I fully expect to get flammed for this, but I figured it might be helpful to some current HS seniors as they make their decision.
I was, I guess, a "top" high school student (4.0 UW GPA, 13 APs, 33 ACT, good ECs, a "psuedo" hook--depends on who you ask, etc) and chose to attend an OOS third tier flagship on substantial merit aid (four years, including a couple of summer courses and 3.5 years of sorority dues, cost about $30k total).
Money was obviously a big factor in my choice--my family could have probably paid just under half the cost of a full-pay private, but it would have been a struggle, and my family and I are money conscious/debt-averse), but I also generally liked the campus when I visited. I turned down: a top 50 school with 75%-ish tuition merit, a top public with small merit, a guaranteed admit to a professional program with a merit award covering full tuition through all six years of the program, a small private U with decent merit (25% of COA I don't quite remember), a decently ranked public with small merit, and a good regional LAC with half-tuition merit. I didn't apply to any elite schools--this was the year before the creation of the middle class FA initiatives of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Williams, etc., and I was explicitly hunting for merit aid.
Four years (and a change of major
) later, I applied to PhD programs. I received interviews at all but of the two schools I applied to and ended up with three acceptances I was really excited about (and one I was honestly a bit more "meh" about) and ended up deciding between one of the top ranked/most selective programs in my field (with a competitive fellowship offer) and another very good program with an incredible GAship/fellowship offer (both in terms of money and professional/academic opportunities). When I was making my decision, I emailed the editor of the premiere journal in my particular area of interest, who is faculty at another program in the same department, asking if he would be open to working with a student from another program. To my surprise, he not only said yes but also said that he was impressed by the research coming out of my university.
I think my undergrad institution did a lot to prepare me for grad school--I a good deal of teaching, research, and clinical experience. Among other things, have been published and presented at national conferences and feel well-prepared for grad school. I did very well on the Subject GRE in my field with very minimal prep, so I clearly learned something in my time here
. I made excellent, ambitious, incredibly kind, intelligent friends. All four years weren't perfect, of course, but I can say my "third tier" education did me well and was far from the unstimulating, anti-intellectual environment I feared it would be. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite.
So, I went to a third tier school. I was challenged and happy. And next year, I'll be heading off to a very good PhD program, fully funded, with the chance to work for a top person in my field.
The point of this post is not arrogance but simply to show that a student, including a "top" student, can have an enjoyable experience and successful grad school admissions outcome coming from a (gasp!) third tier school.