Thank you for the kind words!
In my opinion & experience, I think that what really matters in this field is the work you produce. Does it help if you come from a highly ranked program? Probably, but ‘average’ programs can be just as beneficial if you’re proactive about creating a high caliber educational experience for yourself. Whatever university you end up at, be intentional about your coursework (especially art history courses). Start thinking about what kind of art speaks to you, what your university can offer you that others can’t, and what you want to do with your life career-wise.
What does it look like to “be intentional” about education?
Know what your university has to offer. Every university has something unique to offer its students. When you decide on a university (whether it’s “average” or Tier 1), figure out what resources it has. Who are the art history faculty? What do they specialize in? What courses do they teach? Does the department have a graduate program? Does the department host any events, like lecture series or undergrad/grad symposiums? Are there any art history-related awards you might be able to win - or broad awards, like general undergraduate research awards? Does your university have one large library, or does it have an “Arts” library? Does your university have any special collections or partnerships with other local libraries? Does your university offer study abroad, and is there financial aid available? Is the school in close proximity to any museums? If so, do any of these museums offer internships?
Find something to focus on. If you decide you want to delve into, say, Italian Renaissance art, take as many classes as you can on that subject within the department, but also take classes in related areas of study like history, philosophy, and literature. See if your university allows you to enroll in independent study units and/or honors units, and if so, work closely with a faculty member or two as you write papers for them related to what you want to focus on. Having an area of specialization isn’t necessary, but it can help you be competitive on grad applications if you use your specialty to engage in independent (or term) research papers/projects, participate in any undergraduate symposiums, publish in open access or undergraduate research journals, etc.
Challenge yourself. Challenging yourself academically can provide you with new perspectives on art and art history. Don’t shy away from seminars. Learn the history of art history and study art theory. Read difficult texts and groundbreaking authors. Enroll in an honors program, if your university has one. In your junior or senior year, see if a professor will let you take or audit one of their graduate seminars.
Study art history outside of class. Try to find time to read books not on the reading list. More importantly, go to museums! Get out and see art. Question it. Observe the way exhibitions are put together and ask yourself what you get from it as it is, and what you might do differently if you were the curator. Read or thumb through exhibition catalogues, catalogue raisonnés, and technical analyses. And read art news — keep up with what’s happening.
Make sure your professors know you. Go to office hours. See if they will advise you on an independent project. Ask them about what classes you should take, what grad programs they like, what their life is like as a professor and how they got there… Foster these relationships, especially if you find professors who take you seriously and are supportive of your academic goals.
Learn to read at least two languages. Knowing how to read at least two languages other than English will help you stand out on graduate applications, since most grad programs in the US require at least one (but sometimes up to three) language exams in order to obtain an advanced degree. Some undergrad institutions may even require that you know two languages to graduate, anyway, so be sure to check with your university about their requirements.
Study abroad (and travel), if possible. Studying abroad (and/or traveling) is a great way to get to know a particular city and country and to study art in situ. This is more about personal enrichment than being a C.V. booster, but it doesn’t hurt; some grad programs like to know if you’ve experienced the area you want to study.
TL;DR: The beauty of education is that despite distinctions between university rankings, you can get an excellent education (and make yourself a strong candidate for grad school) through traditional means (like coursework) and non-traditional means (like learning and questioning and writing on your own).
Good luck! Please keep me posted, and as always, I hope this helps!