, representatives from prestigious 'name-brand' big companies like Google and Microsoft would come to our school career fair several times a year and do on-campus interviews to fill summer internship and full-time job openings. Most of my friends who wanted summer internships at such companies were able to get offers after their sophomore and junior years (most freshman were too inexperienced to qualify). My friends' internships paid more than most people's regular jobs did and often resulted in full-time offers (one main purpose of a technical internship program is to recruit potential full-time employees). I had other friends who never interned at these big companies and were still able to get a dozen or more full-time offers upon graduation, at which time they could start negotiating by pitting companies' offer letters against one another.
In fact, students from name-brand universities like MIT often expect to receive several high-profile big company job offers upon graduation. Of course, I don't mean to say that these jobs were simply handed to us because we attended MIT. My friends definitely took the job hunt process very seriously, diligently polishing their resumes and preparing for possible technical questions that interviewers might ask. And they are some of the smartest and most hardworking people I know, so they are more than deserving of these numerous job offers.
Even more extreme, my friends and I from name-brand Ph.D. programs regularly receive unsolicited mail from recruiters at Fortune 500 companies. My friend who went to a normal university for undergrad and is now at MIT for grad school was shocked by the fact that people were scouring the Internet for MIT graduate students and spamming them with offers for job interviews. In fact, to receive less of these sorts of recruiter emails, some of us took our resumes and academic information offline so that web crawlers wouldn't find them. If Ph.D. students at name-brand universities want a particular summer research internship, we just have to ask: Either our advisors or other research collaborators have personal connections at those corporate or government labs, and we can get an offer immediately after a quick referral and brief formality phone 'interview'.
Contrast this experience with what my friends at normal universities faced upon graduation: They had to take much more of an initiative to find the jobs that they wanted, and also had to face much more rejection and disappointment in the process. Few big companies even bothered to seriously recruit from normal universities, because they preferred to divert more of their on-campus recruiting resources to name-brand schools like the "Big 4" of Computer Science: MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon. My friends who went to normal universities rarely knew anyone who got a job at, say, Google (the hottest high-tech company while I was an undergrad), whereas it was commonplace for my MIT and Stanford friends to get job offers there.
Of course, anyone can apply for a job at a place like Google, right? You just submit your resume and cover letter online! But submitting an online application is like throwing it into a black hole. Big companies can more than fill up all job openings from personal referrals and college recruiting from name-brand universities; they often won't even bother to look at unsolicited online applications. I've rarely heard of my friends or my parents' friends getting even first-round phone interviews after submitting their resume online—even my friends from name-brand graduate schools rarely heard back when they stubbornly tried to cold-call rather than relying on their lab's connections!
Even when you do receive an interview, your interviewer might be tougher on you if you didn't come from a name-brand university. I heard from my friend at a lesser-known university that when some of her friends got on-campus interviews from famous Big Company X (I don't want to name names when I'm maligning companies), the interviewers were downright antagonistic! Perhaps these recruiters were not planning to hire many candidates from lesser-known universities, so they told their interviewers to be more harsh and less forgiving. Sure, you could still land an offer if you performed impeccably, but there is no margin for error. Even worse, you might actually perform below your actual skill level, since you feel the antagonism and arrogance of the interviewers breathing down your neck. In contrast, Big Company X always has plenty of internship and full-time positions available for MIT kids, so the interviewers can afford to be more laid-back and pleasant. As an MIT student, you can get nervous and slip up a bit in your interview, and still get the benefit of the doubt and an eventual job offer.
Still, though, MIT students don't simply get a free ride to lucrative job offers, right? Sure, most of the time, they still need to compete with other MIT students for offers, spending lots of time and effort preparing for interviews. Fortunately, your preparation time has a direct effect on your likelihood of success, whereas a person attending a normal university could prepare day in and day out but never even receive an interview.
As a thought experiment, if you take identical twins who are equally intelligent and technically proficient, and place one at MIT and the other at a normal university, then the twin at MIT will have astronomically better odds of landing a job at a prestigious big company than the one at the normal university. Despite the fact that both twins would do identically well on the job, the twin at the normal university will probably never even get the opportunity to interview for that job, because most recruiters will focus on finding recent college grads from MIT and other name-brand schools.
So why don't big companies do more outreach to students from normal (lesser-known) universities, perhaps enacting a form of Affirmative Action where the 'underrepresented groups' are people who did not come from name-brand schools? Why are companies so snobbish and gung-ho on hiring mostly from name-brand schools? Aren't they passing up lots of great candidates by not paying much attention to the vast majority of universities? Yes, they are probably passing up lots of great candidates, but they don't care because they can still get more than enough great candidates from name-brand universities. Companies are not social charities dedicated to fair representation; they are out to maximize profits! If it's most cost-effective to recruit at a name-brand school because they get a higher 'hit rate' of good employees, then so be it! They will ignore lesser-known schools while fully knowing that they are passing up some great people. For example, if IBM can find 35 great candidates for every 50 they interview at MIT, but they can only find 5 great candidates for every 50 they interview at a normal school, then it makes financial sense to direct much more recruiting efforts to schools like MIT.
I want to conclude this section with the topic of "free rides". Is it possible for MIT students to simply get job offers without even putting in any effort? Most of the time, of course not! Students at name-brand universities still have to put on their "A-game" and compete with their peers to win offers. However, I do remember one time where this sort of "free ride" was a reality. A few years ago, Big Company Y (an extremely lucrative well-known Fortune 500 firm) found that it was starting to have a harder time attracting new hires from name-brand schools, because students perceived other big companies as being more 'hip' and 'sexy' employers. In an attempt to woo MIT students, Big Company Y handed out internship offers at the career fair, and practically gave out full-time offers with minimal interviewing (interviews were simply a formality to make sure you weren't a joke). No kidding! This is one of the most profitable companies in the world, with market dominance in their field, and they were giving out job offers left and right on the MIT campus. To further sweeten the deal, they even offered free summer housing for interns, something that none of their competitors did. Big Company Y had plenty of money to throw around, but not a hip-enough image, so they simply tossed out free job offers with the hope of attracting some MIT students and boosting their reputation. I can't imagine how this would ever happen at a non-name-brand university.
2. Big companies will offer you more favorable starting positions and higher salaries
Back to our identical twins, one who attended MIT and the other who attended a normal university: Even if they both get job offers at the same prestigious big company upon graduation, the MIT twin will likely get a more favorable starting position and a higher starting salary. Let me illustrate with a few stories I've heard from my friends.
First, big companies will often reserve more prestigious starting positions for graduates of name-brand universities; they simply won't give those offers to people from lesser-known schools. Here are three examples I've heard from friends:
My first example comes from the software industry. Software companies typically hire Computer Science graduates for 3 types of entry-level jobs: Program manager, software developer, and software tester. The program manager coordinates between sales, management, and technical staff, the software developer writes the code to implement new functionality, and the software tester writes code to find bugs in the developers' code. These 3 jobs are supposed to be at the same level in the corporate hierarchy—in other words, program managers are not the bosses of developers or testers on their teams; they are all colleagues. However, there is often an unspoken status differential: Program manager is seen as the most prestigious job, followed by software developer, then software tester. I've heard from my friend at Big Company Z (again, a huge company and market leader) that they only offer program manager jobs to recent graduates of name-brand universities. In contrast, they mostly offer tester jobs to recent graduates of lesser-known universities. So, in effect, the level of your college prestige directly translates to your starting level of workplace prestige: In this case, lots of program managers come from schools like MIT, and lots of testers come from normal universities.
Another example comes from electrical engineering firms in Silicon Valley. The more prestigious design engineer desk jobs are mostly offered to graduates of name-brand universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley, whereas lower-reputation lab technician jobs are offered to people from normal universities or technical trade schools. Almost everyone who applies to these companies hold a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering; the caste that you end up joining is determined in large part by where you received your degree. I've heard that there are parallel tracks for career advancement of design engineers and lab technicians; it's virtually impossible to get into the company as a lab technician and then 'jump ladders' onto the design engineer track. You're stuck in your caste, which was long ago determined by your college reputation.
My final example comes from finance jobs on Wall Street. The most prestigious and super-high-paying front-office jobs (e.g., investment bankers, traders, quantitative analysts) are only offered to graduates of name-brand universities like Harvard and MIT, whereas the less prominent support jobs (middle-office and back-office) are open to graduates from normal schools. In fact, I don't think any of my friends who didn't go to name-brand schools personally know people who work on Wall Street making several times as much money each year as most Americans can ever hope to make. My friends on Wall Street admit that their firms are extremely snobbish in hiring; there's no possible way to even get an interview unless you have a name-brand diploma. But there are more than enough people from the Ivy League to fill up their applicant pools.
How about variations in starting salaries? I don't have any actual numbers for comparison, but I definitely know that people from name-brand universities are offered higher starting salaries for the exact same job position as people from lesser-known universities. Why? Simple: Because people from name-brand universities are more likely to have several high-profile, high-paying offers from other big companies.
It's much more rare for people from normal universities to have several high-paying offers, so big companies know this fact and can give them lower-priced offers. Company recruiters might think that if you went to a normal university and managed to get a prestigious offer from Microsoft or Google, then you'd take it in a heartbeat since that's the best you can hope for (arrogant attitude, I know, but such is reality).
In contrast, plenty of MIT students have standing offers from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Apple, Amazon, IBM, and other well-known high-tech companies, so each one needs to sweeten the deal with better offers and bigger starting bonuses in an attempt to get students to choose them over their rivals. Simply put, when you have more offers in hand, you have more bargaining power and the ability to drive up all of your offers as companies compete to woo you. In the most extreme case of job candidate wooing, the head of Big Company Z (someone who everyone reading this article will recognize) made private phone calls to several of my MIT friends to try to personally encourage them to come work for his company rather than one of its competitors.
3. People at big companies will have a better initial impression of you even if they haven't yet seen your work
Once you start a job at a big company, you might recognize a clique of young people who came from name-brand universities as well as an assortment of others who went to normal schools. You will find that some managers might be biased towards those from name-brand schools, even if they aren't necessarily more skilled or experienced than their peers from other schools.
The impact of a favorable initial impression can be tremendous. If you are initially trusted as being more intelligent, responsible, and hardworking, then your self-esteem and motivation rise, which will encourage you to actually do a better job to make sure that this initial respect is well-earned. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy—your managers think that you are valuable, and in response you actually make yourself worthy of their praise.
In contrast, if you went to a normal university, even if you were able to land a prestigious job, your peers and managers might harbor a subconscious bias against you (especially if they went to name-brand schools). My friend who is a trader on Wall Street says that whenever his colleagues find out that a new hire didn't go to a name-brand school, they immediately think that he simply got in due to nepotism ("his uncle probably works here!") and is actually incompetent. That initial stigma might give you performance anxiety, drop your self-esteem, and result in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy coming true—people perceive employees from lesser-known universities as not being as sharp or responsible, which makes you discouraged, not live up to your potential, and thus reinforce their initial prejudices.
In general, people who end up attending name-brand universities have grown up accustomed to hearing themselves praised by their elders, whereas most people didn't grow up with such privileges. This same unequal treatment persists far into adult working life.
(Of course, the flip-side is that managers who went to normal colleges might harbor a negative bias against subordinates who went to name-brand colleges, perceiving them as snobbish elitists!)
4. It will be easier for you to get involved in a more promising start-up company
My focus thus far in this article has been on big established companies like Microsoft: i.e., attending a name-brand university greatly increases your chances of getting a well-regarded Fortune 500 corporate job.
But what about those of you who don't want to work for The Man? If you want to get rich starting your own business, doesn't it not matter at all where you went to school? Isn't the whole basis of the American entrepreneurship spirit one of rugged individualism, untarnished by the reputations of elitist establishment institutions like name-brand universities? Can't anyone pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a solid living based on the quality of the product or service they provide? Surely your customers don't care whether you have a Harvard degree or one from a university they've never heard of! Well, in an ideal world, where you went to college (or if you even went to college) should have no bearing on your success as an entrepreneur. But in this world, it can have a huge effect.
Huge effect number one is social networking. If you went to a name-brand university, chances are that you personally know friends or classmates who have gone on to found start-up companies that are now doing quite well. They will be able to introduce you to mutual friends who might be able to help you launch your business or at least provide useful advice. You don't even have to go out of your way to schmooze or network—these people are your classmates, acquaintances, and friends!
Of course, most of their companies will never grow as large as Google, but many are flush with venture capital funding and will at least have a fighting chance of becoming profitable. Venture capitalists and other investors flock around places with prestigious Computer Science programs, most notably Silicon Valley (home to Stanford and UC Berkeley) and Boston (home to MIT and Harvard). It's no surprise that some of the most successful start-ups that have gone on to become Fortune 500 companies were founded by students from name-brand universities, most famously Google and Yahoo out of Stanford and Microsoft and Facebook out of Harvard.
If you are 'in the know' with regards to start-up culture, then you will have better luck with joining an already-formed company or finding partners for your own venture. If you are an outsider, then it's tremendously difficult to get your foot into the door.
Huge effect number two is, again, reputation. Even though venture capitalists and other funding sources are supposed to judge your start-up pitches based solely on the merit of your ideas and execution, they are still human and biased towards people carrying name-brand diplomas. It's a great confidence booster to come into a pitch meeting with a team of MIT graduate students who are spinning off a cutting-edge research project into a new consumer product. Compare that with a quaint storyline of two small-town farm boys from the Midwest who invented some kooky contraption in their garage. The latter makes for a more heartwarming movie, but the former will be more appealing for most funders (who are wealthy men and women who probably went to name-brand universities).
5. It will be easier for you to get admitted into name-brand graduate schools
Lastly, if you want to pursue graduate education beyond your bachelor's degree, then you will have an easier time getting into a name-brand graduate program if you have a name-brand undergrad pedigree.
I can only speak for the Ph.D. graduate program, but what professors look for in an applicant is the ability to do graduate-level research. One surefire indication of such potential is an applicant's successful efforts working on well-established, well-known research projects supervised by famous researchers. It's no surprise that such well-regarded projects and researchers are often located at name-brand universities! So if you started out as an undergrad at MIT and worked on projects under Professors X, Y, and Z, all of whom are well-known in your field, then their recommendation letters carry far more weight than letters from three relatively-obscure professors from other universities.
Thus, it's no surprise that many Ph.D. students at name-brand universities also did their undergraduate work at other name-brand universities. High reputation begets more high reputation. In Computer Science, MIT undergrads continue onto grad school at Stanford, UC Berkeley undergrads attend grad school at MIT, Harvard undergrads also go to grad school at MIT, Stanford to Berkeley, MIT to Carnegie Mellon, and so on.
Of course, it's definitely possible to jump from a lesser-known undergraduate school to a name-brand graduate school (several of my close friends have done so), especially if the professors who write your recommendation letters have ties to name-brand schools (e.g., they graduated from a name-brand school where you want to go for your Ph.D. or have friends who are professors there). But again, luck plays a much bigger role when you're not already coming from a name-brand school. With a name-brand diploma, the deck is already stacked in your favor; you just need to live up to already-favorable impressions and not disappoint.
Take-home messages if you went to a name-brand university
If you attended a name-brand university, then I cannot stress enough the importance of gratitude. Please realize the enormous opportunities that are open to you, many of which you might take for granted if you don't step back and think about how they aren't available to people who went to other universities. I can't help but feel enormously grateful at the opportunities I have been given.
It's almost absurd how much easier it is to get a prestigious job offer or to gain entry into a prestigious graduate program when you come from a name-brand undergraduate institution. Of course, you deserve a lot of the credit: You are smart, ambitious, and diligent—you work your ass off to make sure that you can meet the high expectations that others have of you. When you carry a name-brand diploma, many doors are open for you; it's just a matter of working hard to find your way in. But if you weren't at a name-brand university, even if you worked ten times as hard, you might never get those same doors opened for you and never have people think that you are as deserving as you actually are.
Take-home message number two is the importance of humility. I get seriously annoyed when I hear stories of people from name-brand schools being arrogant towards or looking down on people who did not attend name-brand schools. I think that those snobbish turds give all people from name-brand schools a bad name, and I resent them for their irresponsibility. I hope that you can see individuals for who they are rather than lazily deferring to group stereotypes. You are not a hiring manager for a big company who must resort to group stereotypes for economic reasons (e.g., invest more efforts at MIT on-campus recruiting and ignore students from lesser-known schools). You can afford to honestly assess someone's intellect and skills.
The last take-home message is the importance of stepping up to high expectations. You are in the extraordinary position to have (some!) people think highly of you even before they've seen you work, so it is your responsibility to live up to such expectations. Always strive to improve your skills and knowledge above and beyond expectations. Don't get lazy and simply ride off of your name-brand diploma. If you do, sooner or later, people will sniff you out, and you will give all people from your school a bad reputation. Make sure you earn that respect.