My father received his MBA from Duke, and before that he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (India's MIT). My mother got her Ph.D. from Northwestern. My sister went to Princeton, UT Medical School, and started her residency in neuroscience at Penn last year. My friends in the Classes of 2010, 2011, and 2012 were going by the bucketload to schools like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton.
In that spirit, I decided to apply to sixteen schools—including every school I've named here and a few more. I was summarily rejected from all but three. I was facing the prospect of having to go to UT, not as a dream school but as a safety school—one of the few places I had worked my hardest to avoid going to.
If you were also rejected by all but two or three schools, you're currently experiencing what I went through last summer. You know the feeling of rejection that I felt, and you wish you could have done anything to change the situation. Maybe you could have worked harder in English sophomore year and gotten an A instead of a B+, or maybe you could have studied for that calculus test instead of watching a season of House of Cards. Maybe you're considering transferring after your first year. Instead of being “stuck" at UT for four years. You'll go to some illustrious school like Harvard or MIT or any of the other schools you so desperately wanted to go to. I'm here to tell you that it's really not worth it.
It's not because you won't get in. In fact, it's often easier to get into top-notch schools as a transfer student than a first-year applicant. Nor is it because those schools are not every ounce as good as they're cracked up to be. In many cases, they're better than their rankings would indicate. I'm telling you there's no point because UT is just as much better than its rankings as any other school out there.
Even going by rankings alone, UT was just placed in the top 30—the second-highest ranking for a public school—by the Times Higher Education report. We placed 14th for engineering, in a ranking where Harvard didn't even crack the top 100. Our CS department is eighth in the country for graduate studies, and honestly, if you put enough effort in, the undergraduate experience is just as rewarding.
Rankings, by the way, can say impressively little. No ranking system out there will tell you that UT's Turing Scholars program is one of the best CS honors programs in the country. In fact, it's one of the only honors programs for computer science in the country. There are people in Turing who turned down schools like Carnegie Mellon and Princeton for the opportunity to graduate with a Turing degree. And in a school with 52,000 students and about 1,800 students per year in computer science, an honors program with 60 students is the perfect place to stand out. And even if you're not in the Turing program, you can still petition—with a fairly high degree of success—to take honors-level classes anyway. Companies appreciate that kind of initiative.
Ultimately, college is a stepping stone for the rest of your life. You're here to have a great time, but ultimately, what you do with what you learn is more important than what you learn. Even if you're not that interested in UT, not only will you learn just as much here as you will at any Ivy League school—at a fraction of the price, no less—but freshmen from UT don't just spend their summers doing really cool research, they work at amazing places. Seriously. I have freshman friends working at Google and Microsoft.
I'm not saying you won't find all of these things at other schools. And if you have the option, they're well worth exploring. But ultimately—especially if you're in state—give some serious thought to UT. In the last decade, it's gone from being just a "good option" to a major competitor in CS research, and it's just as recognizable to employers in computer science as any other elite school.
If you're where I was, rejected by all but a few schools, chances are that these arguments are falling on deaf ears. You might have convinced yourself that UT is going to be the worst four years of your life. It's not my job to try to convince you otherwise. All you should walk away from this article with is the idea that UT might be a little better than you're giving it credit for. In fact, UT is something of a rarity among CS colleges, because despite being challenging, it's not at the level of making you doubt yourself constantly, a common complaint in a lot of CS programs.
UT gives you as much as you put into it. If you're a talented programmer with a lot of experience, but you rest on your laurels through college, you're going to go nowhere. On the other hand, even if you don't necessarily have that much experience, with enough hard work, you can go places and do things you never would have dreamt of. So even if you're "stuck" going here, just remember the more you put in, the better a place it will be. And if you're still skeptical, the CS Ambassadors (most famous for their building tours) can give you a long list of reasons why UTCS and Austin should be your home for the next four years.
There wasn't a point where I suddenly figured out that UT was the school for me. I had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people, but the best advice I got was from Dr. Calvin Lin, director of the Turing Scholars program. There was a point in the year when I was in CS 314H, an incredibly challenging course for freshman honors students, and I had this awful sense of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, I was being challenged like I had always wanted from my college experience, but the college at which I was being challenged wasn't an Ivy League, it was a state school in Texas.
So I asked Dr. Lin, who, as a graduate of Princeton, had the undergraduate experience I had always dreamed of, whether or not I should consider transferring. He thought about it briefly, and then asked me what exactly I was missing at UT that I would get at an Ivy League. I tried to come up with something, but every time I mentioned something: rankings, quality of peers, location, anything, he came up with a counterargument. Rankings? Not only were they just part of the picture, they also put us in the top 10 schools in the nation. Quality of peers? Spending time with Turing scholars had shown me that I was missing nothing (I could get a graduate-level lecture on homotopy type theory from one and an explanation of ten reasons why Awesome is the best window manager ever from another). Even the location was perfect, oppressive summer heat aside, Austin is poised to be the next Silicon Valley.
Eventually, I started seeing myself as a product of the friends I've made here, and more importantly, the minds with whom I've connected. Because of the people that I know, I've been inspired to learn more and do more than I ever did in high school. That's the real value of any good school, and the fact that I'm getting the same results as those I would have gotten at Princeton and MIT is proof enough that we're just as awesome.
Anyway, a year later, despite my personal worries that I wouldn't succeed here, I've managed to establish myself as a blogger for the department, find a fantastic internship—in New York, no less—and secure a research position in not just one, but two separate departments. On top of that, I might be a TA next semester, study abroad my junior year, and graduate with a degree from two of the most prominent honors programs in the country. I'm still stunned to see how far I've come—and how far I have yet to go.