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Applying to appropriate grad programs

  1. Nov 29, 2008 #1
    When applying to physics or astrophysics PhD programs, how do you determine which schools are "stretches", "good fits", or "safety schools"?

    Personally, my goal is to get in to a decent school with an astrophysics program. My GPA is 3.80. I have researched with a professor in NMR and semiconductors for 2 years at my college (a small Midwestern liberal arts school). I am a double major in physics and math, and I have taken a lot of physics classes and performed quite well. General GRE scores of 620 verbal and 800 math.
    However, I got a very disappointiong 610 on the advanced physics GRE. I believe that this score poorly reflects my abilities and my strength as a student.

    Here are 10 school I am considering applying to, along with my very uninformed, somewhat ignorant guess at my relative "chances" for acceptance:

    1)Notre Dame - good fit
    2)UC-Davis - stretch
    3)UC-Irvine - stretch
    4)UC-Riverside - safety
    5)U. of Minnesota - stretch
    6)Indiana U. - good fit
    7)U. of Colorado-Boulder - stretch
    8)U. of Arizona - good fit
    9)Arizona St. - good fit
    10)U. of Delaware - safety

    Am I completely wrong in my estimation? I know each school varies in what it weights most heavily in its application process, but how much will my Physics GRE hurt me? My goal is not to get into a super top-notch school, just a decent one with a nice program.

    Thanks to anyone who can provide any advice or criticism!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2008 #2
    Funny, I have a similar record as you. I also majored in physics and math, got a 620 on the physics GRE, and had research experience in NMR. I also had research experience in theoretical space physics (programming simulations). The only difference is that I only had a 3.2 GPA. Granted, my GPA my last two years was significantly higher (I think around a 3.5). I applied to the U of Minnesota's PhD program, which happens to be where I did my undergrad, and I didn't get in. But I did get into a few schools that weren't quite as high up, such as U of M Duluth (MS), U of New Hampshire, and Iowa State (both PhD). Our records seem to be similar, except for your superior GPA. If I could get into these schools, I'm fairly certain you could get into U of M Twin Cities.

    Here's a random insight on how they do their admissions (granted this is entirely from heresay). Apparently they take all of their applications, and the admissions committee ranks them on a scale of 1 to 10. They then set a cutoff, usually at 7, admit the people above that number, and then admit the lower applications as TA positions open up.

    Anyway, I don't know if my random ramblings help, but here they are.
  4. Nov 30, 2008 #3
    Your GPA makes up for your GRE score I'd say and you should apply to the "higher up" UC's instead of the ones you have, such as Berkeley, Santa Barbara, and UCLA. Also, I'd say Colorado would be fairly easy for you to get into.
  5. Nov 30, 2008 #4

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    Some of your rankings of good fit/stretch/safety strike me as unusual. Arizona, for example, has one of the best Astro programs in the country - certainly Top 10, probably Top 5. Davis, on the other hand, is just starting up, and even in physics would not be a Top 10 school on many people's lists.

    Many students are shocked by their GRE scores, and many ask themselves "How can this be? I'm a better student than this!" You have to realize that the sample of students taking the physics GRE is composed of students who are planning to go on to graduate school in physics, so you're not even looking at the bottom half or two-thirds (or more) of the distribution.
  6. Nov 30, 2008 #5
    I don't understand what this means. He does want to do physics. Astrophysics is physics...
  7. Nov 30, 2008 #6

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    What it means is that if you are in the top 10% of your class, you shouldn't be surprised if you end up in the 70th percentile for the GRE.
  8. Nov 30, 2008 #7
    Thanks arunma for your insight into the grad school application process. It is really nice to hear from someone who has gone through this process before with such a similar background. I appreciate your "random ramblings"!
  9. Nov 30, 2008 #8
    I did not realize at all that Arizona had such a strong Astro program. That is very useful information to me. I am trying to research many schools and get an idea of where there are strong Astro programs where I could realistically get accepted. School rankings help a little, but I just don't have much of an awareness of great programs like Arizona and newly started ones like Davis, as you mentioned.
    Perhaps it is obvious from my guesses at what is a "good fit" school, but I must say that I am somewhat clueless as to the relative strengths of astrophysics programs.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2008
  10. Nov 30, 2008 #9
    Really? I had marked many of these schools as beyond even a stretch. Berkeley, for example, is an amazing, top 5 school in physics. Though my GPA helps me, I would think that people who get accepted to schools like that have a both a high GPA, research, and a great physics GRE score. Berkeley only accepts the best of the best, and in my opinion (though my opinion is fairly uninformed) I cannot realistically consider my application to be among the best when my GRE score is at the 36% percentile.
    Can a high GPA really go that far to make up for a low GRE score at such prestigious schools?
  11. Nov 30, 2008 #10
    Trycho: The gpa helps, though for the top 5-10 schools such as Berkeley a 3.7-3.8 is average of their admitted students. The GRE matters, however if you scores above a 65-70% then you have a competative chance of admission. If your percintile is 55-65% then you chance of admission is slim but is still possible if you have stellar everything else. It all depends on how you present yourself,your research, and what your letters have to say about you.
  12. Nov 30, 2008 #11
    36%? I didn't know that's what a 610 corresponded to. In that case you might want to retake the test if you can. You can get into a lot better schools if you study up and get at least 70%.

    This has me worried, though. I thought I did well on my GRE but haven't seen my results yet. :(
  13. Nov 30, 2008 #12
    Yeah, this year's was an "easy" test. I got a 650 (45th percentile), but I missed 20 problems. That pisses me off... I never missed close to 20 in a practice. I was sick, though...

  14. Dec 1, 2008 #13

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    Mathwonk wrote this in another thread, and I think it has some value.

    I don't think it's realistic to retake the GRE and jump from a 36% to a 70%. That means doing better than twice as many students as last time. I don't want to say it's not possible, but I will say that I have never seen it happen.
  15. Dec 1, 2008 #14
    I would like to make it clear that I do not intend to attempt to get in to a top 10 school. I won't be retaking tests or anything to try to get in to schools that are so far beyond me.
    Note that my personal goal is just to get accepted to a decent program that is somewhat "appropriate" for my relative strength as a student and a researcher. I am trying to be as realistic as possible with this application process.

    I appreciate all the advice so far. If you would please allow me to ask a related question...

    Are there any astrophysics programs that have not yet been mentioned that you would recommend for me to look at more closely? (preferrably ones that I have at least some tiny chance of being accepted)
  16. Dec 5, 2008 #15
    I assume you want to get into theoretical/computational astrophysics and not astronomy? Then PGRE is more important. I think your list of schools shouldn't be too far off.
    About astrophysics program, good programs that come up are all pretty competitive.
    how about Ohio State? They have good cosmology program.

    sorry, not much help. I'm trying to decide myself which should be my safty schools. I'm applying to astronomy program though.
  17. Dec 5, 2008 #16
    If you don't mind me asking, what raw score corresponds to that? I'm trying to figure out the scaling of this year's PGRE.
  18. Dec 5, 2008 #17
    Perhaps, but I was able to jump from a 35% to a 63%, so it's not entirely unfathomable. In any case, I say it's worth it to retake it again if you feel you can do better the next time around.
  19. Dec 11, 2008 #18
    Thanks renz for mentioning Ohio State. I did some research on the department and it seems like a really good program. I'm not sure I can get in, but their program looks nice and I will give it a shot and apply. Good luck in your grad school search and application process.
  20. Dec 11, 2008 #19
    Whoa. Congrats! That's a very impressive improvement.
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