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Do you really have to be the top 1% in your class to shoot for prestige programs?

  1. Jul 16, 2010 #1
    Here is the thing that I noticed in most Physics and Mathematics courses, I noticed that no matter how poor our professor is, no matter how poorly written the textbook is, and no matter how everyone studies 24/7, somehow, for just some reason, everyone always scores the mean, in other words, no one even gets an A. While there is always this one or two people that always scores above the mean, like getting 97% to 99% on a midterm while everyone gets like 70%. Since there is that one person that scored so high, the professor cannot scale the exam.

    I am just wondering, how do those people do it? People tell me it isn't because they are smart, it's because they've done it before, in other words they probably took Linear Algebra when they were in the 7th grade with a private instructor. Some people tell me it's because they are really good at role-learning while the rest of us tries to grasp the concepts that will never appear on the exam. Some people just tell me they know what will be on the exam.

    So I am just wondering, what happens to the rest of us? The 99% mean scored people? What can we do to shoot for prestige programs?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 16, 2010 #2
    In my experience, the top students haven't necessarily seen the material before, they are just very quick at picking it up.

    The good news if you aren't one of these top students is that graduate admissions also depend on research aptitude, which is a different skill than doing well in classes. So if you aren't killing in class, get involved in a research program and kill there.
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2010
  4. Jul 16, 2010 #3
    When should one apply or even find research? During freshman years? Or sophomore? Do profs have the right to refuse you a position in the research?
  5. Jul 16, 2010 #4
    Professors are under no obligation whatsoever to accept you into their research program. Some will flatly refuse undergraduates, and will only work with graduate students.

    You should probably start asking around as soon as possible, but keep in mind that the earlier you are in your studies, the less likely you are to be accepted. Finding a position as a freshman is relatively rare, but it doesn't hurt to express your interest.
  6. Jul 16, 2010 #5
    Wait, then how are you suppose to apply if they are just going to refuse you even if you are a senior?
  7. Jul 16, 2010 #6
    Some will refuse you. Probably, most will refuse you, but there might be someone willing to give you a chance. In the US, there are also summer research programs designed for giving research experience to undergraduates (REU), which you can apply for at research universities and even government labs, though they're often limited to US citizens.
  8. Jul 16, 2010 #7
    I live in Canada...are there any equivalents?
  9. Jul 16, 2010 #8
    I don't know much about Canada, but there definitely are programs in the US that accept international students. I have a friend from Toronto who was accepted into an REU in the US this summer. Email some professors and see if they have advice.
  10. Jul 16, 2010 #9


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    Most of us have been in your shoes and survived through hard work and perserverence. Keep in mind that GPA is always used to filter applicants. Study hard, seek out the smart kids for help (and they are smart, don't let anyone tell you otherwise), use the TA's and prof's office hours, and build a solid record of B's and an occasional A in your core classes. Augment it with A's in non-core classes. REU's won't salvage poor grades.
  11. Jul 16, 2010 #10
    Well, you have to ask around... some professors are interested in working with undergraduates, some aren't. You need to find the ones that accept undergraduates and are working on something you are interested in.

    "Apply" is probably the wrong word for the most part... summer REU programs have a formal application, but other than that it's a matter of just finding someone willing to take you on. (It does happen... I know one professor who is known for recruiting research students from his freshman physics courses!)

    I also want to agree with marcusl... research experience won't salvage poor grades. It will make good grades look a lot better though.
  12. Jul 16, 2010 #11
    I am still a foreigner, do I have to go to an American university for research?
  13. Jul 16, 2010 #12
    Research is research no matter where it is done. At the end of the day, you would like to have a publication in a known journal, or at the very least a glowing letter from the professor you worked with.
  14. Jul 16, 2010 #13
    Umm okay, but can you guys actually address the topic in my first post?
  15. Jul 16, 2010 #14


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    There are lots of great research opportunities for undergraduates in Canada. You simply have to ask around. Some universities have formal programs, or summer research awards, others just have professors with projects available for undergraduates. These aren't always advertised either.
  16. Jul 16, 2010 #15


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    As to the original question - the answer is obvious: get better marks.

    If your current system of learning (or test-taking) is giving you average results, that's likely what you're stuck with until you change it. There is no universal rule that will get an average student into that top 1%. You have to experiment and figure out what works. In what classes have you done better? What's been different between those and the ones you just managed to drag yourself through?
  17. Jul 16, 2010 #16
    Sorry, I thought I was. I'll be more explicit.

    They work smarter and they work harder than you.

    Most people don't go to graduate school at all. Many go to less prestigious programs.

    Claw your way into the 1%, either in class or in a research setting.
  18. Jul 16, 2010 #17
    Maybe they are luckier, smarter, or study effectively; perhaps they cheat, know the test beforehand, the professor favors them; it could be that they are repeating the course, learned the material before, obtained private tutoring; it may be all, a combination, or none of the previous factors.

    Observe what they do and adapt it to your life. Ask them.

    You may do what the "star" students are doing; you may offer sexual favors to admissions committees; you may get luckier during the admissions process; you may call those prestige programs and ask them what are the entry requirements; etc; etc; etc;

    Whatever you do, stop obsessing about it. It's a waste of energy.

    One of the things you will notice on these forums is that open-ended, subjective questions will receive open-ended, subjective answers; questions from certain types of posters will sometimes be ignored; in certain cases, some jerks will try to discourage you.

    Overall, there are many helpful people around here provided you ask precise, reasonable questions. You are better off doing some research before you post your questions; self-sufficiency seems to be appreciated around here.
  19. Jul 16, 2010 #18


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    Staff: Mentor

    Um... according to your other threads, you've just finished high school and haven't even started university yet! I think you're stressing out way too much about your future prospects at the moment.
  20. Jul 16, 2010 #19
    Reason being that I feel like it doesn't matter anymore, it's all the numbers, no one cares (by "one" i mean grad school) if you are the next einstein unless you have that 4.0GPA
  21. Jul 16, 2010 #20
    If it makes you feel better, no "one" cared about Einstein before 1905.
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