If a character's education includes prestigious schools, it means they're the smartest person in the room — every room.
In fiction, the idea of attending an elite university without being a renowned genius is nearly unheard of. Being brilliant and not having attended one is usually a statement about the character or their circumstances.
It's often an easy way for authors to write a smart character. Portraying a character cleverly solving problems and engaging in a subject well above the writer's understanding of the topic can be difficult. Saying a character went to Harvard is not.
This extends to fictional schools. Creators will often invent a school known for their academics or focus in a particular area, and credentials from it serve to tell the audience a character excels at whatever the school is known for. It also extends to lower-level schools, if they're prestigious enough, but high schools with a reputation to wield are vanishingly rare, and if an adult went to one but not a correspondingly elite university, it may raise even more questions than it answers.
Despite many of these universities having a preference for "Legacy" students whose parents were alumni and scandals of cheating to get a prestigious name to put on a resume, this stereotype persists in Real Life as well. An Education Mama is particularly likely to fall prey to this belief.
If the character went to school in America, the well-renown schools for this trope are typically the Ivy League, or perhaps MIT, Caltech, or Stanford. In Britain, it's most likely to be Oxbridge. In Japanese works, the likely targets are Tokyo University or Waseda. However, any well-known and well-respected school counts and every country has their own aspirational schools.
Compare Ivy League for Everyone. If they have multiple PhDs from elite schools, then they're definitely some sort of whiz. Other tropes to compare include Book Smart, Improbably High I.Q., Encyclopaedic Knowledge, Grade Skipper, Awesomeness by Analysis, and Sherlock Scan. This trait is also common in the Guile Hero, Science Hero, and Gentleman and a Scholar.
- The Case Files of Jeweler Richard: Omniglot Richard, who speaks over 17 languages fluently, seems to know something about everything, and values learning and education above almost all else, got his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Cambridge.
- Death Note: Light, mastermind criminal protagonist of the series, attends "To-oh University", a stand-in for Tokyo University. L receives the exact same score on the entrance exam Light does, emphasizing their matched brilliance.
- Played with in Great Teacher Onizuka: Teshigawara thinks being a Tokyo University graduate makes him smarter and better than everyone else, but if that's the case what is he doing as a high school math teacher? He may be academically gifted but has No Social Skills (not least because he sees almost everyone else as beneath him).
- Kaguya-sama: Love Is War: Shirogane and Kaguya are in constant competition for the top spot at their school, and the humor of the series revolves around them trying to overtake each other intellectually. Both of them (along with Kaguya's cousin Maki who regularly scores just a point below her) go on to attend Stanford University, with Shirogane even skipping a grade to attend a year early.
- Moriarty the Patriot:
- When Sherlock and William meet, William declares that despite the brilliant detective having obviously attended Oxbridge, he's speaking Cockney on purpose anyway, and Sherlock is stunned to have been seen through so easily.
- Of course, The Chessmaster William Moriarty is a professor at Durham University, and it's revealed both he and his brothers were King's Scholars while at Eton College.
- Moran's attendance at Oxford is used not only to reveal his wealthy background but show that he's more than William's Dumb Muscle.
- When Billy discusses rebirthing the Pinkerton Detective Agency as an organization for intelligence instead of muscle, he explains they've begun recruiting from the likes of Harvard and Yale.
- Vermeil in Gold: In general the students of Alto's school, Ortigia, are to begin with a cut above other mages their age in skill and ability thanks to the high standards the school demands. It's noted in most magic schools in their world only around 10% of students manage to pass even the Bronze level mage exam, but in Ortigia it is 50%. They're also the only school that makes passing the Bronze exam a requirement for becoming a senior. Thus the best students there are correspondingly even more capable and powerful than most adult mages. As such there are even seven Gold Square mages among the students, and one who is close to being recognized as a Platinum (the highest rank of mage possible).
- Tsukiuta: In the first drama CD, Hajime and Haru mention the high school that they go to—a private school that's said to be the top in the country, though it isn't named, for the sake of the series' "this takes place in real life" cred. The other Gravi members are amazed, and Kakeru tells Koi, "He's like the final boss, and you're Villager C!"
- Subverted in Ali Wong's special Baby Cobra. She makes a big deal about her husband being a Harvard alum because she assumed he'd use the skills he learned there to be rich and successful and she can take it easy. Later, it turns out her husband was $70,000 in student debt, which she paid off with her TV money. She later admits that she's much wealthier than he is.
So, as it turns out, he's the one who trapped me. How did he do it? How did he bamboozle me?
- Doctor Strange worked as a brilliant surgeon able to perform just about any operation before becoming a superhero, so of course he graduated from the Ivy League school Columbia.
- The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner is the preeminent scientist in the Marvel Universe, and he has ties to a number of prestigious academies—unsurprising since he has seven Ph.D.s in at least one canon. He has been remarked as obtaining degrees from both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and met Tony Stark at Oxford.
- X-Men: Professor Xavier has a doctorate from Oxford and is well-known among others in the universe for his intelligence.
- Milo Thatch of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the man who was actually able to somehow locate Atlantis and remember the language even when it was dying out in Atlantis itself, was educated at Oxford, declining admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, before working at the Smithsonian.
- My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Friendship Games: Twilight Sparkle's human counterpart is introduced as a student of the elite Crystal Prep Academy, in contrast to the main cast, who go to Canterlot High (implied to be a public school), which Crystal Prep routinely defeats in both academics and athletics at the titular Friendship Games. However, this is played with as Twilight is explicitly stated to be the best student in the entire school's history and wants to transfer to an independent study program at another school named Everton. She ultimately leaves Crystal Prep for Canterlot High due to relentless peer pressure from both the students and the principal, wanting to make actual friends at the less-elite school.
- Don't Look Up: Inverted. The POTUS' Chief of Staff and son Jason Orlean, an incompetent ninny, makes fun of Randall and Kate for being associated with a "lowly" state university (Michigan State, to be specific), though as he's an incompetent ninny this view is portrayed as totally wrong. Later, after he has scientists from "the prestigious schools of Harvard, Princeton, etcetera" confirm their data about the comet that's about to destroy Earth, he is more willing to accept their science just in time for his mother to utilize it to boost her midterm ratings.
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019): Practically all of the Monarch geniuses attended a highly-ranked university, according to their profiles.
- Dr. Ishirō Serizawa attended the University of Tokyo.
- Dr. Vivienne Graham attended Oxford University.
- Dr. Ilene Chen attended Tsinghua University.
- Dr. Rick Stanton attended the University of Michigan.
- In High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Gabriella, the "freaky genius girl", has conflicts with her attendance at Stanford to study law and also trying to finish up her last bit of high school.
- Iron Man: It's mentioned that Tony Stark, one of the smartest men in the MCU, went to MIT and graduated summa cum laude at 17 years old.
- National Treasure: While the FBI is investigating Ben Gates for stealing the Declaration of Independence, it's revealed that Ben holds a masters from MIT and a doctorate from Georgetown University. Notably, the variety of his majors (archeology, cryptology, mechanical engineering, and history) look confusing to the FBI but show the audience just how devoted Ben is to treasure hunting.
- Wedding Season: One of Ravi's big selling points is that he went to MIT at sixteen. And it's a source of shame that he actually dropped out and is now a rich DJ.
- In X-Men: First Class, Professor Xavier is seen receiving a doctorate from Oxford studying mutant genetics. His intelligence is also emphasized by the fact that he can literally read minds.
- The Case Files of Yakushiji Ryoko: Insanely intelligent Yakushiji Ryoko is a graduate of Todai.
- Gone Girl: Amy went to Harvard and has a graduate degree from Columbia. She's also an Evil Genius who framed her husband for her own murder.
- In The Magicians, Brakebills is considered the best Wizarding School in North America — and also the most exclusive. Because working magic requires incredible intelligence and a level of focus bordering on insanity, you need to be an intellectual prodigy just to be considered for enrollment, and out of an entire class of potential students, only a handful ever pass the notoriously-difficult entrance exam — the rest having their memories of magic erased, no excuses, no second chances. For this reason, Brakebills students are considered the best and brightest of all magicians in the settings. By contrast, hedge magicians who learned their skills from non-official sources are treated as dunces who earned their skills at a 7-11.
- In A Murder Is Announced, one of the reasons why two residents are so proud of their Rev. Julian Harmon is that he studied in Cambridge.
- Myth Adventures: Aahz, despite having lost his magic, was a student of the biggest, most prestigious magical university on Perv — a dimension known for its magical firepower. Despite dropping out (and later losing his magic for an entire century), he's still famous hundreds of years later as one of the best and brightest the school ever had and they granted special permissions to cover his entire tuition to keep him from dropping out. Later, he helps Skeeve get admission to the place himself. Since Aahz is never seen using his magic on the page, this serves to really cement how good he is with it.
- Rivers of London:
- Lady Cecelia Tyburn-Thames, the goddess of the River Tyburn and Mother Thames eldest daughter, is a cunning strategist with big plans to modernise the supernatural community and has been subtly working for decades to do so. Her intelligence is emphasised by the fact that she graduated from Oxford University with a double first, something she proudly boasts to Peter Grant upon their first meeting.
- The Faceless Man likewise also went to Oxford, as well as being a very powerful Evil Sorcerer, he is also a brilliant ruthless schemer who has been successfully working behind the scenes for decades, consolidating wealth and status to make himself as a very powerful man both within the supernatural community and regular London society, with a wealth of both mystical and mundane criminal resources at his disposal.
- Sherlock Holmes: Professor James Moriarty is a professor at Durham, one of the most prestigious universities in the UK after Oxford and Cambridge.
- Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note: Kuroki, Uesugi, and Kozuka study in Kaisei Academy — which has been the top feeder school to Tokyo University for decades — and cemented their status as geniuses.
- The Big Bang Theory : Because all but one of the main cast is a top scientist in their field (the main four guys work for Caltech), their education generally reflects this:
- Zig-Zagged by Sheldon Cooper—while Young Sheldon reveals he started undergraduate at the fictional non-elite East Texas Tech since he was too young to go away to school, he got his masters and Ph.D. at Caltech and is arguably the most intelligent member of an already intelligent cast.
- Zig-Zagged with Leonard Hofstadter, who went to Princeton, but gets belittled for it by Sheldon.
- Zig-Zagged with Howard Wolowitz, who went to MIT, but because he "only has a masters" his doctorate-holding friends often tease him.
- Raj Koothrapali went to Cambridge.
- Amy Farrah Fowler went to Harvard.
- Bernadette Rostenkowski completes her doctorate during the series through the University of California.
- Played for laughs in "The Bat Jar Conjecture'' when Sheldon asks a Caltech janitor to join his Physics Bowl team, assuming that the janitor is uneducated and thus Sheldon could answer all the questions himself. Dimitri then guesses the correct answer on the final brain-stumper question and reveals that in the former Soviet Union he studied physics at Leningrad Polytechnic University (now St. Petersburg Polytechnic University).
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: For all her mental instability, Harvard and Yale alumna Rebecca is considered a highly promising lawyer, and was just about to be promoted to firm partner at a relatively young age before she throws it all away to follow her crush to a small city across the country. She is noted to be overqualified for the eventual lawyer job she does take up in West Covina.
- Frasier: Frasier definitely believes this, constantly rattling off his academic resume (Harvard, Oxford) to anyone who doubts his intelligence. When Niles is going in for heart surgery, Frasier sniffs at Niles' doctor getting his degree at Stanford, "Well, if you must attend school on the West Coast", then reassures Niles that his anesthesiologist went to Duke.
- Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha: Du-sik used to be the pride of his small village for getting into engineering school at SNU, Korea's most prestigious university. He's hyped up as very intelligent and talented, and everyone (including the heroine) is confused as to why he's content to be working menial jobs for minimum wage back home when he could be making big bucks in the city.
- House: Dr. House went to Johns Hopkins, a medical university so prestigious it formed the basis of all medical education in the United States, and he is frequently portrayed as unrealistically skilled at medicine.
- House of Anubis: Piper's status as the more musically-talented and cultured of the Williamson twins is exemplified by her going to a special academy for musical prodigies, which Patricia bitterly refers to as for "musical geniuses" and compares her school negatively to. It's shown that while Piper's under a lot of stress at that school, she's also still a brilliant, knowledgeable, and skilled student who was also clever enough to trick everyone into not looking for her when she ran away to see her sister.
- The original MacGyver series put the genius engineer jack-of-all-trades main character who is good at everything and an Omniglot to boot at a fictitious university, but the reboot placed him at MIT and just as brilliant.
- Magnum, P.I.: Jonathan Higgins is an expert on nearly every subject imaginable and a graduate of both Eton College and Cambridge.
- Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, on M*A*S*H, is extremely proud of being a Harvard man. He's acknowledged even by the other doctors as being very erudite and well-educated and is probably the most intelligent person in the 4077th. The only downside is that he knows it, and it colors his perception of the others sometimes.
- Outlander: When Brianna's professor questions why she's struggling in her classes, she replies that maybe she's not as smart as everyone thinks she is. He replies that she wouldn't be at Harvard if that was the case. He also points out that she had great grades in the prior semester.
- Double subverted in Squid Game. Cho Sang-woo is known to be a graduate of Seoul National University, specifically SNU Business School, one of the most elite universities in South Korea, and went on to become a successful businessman. His childhood friend, Seong Gi-hun, is very proud of him for this and loves to mention it to others practically every chance he gets. Of course, Sang-woo's first attempts at business are revealed to have failed, and his current "success" comes from him embezzling his clients' money. This gets him into trouble and leads to him playing the titular Deadly Game hoping to win the cash prize at the end. However, he proves to be one of the craftiest and deadliest competitors, outmaneuvering nearly everyone and ending up as a finalist, only losing in the final round.
- Sam Winchester, the one characterized as the smarter of the two Winchester brothers and the more intellectual, book-smart one who does the research, is introduced in the first episode as attending Stanford for law.
- Ash, the mullet-wearing hunter who hangs out at a dive bar, is a computer genius who went to MIT. He uses this fact when Dean questions his intelligence on first meeting.
- Veronica Mars: Teen Genius and prodigy detective Veronica got into Stanford, and attended there as a transfer student after she completed her freshman year at Hearst.
- Doctor Faustus: Faustus is an intellectual who has mastered every subject he's ever studied and holds a Doctorate from Wittenberg University, which was an internationally household name at the time the play was written.
- Hamlet: Hamlet himself, who is known in the play to be a deep thinker and plotter, attends Wittenberg, a university which especially in Shakespeare's time was a famous center for German Enlightenment and rational thinking.
- In the Heights is set in a closely-knit, middle-to-lower-class Latino community in New York. Nina is their pride and joy — a smart girl who not only made it to college but to Stanford University all the way across the country on partial scholarship. It turns out that she cracked under the pressure of being The One Who Made It Out and the difficulties of being in college and dropped out, but is convinced to return.
- The Sims 3: In Generations, parent Sim can send their teenager to a variety of boarding schools. The most expensive one, Smuggsworth Prep School, can increase the Charisma, Logic, and Writing skills and allow the teen Sim more credibility if joining high-profile careers like Business or Politics. It can even replace specific negative traits with the Ambitious, Charismatic, or Snob traits, implying that the school instills a sense of prestige in the young Sim.
- In one episode, Daria and Jodie are invited to an elite prep school as prospective students. While it's clear that the students there are, in fact, highly intelligent, they are also snobbish and unpleasant, with Jodie and Daria both opting to remain at Lawndale High.
- In the finale "Is it College Yet", various students end up going to various colleges of varying reputations, clearly based on their intellectual level. Jane, with prompting from family and friends, gets into a highly regarded arts school. Daria gets into her second choice school, which is still highly regarded. The Cheerleaders (not the brightest bulbs in the bunch) are all elated they got into the same party school. "That's really nice of them, especially after everyone else said 'no'." And Kevin? Well, he'll be attending Lawndale High again.
- Inside Job (2021): Reagan Ridley was top of her class in MIT at 13 years old, and is the Head Roboticist of Cognito Inc., the company that secretly runs the world. In the first episode, she builds an extremely advanced robot replica of the President that has "a galaxy brain". Subverted with her coworker Brett Hand, who went to Yale but is of below average intelligence, implied to be a legacy student.
- In the Phineas and Ferb special "Act Your Age", Phineas mentions that Ferb will be attending Camford on Oxbury for university, a clear play on both Oxbridge schools, which tracks for the terrifyingly intelligent young boy.