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Best Schools for Undergrad Physics?

  1. Aug 6, 2008 #1
    Something with advanced classes as well LOADS of advanced research opportunities. I actually plan on a double major of Physics and EE or Computer Science.

    I am from the US and I would like to eventually go for my PhD hopefully at a top grad school.
    Then I would either like to work at a large national lab,for NASA, or as a professor at a top university in California such as UCal or Stanford or Caltech even if I had to accept a lower salary or such.

    My grades aren't great, so keep that in mind.
    I prefer East(Boston,NYC..etc) or West Coast(LA,SF Bay,San Diego) but I am open to anything even international options.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 6, 2008 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm sorry, but your career plans are not consistent with grades that "aren't great".

    Top colleges and universities look very closely at grades - if grades are poor, it's either because the candidate wasn't very smart to begin with, or he was smart and didn't work very hard. In either case, they aren't terribly interested.

    If those are your career goals, you need to get your grades up.
  4. Aug 6, 2008 #3
    Quantify "not great" if you feel comfortable doing so. I don't know whether you just feel big-name schools are unapproachable, or if you're going to be hard put getting into a state school and need a good talking to about getting it together.

    Instead of a double major, you might consider an "Engineering Physics" program, or just adding the courses you're interested in as electives. A double major is a huge commitment to make if you're not sure what you want.

    Planning ahead is good, planning what you'll do after you're a Professor Emeritus before you're accepted to college as an undergrad is a little off. For now, the only thing you can do is be a good student as an undergrad, and try to plan your courses well. Focus on that and on making good impressions on your profs (mostly just be a good student and show interest by asking relevant questions) so you'll be able to hit them up for research opportunities later - and letters of recommendation to grad school when that becomes an issue.

    As to "best schools"...well...that's a huge multivariable problem that has to take into account the individual asking the question. The best thing to do is visit as many schools as you can that are on your "short list" to see which you like and which you can't see yourself at. The APS has some interesting statistics up on undergrad degree results, largely to the effect that "large research schools give you more research options, smaller programs without a PhD program tend to have better classes." It's a messy topic.
  5. Aug 6, 2008 #4
    Vanadium, In the grand scheme of things is is completely absurd to think High School grades are a indicator of success or intelligence...Until a few months, I thought high schools was a joke, until I realize that high school matters for admission to top college.

    I can't give you a firm GPA, but I would say between 3.1 and 3.5. I got a D in Spanish my freshmen year,which was a terrible year for me. But plan to retake the class and get at least a B, hopefully an A.
    My SATs are nice, 2200 ,780CR,740M,680W. And I plan to take them again.
  6. Aug 6, 2008 #5
    That's not terrible. And really, if most of the bad grades were freshman year - they'll be more inclined to look at your recent grades over your older grades if the recent ones are good.
  7. Aug 7, 2008 #6
    I know it isn't terrible,not it isn't great.

    Freshmen year I had a D which hurt.I got screwed over freshmen year class and teacher wise since I was new to the town. I mean it was Spanish,not a math or science, so I it isn't a killer to retake it which i think we can agree, is best because traditionally Ds aren't accepted by universities.

    I was more "adjusted" Sophomore year and I balanced well. I got 2 Cs, but they were balanced by As to give me a B average or something like a 3.3 or 3.4UW for Sophomore Year.

    Thanks for the help guys...What would you recommend I read to learn more about Physics?
    Like some good newsletters or such?
  8. Aug 7, 2008 #7
    I honestly don't see why any school that doesn't admit you based on a formula would prefer that you retake classes. If that's the last Spanish class you took, okay, then it may be a deficiency. But it would be much better to take a more advanced class and do well than to take the same class over again.

    You need to get top grades in the time you have left in high school to show colleges you're serious. Then, even if you can't get into your dream school immediately, you have a shot at transferring if you perform very well where you end up.

    Right now I might just suck it up and go to the nearest best quality big state school you can into, with plans to transfer perhaps to a better institution. At least at big state research universities there are always research opportunities.

    For physics news, I like following the physics today news picks. You can also read it (as I do) on RSS.

    (Who am I? I'm starting my first year at a top physics grad school coming from a well regarded small liberal arts college.)
  9. Aug 7, 2008 #8
    Well if I retook it, The D would be dropped from my record,which would raise my GPA.

    As far as I know we don't have any good Physics state schools around here.

    Where did you go?
  10. Aug 7, 2008 #9
    I'd rather not put the school I went to on here, as it would reveal my identity rather quickly. But I'll send you a private message.

    Would the D really be completely dropped from your record? I'm sure it would be dropped from your official GPA, but I suspect your transcript would still show that you took the course twice. One case where this could possibly make a difference is that I know some (state) schools have automatic admission with a certain GPA, but I would check on that for places you're interested in. Other than that I don't think it would be worth it.

    What state are you from? (Seriously, it's not as if anyone is going to figure out who you are from among countless high school students interested in physics.) You don't need to go to a top undergrad institution to get into top grad schools. Sure, it helps, but if you're an excellent student and make an effort to get involved in research you can succeed coming from nearly anywhere. Take a look at admission results and profiles over at physicsgre.com in the prospective students forum.

    I also believe that you can get an solid education at most big institutions anywhere if you push for it, since it's so hard to get a job as a physics professor that those everywhere are well qualified.
  11. Aug 7, 2008 #10
    I am from MA.

    It should be dropped from my record.

    I check out phsyicsgre.com
    It seems like low GPA from an Ivy will ger you into a top grad school.
    Some guy from an ivy got accepted to Harvard,Princeton,Columbia and Yale with a 3.3 GPA
  12. Aug 7, 2008 #11


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    Careful with things like physicsgre.com
    Letters of recommendation play a huge, huge role in grad school admission, and aren't really portrayed there. Also, research experience is huge.
    If you have a 3.0 but have done great research and have great letters of recommendation, you can pretty much enter grad school anywhere. (Similarly, if you have a 4.0 but no research and thus not much in terms of letters, you'll have a hard time at any top school).
  13. Aug 7, 2008 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    Your last sentence hits it on the head. If your plans involve a top college, a 3.1 is not going to cut it. You need to get your grades up - way up. Asphodal is right in that colleges look at improvement - this reinforces why you need to get them up. You have to look like a 4.0 student who finally got his act together, not a 3.3 student who had a lucky term or two.

    I think you also need to distinguish undergrad grades in graduate applications from high school grades in undergraduate applications. The latter is much more important.
  14. Aug 7, 2008 #13


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    Indeed. An undergrad has a bunch of other things on which to bank on - research experience, letters of recommendation, publications, taking graduate courses, etc. There isn't much to judge a high school student on besides grades.
  15. Aug 7, 2008 #14
    The big problem with GPAs is that they aren't normalized. Standardized tests even have a bit of a problem because of specialized tutors and so forth that "teach the test." A really poor GPA can count against you...but a 4.0 won't always mean much. Especially with schools commonly handing out nonsense grades like 4.85 and so forth. The system is pretty fubared, and it makes the job harder for admissions committees.

    In general, the admissions essay is to undergraduate admissions as letters of recommendation are to graduate admissions. GPA can count against you, but will surprisingly not do much to count FOR you (unless your school is well known to the particular college AND has a good reputation for meaningful GPAs). Unusually high test scores can count for you, but there is also a problem here with tutors and classes that "teach the test" and likewise tend to inflate scores.

    Really, it's a big mess. Everyone's going around padding their app, and the admissions people know everyone's going around padding their apps. The best thing you can do is work really hard for the remaining time, try to retake your SATs again like you said, and write a well-revised and sincere admissions essay that speaks clearly to the topics they ask you to cover.
  16. Aug 7, 2008 #15


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    Staff: Mentor

    Most colleges use class rank as a significant factor in admissions, because GPAs are so inflated and hard to compare between different high schools.
  17. Aug 7, 2008 #16
    I just want to point out something about the kids on pgre.com, something to consider. I think some of them have lower GPAs because they were working on research instead. Those kids have freakish research experience and get fantastic letters. And 3 great letters will make a 3.0 easily forgettable.
  18. Aug 7, 2008 #17
    OK, let's try to give him some feedback on his original question.

    On the east coast, I believe going to these schools and doing well gives you a great chance at a great grad program:

    Less competitive UG admissions (not necessarily meaning a crappy physics department): Rutgers, Stony Brook, Penn State. I don't know of many other schools in the Northeast that have highly ranked programs but have manageable admissions rates.

    Then there are the obvious in the Northeast: MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Cornell, Yale, UPENN, Brown (wow pretty much Ivy Leagues)

    California/West Coast: pretty much all the UC's are good. In order of stature: Berkeley, UC-Santa Barbara, UCLA, UC-San Diego. And then throw in UC-Santa Cruz, UC-Davis perhaps. I don't know how the University of Arizona is, or Arizona state. However, I think UCSD has a favorable admissions rate. UCSB even more so, and UCSB has a consensus top 15 physics grad department.

    I guess it can't hurt to throw in Caltech, but last time I checked, they have like a 12% admissions rate. It's very difficult to get in. Also Stanford is in the same boat as Caltech.

    Internationally, I guess Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College, University of Bonn (Germany), Utrecht University (Dutch), etc. I don't know too many. I know primarily the best Euro universities are in the UK, Germany or are Dutch. No offense to any Spaniards or Italians.
  19. Aug 7, 2008 #18


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  20. Aug 7, 2008 #19
    I plan on looking at MIT,BU,NEU,Rutgers,PSU,UIUC,Stony Brook maybe Boulder.
    MIT is a dream,but if I write a good essay, I have a slim shot.
    BU and NEU don't have many physics research opportunities, but they are close enough to MIT and Harvard to work with them. NEU is a 5 year co-op which could allow for a lot of research.

    UoA has regularly the best NASA astrophysics funding excluding JPL...But there undergrad is fuzzy.

    I would like to study in Europe, especially since there science program are funded, but I would have to research this more.

    How about Toronto?
  21. Jul 19, 2010 #20
    From what I've seen students who don't have stellar marks but still want to benefit from the research opportunities often end up in larger public research-intensive universities outside the US, maybe Edinburgh, McGill, UCL/Imperial, Toronto, UBC. You'd probably end up saving a lot of money as well. They don't seem to have problems getting into the best grad programs either.
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