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Getting into graduate school with average grades

  1. Aug 8, 2014 #1
    Hello all,

    I'm a German undergrad student wishing to do a physics graduate program in America. But the universities I looked at seems all too selective for me (for example at Louisiana State University they are looking for someone that have already done independent research and published papers, at UC Riverside they take 1 of 20).
    Are there also universities where I can get a place as an average student with average grades?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 8, 2014 #2


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    LSU and UCR are both good schools, but they certainly are attainable for many students. Can you explain what you mean by average grades? Perhaps by converting yours to the US 4 point scale? Have you taken the GRE? What sort of research would you like to do?
  4. Aug 8, 2014 #3
    A 1/20 admitees/applicants ratio is very typical and not that bad, it can be better, but for the most part at the bigger schools it tends to be even worse. I remember having made a spreadsheet with info like this that I managed to get from all the schools I was seriously interested in applying to. The bar is set a lot higher for non-US students, although for Europeans it is probably not as high as it is set for applicants from East Asia.

    You will need to figure out what research field(s) you want to work in and find out what are the main departments in those fields. A good place to start is gradschoolshopper.com, always checking with the dept. pages to see if that info is up to date, as well as contacting research groups at the schools to ask if they foresee taking on new grad students. I assume you are already aware of the GRE general and physics subject exams, do as best as you can on those (you may or may not have to take the TOEFL as well, definitely yes if the language of instruction at your university was German).

    At my school this year we got one new grad student from Germany, there are plenty of precedents.
  5. Aug 8, 2014 #4
    I think a lot of programs select students by the strength of the letters of recommendation they receive.

    If you have time before you graduate, work in any professor'a lab.... preferably the type of professor that will write good things about you.

    Also your statement of purpose is pretty important too. FYI, this is the paper where you sell yourself; that is you openly talk about your unique skillset and experiences, and how this relates to you doing exceptionally well in their graduate program.
  6. Aug 9, 2014 #5
    I'm also interested in what you think "average" grades are. I've seen people claim their GPA just below or above 3.0 is average. That might be true in a broad sense, but physics majors tend to have high GPAs because they nearly all have graduate school aspiration. Of my undergraduate group I'd say the average was around 3.5. With that GPA (along with letters and research) most of my undergraduate group did get into a grad school of some sort.
  7. Aug 9, 2014 #6
    I will give a stern word of caution on converting foreign grading scales to US GPA, it does NOT give an accurate picture of your performance or preparation. In the UK, obtaining a first class (70%) is non-trivial and very unusual among physics majors IME. In my country (Spain), where a 1-10 scale is used, passing a core course like the quantums or advanced CM's (goldstein and landau) on the first attempt is the exception rather than the rule (at my school I have seen numerous grade billboards posted for exams where everyone failed), and grades very rarely exceed a 7/10 as well. My grades just barely translated into a 2.9-3.1 GPA according to online grade converters that also do official conversions for a fee, however talking to many of the grad students and having seen some of the coursework and quals, my preparation in the core subjects and math is noticeably stronger (likely due to the fact they have to fill their first year or more with non STEM electives, many never even took linear algebra which puts them at a disadvantage in QM). I simply applied with my transcripts as-is accompanied by an official translation and got into 4 great schools.

    I have had exchange classmates from Germany at my undergrad school (and have met additional ones as an exchange student myself in the UK) and I would say their preparation was the same or much better, most schools in Germany seem to have a traditionally very rigorous physics programs, so to the OP: I would not concern yourself with what your grade is equivalent to in GPA and worry more about providing a convincing case as to why you want to go into research field X (your statement of purpose), getting relevant research experience if possible (but any experience is good), ref. letters as stated, and what is actually in your control right now: doing well on the standardized exams.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2014
  8. Aug 9, 2014 #7
    Thanks for your answers, the gradschoolshopper.com site is great.

    So I should try to get research experience and the 3 letters of recommendation and also prepare for the GRE as these things are required by almost all universities?

    As Lavabug said an accurate converting my perfomance to US GPA is a bit difficult. My German grades at the moment are 2,5. On this side they are converted into a B+ or A-. What I wanted to say by average is just that in the tests normally about the half of my group have better and the half have worse grades than me. At the moment I´m studding at the University of Munich (ranked like the UC Santa Barbara) in my third and final year. Unfortunately I haven't done any research yet or good contact to a professor, anyway that's the case for the most of my peers.

    The research area I would like to do most is Gravitation and relativity, as this was my favorite course, but I´m also open to other interesting topics ;-)
  9. Aug 9, 2014 #8
    Yes. The research, even if it's not in GR topics will help you (not just for application purposes, but for giving you a head start in the game with some hard skills), especially if you get the bulk of your rec letters from the people who supervised your research instead of just your lecturers. In my experience, a 2 semester research project was worth about 6-7 advanced physics courses in terms of retained knowledge and skills, if not more if you count any programming or experimental skills you end up learning.

    Good luck with your grad school app research, it was long and arduous for me. But all the time you put into it will be worth the effort, you end up picking the schools you best fit into and maximize your chances of getting admitted.
  10. Aug 9, 2014 #9

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    About twice as many people take the GRE as enter graduate school. So if by "average" you mean "near the median", that means you are near the lower edge of those admitted. And, as has been pointed out, international students face a higher threshold. My advice:

    1. Apply to as many schools as you can.
    2. Study hard for the GRE.
    3. Try and get strong letters - and the best way to do this is to get involved in research.
    4. Study hard for the TOEFL. If a university is on the edge on whether to hire you are not, a low TOEFL score will cause someone to ask "can we use this person as a TA?" and that could sink everything.

    It's probably not a bad idea to reflect on what you want grad school to accomplish. Physics is very competitive, and while it is not impossible for someone who barely squeaks into grad school to succeed, they are starting the race well behind their peers.
  11. Aug 10, 2014 #10
    Is that graduate school for a PhD in physics or any graduate program? In my class experience I know a few of my classmates got below or well below the median on the GRE and they got into graduate schools. I assume this is a APS statistic somewhere?
  12. Aug 11, 2014 #11

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    I am comparing the number of people who took the physics GRE according to the GRE folks to the number of people who entered physics graduate school according to AIP.
  13. Aug 11, 2014 #12
    Where do you obtain official reports of the total number of students taking the GRE's? Is this something that's only available to academic institutions?
  14. Aug 11, 2014 #13
    LSU and UCR are good schools but they are not (according to the rankings) the top programs in the country. If you apply to 10 schools in the same bracket as these, the odds are you'll get into one of them, maybe more.

    Define succeed. In physics? Well it seems as if luck overpowers all other factors in your odds of becoming a professor. Taking a university at random from the top 20-50, about half went to top ten schools, and the remaining half are from everywhere from Tufts to Brown to Mickey Mouse University. Considering that top schools have historically produced ~twice as many more graduates (as far as I know) than the lower brackets, this strongly implies to me that luck is the most important factor by far. I hope I am not too cynical here.

    As for succeeding in industry, I am currently a big average state school and it pumps graduates into industry, since many professors have an applied focus anyway.
  15. Aug 11, 2014 #14
    If I will have the skills and the luck to get a job in physics or not, I will hopefully not fell sorry about going to grad school as I had a nice time seeing a foreign country and doing interesting research.

    Thank you all very much for your information and tips! Thanks to your help I now understand the application process better and got a plan what I can do to have better chances :-)
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2014
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