Harvard vs MIT for future physics grad school?

I am a student that is hoping to (after my bachelor’s) pursue a PhD in some sort of topic relating to particle physics. To prepare for graduate school, I was thinking about focusing my admissions work on attending either MIT or Harvard, but I am unsure about which one should be my “dream” university. I am trying to find an ideal university for my goals to act as a motivator for myself while I write the essays. Which one is most ideal for my circumstances? I made a small list below of some pros and cons that I found online about each school.

MIT pros:

  • generally seen as the best undergrad university for physics education
  • the UROP program will allow me to do extensive research as an undergrad

MIT cons:

  • mostly an engineering/CS school, but still a lot of people take math and physics classes
  • Notorious grade deflation, but maybe this is a good thing for me to grow academically
  • sometimes seen as “nerdy”

Harvard pros:

  • generally known for the particle physics subject. I could take grad school courses, which will allow me to prepare for a PhD.
  • not as many STEM students, so it would be easier to get research
  • seen as less “nerdy”
  • grade inflation, so could be easier to do get into grad school

Harvard cons:

  • less known for “general” physics courses
  • school is not as known as MIT for science, so fewer of my classmates/friends will be STEM students

Have you been accepted to both?

I doubt if it would be easier to get research experience at Harvard because MIT has the urop program which you mentioned. Why does nerdiness matter to a physics student? It sounds like MIT should be your reach undergrad school and Harvard your reach grad school (for when you’re ready to specialize in particle physics). Get your match and safety lists going as well.

What year are you in currently?

I am guessing from your question that you are younger than a high school senior, and therefore have not applied to universities yet. My suggestion is that you read the “applying sideways” blog on the MIT admissions website.

My take on this is that you should do what is right for you. Do not try to guess what MIT or Harvard wants you to do. They want you to excel at whatever you do. You are more likely to excel if you do what is right for you. You are also more likely to find a university that is a good fit for you.

This approach has worked well for my family.

One comment in your post caught my eye regarding MIT: “but still a lot of people take math and physics classes”.

MIT is very well regarded and very highly ranked for both math and physics. At least when I was there (as a math major) I thought that everyone takes a full year of physics. I took two full years (through quantum physics, which convinced me that math was the right major for me). There are also significant math general education requirements but of course as a math major I was going to take them anyway.

Neither MIT nor Harvard is the right fit for every very strong student. Even some very strong students would find a better fit somewhere else. If you want to attend either of these schools then plan on becoming average the day that you arrive on campus, and plan on working hard for a full 4 years without letting up.