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Articles / Applying to College / Cal Berkeley vs. USC Undergrad for Econ Grad School Aspirant?

Cal Berkeley vs. USC Undergrad for Econ Grad School Aspirant?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | April 17, 2008

Question: How much consideration do graduate schools give to the prestige of the undergraduate institution that an applicant attended? I am currently a high school senior deciding to attend either UC Berkeley or USC. I am aware that although UC Berkeley is ranked slightly higher and has a "better" name value, it is MUCH more prestigious and competitive than USC. Hence, I am wondering if it is worth the trouble to go through this academic challenge at UC Berkeley. I'm not saying that I won't be challenged at USC. I'm just saying that UC Berkeley academics are known to be more difficult. I want to major in economics, and I ultimately want to attend graduate school in four years, so is Berkeley the better choice for me?

For starters, you are making too much of the differences between Cal Berkeley and USC. Unless you're talking about the University of South Carolina (and I suspect that you're not) then the admission standards at the two colleges you cite are strikingly similar. I urge you to make your choice based on the campus that you feel is the best one for you now, and not that will serve as the most likely springboard to affirmative grad school verdicts down the road.


But let's pretend for a minute that these standards really are far apart, as you seem to believe. Even so, graduate schools like to admit a diverse swath of applicants, just as undergraduate colleges do. "The Dean" is often asked if private high schools are "better" than public ones, when it comes to Ivy and "elite" admission, and that always spurs a long diatribe that ends up sounding a lot like "it depends." Both paths will certainly get you where you want to go, so the "it depends" part pertains to what you're looking for along the way.

Similarly, graduate admission officials endeavor to select a variety of applicants and, in doing so, they draw from a range of undergraduate institutions. They are far more interested in the individual student's achievement and potential than they are in the name on his or her college sweatshirt. However, they do take into account the rigor and competition of the undergrad school, and they understand that B's at one college may be closer to A's at another.

In your case, however, I suggest that you try to decide where you can best see yourself for the next four years rather than attempting to view each option through the lenses of the grad-school admission committees. You have two excellent choices, and I wish you well as you make your final decision.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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