Answer by Arturo Deza:
I'll speak on behalf of a close friend of mine, who attended an unknown university from where I am from (Lima, Peru), and got accepted for a fully funded PhD to work with the world-leaders (including Nobel Laureates) at Systems Biology and Computational Biology at Harvard, UC San Francisco and Rockefeller.
I'd like to add, that he beat his competitors at interviewing for Grad School from MIT, Harvard, Caltech, Stanford, Yale, and other top institutions. It's one thing to go to get a PhD at MIT because you did your undergrad at Caltech, but its a completely different story if a kid from a developing country who went to a no-mans-land university beats you at grad school and got to work with a Nobel Laureate. This guy was the deal, and he went from zero to hero.
His success story:
1) Discipline: He had no Facebook during his undergraduate years, and probably only went online for doing homework, assignments or coordinating projects. This reduced his distraction span to zero.
2) Emotional Intelligence: He could control his emotional and sexual impulses. He was very socially intelligent around diverse groups, but he had in mind that having a girlfriend during his undergraduate years would be a major distraction. Both he and I when we were freshman knew that we wanted to go to USA for a PhD, so we were lifelong buddies who always noticed the good and bad things about each other. While I would sometime complain that he didn't go out on weekends (because he never did), he would always complain that I cared too much about appearance, partying and personal marketing. He was not socially handicapped as some people might think a 'nerd' would be, he was actually a very mature person who could talk about anything.
3) Sacrifice: We came from a place where dogs literally walked inside our classroom, and cockroaches would on occasion crawl in our backpack in class. He didn't let any of this get to him. He actually used the poor infrastructure of our engineering building as a motivation, something like "one day I'm going to get out of this hell hole, and do something great for science". He also had a great sense of patriotism.
4) Stellar passion and motivation: The first semester, I found out that he had the highest GPA of the whole class, and I immediately called him by the phone. I didn't understand a thing of what he said because the signal was low. However, the next day he seemed very depressed and told me that his grandfather had passed away. His grandfather was like his father to him and he never got the chance to tell him that he achieved first place in his engineering class. Little did we know, after a couple of weeks we realized not only was he the first in class, he was first in the entire campus achieving the highest GPA (grades in Peru are from 0 to 20, and with no curve). He graduated Summa Cum Laude 2 years ago, and got the highest GPA at our university over the last 30 years. The other person previous to him was, a renowned Peruvian string theorist and Professor at MIT.
5) No pain, no gain: He went overkill sometimes to achieve his goal. I'm talking things like not having lunch to study an extra hour, sleep 4-5 hours a day at least 5 days a week, sleeping on the bus to get extra sleep time, and most dazzling thing of all was that most of the time he didn't go to class. He just stayed studying in the library and was at least 2 or 3 weeks ahead of the professor. Even if he did go to class, he rarely payed attention, he would go over his books to see what methods other authors would teach. He would buy and download at least 5 different books per subject and read them all to learn and to study for the test. He would go over all the proofs and learn them, study them, do them, sometimes reinvent the proofs or see if he could grasp the concept in anticipation of what the book would reveal.
6) Selecting friends: His paradigm for selecting friends (or colleagues) was impressive. He didn't care if it was me (a spoiled rich kid), or the son of a blue-collar family that was a national math Olympiad. He valued people for their ideas and it didn't matter to him where they were from, but where they were going.
7) Becoming a preacher: He was never reluctant on teaching. Whenever anyone would ask him something he would go over the concepts and explain it to him. This was really beneficial for our closed group of friends, as we each learned different concepts and he checked with us or we discussed any doubts we had.
8) Be ambitious: All of his life, he was the best at everything he did. Before enrolling at our engineering school, he was making around $3000 a month by only winning Magic The Gathering Card competitions, and he was Peru's #1 player and Ranked in the top 10 world wide. *Not bad for a 16 year old, at that time.
9) He majored in Robotics Engineering: So yes, he did learn Optimal and Digital Control, Fourier Analysis, Triple integrals, differential equations, etc.. We didn't have computers for our programming tests, they were all done on pen and paper.
10) He was incredibly humble.
At his young age (22), he has already surpassed the post-docs at the Ivy League university (name concealed) Lab he is interning at, to the degree that the seminal paper he wrote is on yield because if published now, invalidates the work of the post-docs at his lab.