1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Admissions Disappointment and fear

  1. Sep 7, 2016 #1
    Hello. I'm a senior mathematics major at the liberal arts honors college of Florida Atlantic University. I have ~3.96 GPA, and was hoping to apply to math departments with either a string algebra program or strong logic program (more of the latter). Unfortunately, my standardized test taking abilities are awful, and I took the GRE test today only to receive a 155 verbal with 160 quantitative score. I. Taking the math subject test in October, but I doubt I'll even do remotely well on that one. I'm quite disappointed and in some panic. I can understand, read, and write proofs, and ease my way through graduate level math topics and books, but standardized testing is the death of me. I feel like I have little options now. Sorry if this turned out to be a bit of a rant, but my more focused questions are, what kind of schools would be in my league of application? I initially wanted to apply to schools like Berkeley and UCLA, but those seem way beyond my reach now, even more fantastical than before.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 7, 2016 #2
    Your 3.96 GPA is going to count alot more than your general GRE and probably subject GRE (this will obviously count more).

    Do you have undergrad research ala McNair or something similar (which I think FAU has, FIU grad myself).

    If you have that those set your general GRE will probably be an afterthought.
  4. Sep 7, 2016 #3
    GRE typically counts for very little. Some (high level) universities even say that they will never refuse a candidate on the basis of a GRE alone. So you're definitelynot out of options.

    Do you have research experience? Do you have publications? Will you have excellent letters of recommendation? These will count for a lot more.

    You can always apply to foreign universities too, for those the GRE is completely irrelevant.
  5. Sep 8, 2016 #4


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    I'm going to dissent a bit here and suggest that your GRE scores are likely somewhat more important than your GPA. Trying to compare GPA'S here in the US is the same as comparing apples to oranges. There is so much variance in GPA between institutions and differing amounts of grade inflation/deflation it's hard for admission committees to rank students by this metric, thus, enter the GRE, a test that is meant to put your GPA into some kind of context.

    That said, your scores aren't that bad. Are they amazing? No. Are they suggestive you bought your degree behind a McDonald's from a guy with a silly mustache? Not even close.


    Please stop trying to justify your scores because you're bad at "standardized testing." You've been doing standardized testing now since you entered into the educational system. If you feel bad at something, you should try to get better at it. Instead of panicking, learn from this. You hear this sort of thing all the time, "I'm just bad at tests" it is not a valid excuse. I definitely wouldn't put it in my SOP. :DD

    This is all just my gut feeling, I don't work for any admission committees. I can't know how they really screen applicants, so take my hunch as is.
  6. Sep 8, 2016 #5
    That's what subject GRE's are for, not general ones.
  7. Sep 8, 2016 #6


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    General test is meant to provide context for overall education, thus, provides context for overall gpa. Subject test is meant to provide context on one particular part of undergrad degree.
  8. Sep 8, 2016 #7
    In theory, my experience has been that advisers see the general GRE as a formality.
  9. Sep 10, 2016 #8
    My view is that grad school applications have three main areas: 1.) Coursework and grades 2.) Standardized test scores 3.) Research accomplishments as documented by publications and letters of recommendation.

    Knowing that you don't do well on standardized tests and that your undergrad institution does not exactly have a top tier reputation, one would have done well to make sure they had excellent research accomplishments.

    You need something to make your application stand out from all the other applications with good GPAs from lower tier schools who score poorly on standardized tests.

    Odds are you can get into a graduate program in the top 100, but not many students move from an undergrad school outside the top 100 to the top 20 on GPA alone. If you don't have research accomplishments, you should consider being content with a more modest grad school or possibly delaying graduation for a year while you work to improve the GRE scores and get some documented research accomplishments.
  10. Sep 10, 2016 #9

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    They would be a stretch.

    It's true that the GRE general scores are not given a lot of weight. But it's also true that your scores are not strong: about the 50th percentile in English and 25th percentile in math among math majors. If you end up in the 25th percentile in the subject score, your application is in big trouble: about twice as many people take the math subject test as are admitted into a PhD program in math. (And I agree with Student100 - at this stage of your career "I just can't take tests" wears thin. It will almost certainly be interpreted as "Will likely fail the qualifying exam - why should we admit this one?) You need to absolutely nail the subject GRE.

    FAU's program is not strong. Looking at the course syllabi, I am better prepared than FAU graduates are, and my degree isn't even in math. It's roughly where I was when I was at the end of my sophomore or beginning of my junior year. To be honest, I don't think the average FAU student is adequately prepared for a Top 5 school.

    You don't mention research or letters of recommendation. These are important. I have often written that students overestimate the strength of their letters - "Best student this year" is an average letter. Given the overall strength of FAU, I think this would appear even weaker.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2016
  11. Sep 10, 2016 #10
    I agree with the above.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 10, 2016
  12. Sep 16, 2016 #11


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    On the topic of letters, would you agree with me that "best student this year" would be an average letter depending on who the author of the letter is? For example, if the author of the letter was a Nobel Prize winner in physics (or a Fields Medalist in math) or is otherwise exceptionally well know in his/her field, then "best student this year" may very well carry much more weight than if, say, a less renowned faculty member wrote in similar words.

    As an aside, you describe FAU's program as not strong. I am curious as to how a high school graduate about to apply to various colleges/universities (and his/her parents) can gauge the strength of the various STEM programs at different schools. US News has an annual ranking of schools across the US, but I'm frankly dubious as to the validity or applicability of these rankings.
  13. Sep 16, 2016 #12
    I'm teaching and mentoring a number of students in this process, and I have been for several years. No single national ranking tells the whole story, but if one looks at a variety of national rankings, one gets a picture that agrees well with the school's reputation among potential employers in science and engineering as well as agreeing with the school's reputation among faculty at OTHER institutions where one may one day be applying to graduate school.

    If one really wants to look under the hood, I recommend asking questions like, "What percentage of your graduates took the Physics GRE (or MCAT, etc.) in the past five years, and what was their average score?" Another good question is, "What percentage of your graduates published research as undergraduates?" But these questions are harder to get straight answers to. Usually, it takes some legwork in the departments themselves assisted by someone who is familiar with the game.
  14. Sep 16, 2016 #13

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Obviously there are stronger letters and weaker letters, and there are letter writers who have developed reputations that need to be factored in. But at most schools, the number of physics majors who intend to go to grad school (around 5) is smaller than the number of faculty who instructed them (around 10). Since the student can pick their professor, odds are that they can find one who can say they were the best this year. And that's why we get a lot of letters that say "best this year".
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2016
  15. Sep 16, 2016 #14
    To be honest, if you don't perform well, why would you want to go to a top school where your pressure would be much higher?
    For math it's easy.

    A years worth of Real Analysis(with Royden/Folland).

    While there are obviously more requirements, this is the base line cut-off for OK mathematics program.

    I have gone to two universities, one looked a bit like FAU and frankly it was trash, the senior analysis class consisted of an advanced calc book and taking a week to prove that a closed unit interval is compact.
  16. Sep 16, 2016 #15


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    In my experience, when you're asked to fill out a reference, there is often a form or template that you have to fill out. It's becoming rather common to require professors to fill in the blanks for statements like:
    This student is in the _____ % (bottom 50 top 50, top 25, top 10, top 5) of students in my experience with a pool of ____ students over ____ years.
    These requirements are often broken down into attribute subsets including: research potential, initiative, independence, creativity, communication skills, etc.

    On top of that, there are a few attributes that can bolster or at least modify the strength of the reference. First is the context of the reference. In my experience a lot of weight is given to the circumstances under which the referee interacts with the student. A research mentorship over three years is given more weight than cases where the student merely sat through a semester of lectures.

    Second is the professor's background. Someone who works in the field the student is applying to will have a better perspective to evaluate the student's strengths than someone outside of it. (This doesn't mean other references have no weight at all, or that they should be ignored.) This is also where the professor's reputation comes in. A big name does carry weight. But people on admissions committees are also intelligent enough to know that often the big names are not going to spend a lot of time assessing the summer students in their labs.

    Finally, and I think this one gets overlooked often, is the ability of the professor to write a reference letter. A decent reference letter has a lot of specific information in it. A not-so-great one may look nice on the surface (and sometimes the professor may even believe he or she is writing a good letter), but it's too general to really give any context for assessment. Stating that a student 'works well independently' doesn't give people reading the assessment much to go on. But a student who "independently wrote software to analyze data sets that is now being used by our post-docs" is better. Unfortunately it's difficult for a student to know which professors can do this well, when they start looking for research position.
  17. Sep 19, 2016 #16
    Good points, but rather than focus on what the research mentor needs to do, I encourage students to make sure they give letter writers very positive material to work with.

    You'll get a better recommendation letter if you stick with one research mentor for a couple years and get to know their program well enough to make real contributions. Often the first 6-12 months can be an integration phase where the research group is investing time in you and helping you build skills to be useful to them. Jumping ship to another research group after a few months means you need to start coming up the learning curve in a new group.

    Students should focus on their work product and provide real accomplishments to point to. Don't be so enamored with a catch sounding project name. Focus on your real contributions. If you can't articulate them, odds are your mentor can't either in a recommendation letter.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted