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Grad School Admission and GPA

  1. Oct 5, 2006 #1
    My undergraduate GPA is not stellar...about 3.4. I graduated in June 2005 and I have been working in a computer science laboratory for over a year. I scored well on the Physics GRE (87th percentile), and while I was in college I did undergraduate research for three different professors.

    I'm just curious if anyone can speak from experience and tell me how much they think such a GPA would affect my chances of admission to a top program. Do I need the "triple-threat" of great GPA, great GRE scores, and loads of experience? Will I be automatically eliminated from some programs because of my GPA? Is my GPA less important now since I have been out of college for a while?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2006 #2
    My gpa is less than stellar also (~3.4) but I hope to be admitted to some good grad programs. While many of the top schools have cutoffs at 3.5 (you're not far from that), you can still get into some good school because of your research and GRE scores. Of all of the factors, I believe the ugrad research is the most important.
  4. Oct 18, 2006 #3
    Okay, usually grad schools are pragmatic... they know there are numbers, and they put these numbers into a formula, not always a linear formula, that varies by the university. These numbers are usually:
    1) subject GRE, 2) verbal GRE, 3) quantitative GRE, 4) overall GPA, 5) general GPA 6) your undergrad's prestige -- Our committee has a master list where we ranked the schools on a scale 1-5, and then 6) a rating from the committee members reading your application.
    The numbers ultimately fall where they will... you're ranked somewhere in the list of all the applicants.

    BUT: if you have research experience, that means a lot to the committee, and at least in my grad school's formula, the committee rating goes in pretty strongly rated. I was on the selection committee, so I know one formula, but I am not giving it out. And YES!... undergrad research is most important. I don't care that you decided to become a string theorist while looking at your shoestrings. I really don't care that you are a nice person. As a committee member, I care to know that you'll be able to come to our program, do research and graduate. So your personal statement should reflect the research you've done. Your recommendations should ALL back that up... stating you are a brilliant, motivated, independent researcher... phrases like "better than my current grad students" etc. look really good... so when you're in the lab, act that way. Maybe if you have a bit of teaching experience, mention that, because they then know that if they don't stick you with an RA right anyway, you'll still be useful to them as a TA.

    Ulitmately though, these things can only help you so much. We refused admitance to one student (who even did a summer REU on our campus with a VERY well-known professor... who wrote one of the letters of recommendation), because the student's GPA and GRE scores would make it difficult to compete with the rest of the admitted class... in both coursework and in looking for an RA position (because a lot of prof's go and look in your file before giving you a position in their lab).

    So make sure to have 1-2 back-up's on your list when you apply. You might even find on visiting one of these, that you like it better. I went to grad school at a back-up because there were more faculty doing my research area at the back-up than the prestigious one I was accepted to (after rejections from the others due likely to low GRE and low undergrad rank)... and I didn't like the particular faculty member I thought I would at the top-ranked university that did accept me. Then over the course of my time in grad school, my grad school became one of the top-ranked in my area... largely because there were many people researching there, and a few important break-throughs in research by our faculty.

    So the numbers fall where they will, and you'll likely end up somewhere good for your academic growth... and that's what's most important in the long run.
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2006
  5. Oct 18, 2006 #4
    Thanks for the detailed reply. I had no idea that there was a quantitative ranking system involved at some schools...I was under the impression that they would just systematically eliminate applications that didn't meet certain criteria. Very interesting! :cool:
  6. Oct 18, 2006 #5
    how would you go about getting this undergrad research experience??

    would you try and work with your profs in their lab or their theoretical work??
    like that??
  7. Oct 18, 2006 #6
    Thanks for the detailed info. This is really helpful.

    But I have to say I'm still puzzled why is such ridiculous and (IMO) unimportant test as GRE general even considered in department's admissions. I know its usually required by Graduate school (I suppose they use it for something like negative selection- e.g. if you score in worst 10% ever, they start being little concerned). If I were a professor or someone looking for people for my lab I wouldn't even care about it (I mean... LOL... that's like looking at someone's IQ test results), and definitely wouldn't care about school's prestige student comes from (they don't teach you different physics at different schools; however I would definitely look at his/her school's program and subject descriptions).

    Other tests, on the other hand, do make some sense... because if you're going to study physics, it's not unusual to reexamine your knowledge of physics by testing through GRE subject (although, some problems in this test are more like 'how fast can you calculate' then 'how good you know physics'). And you should know to speak/understand english, so that's why they need TOEFL.

    OMG poor guy... this really really sucks. It might be reasonable if he had really terrible GPA and GRE subject, but still... :uhh:. If it's not a secret (but I doubt), I'm wondering in what range were his GPA/GRE scores?

    You said the profs look in his file... isn't a better idea to evaluate him through interactions with him in lab rotations than to look at his grades and/or GRE... it makes more sense to me.
  8. Oct 19, 2006 #7
    A few people have asked me about getting research experience: so here goes...

    I would say anytime is the perfect time to be getting started looking... especially after you've finished your first year, because by the end of that year you'll have some record at the university/college and should be more than ready to be productive in a lab... you've shown you can handle coursework, time to put more on your plate!

    A good place to start is asking professors that you had for class (and really thought were good instructors) what kind of research they are doing... or better yet, checking it out yourself if they have a web-page.... then just pop in during their office hours (you can find these out from the department). When you meet with the prof, say you are interested in getting research experience, you would like to talk about his/her projects (and see their lab if they are experimental). Usually professors are happy to have students... and you might even get a part-time or summer job with this. If they cannot pay you, they can usually give you some type of research credits.

    Don't be discouraged if the first prof doesn't have a spot (or if the research is theory, the prof thinks you don't have the necessary prep yet)... instead thank him/her for speaking with you, ask if he/she knows of anyone who might have a spot and be doing similar interesting work, then move on to somebody else. (This is the way it usually works when you are looking for a advisor in grad school too.) Maybe if you really want to do theory but don't have the prep, try an experimental group this year, theory next.

    It's always a good idea between your third and fourth year of undergrad to try to go into an REU (Research Experience for Undergrads) type of program for the summer... and hopefully keep doing an project on campus during the academic terms. Doing an REU off-campus will give you one other professor who directly knows about your research. If you were able to start doing some research in your second year (and have at least 1 semester of on-campus research) even try to get an REU for the summer between the second/third years. If you are going on a five year plan, try to get an REU between the fourth/fifth years. In a lot of competive programs (like the the selection committee I served on, having two summer REU's, plus research experience on your own campus during the academic terms) was a BIG plus, or two projects on your own campus, and one REU... that made for three strong recommendation letters (most school require three letters, some four). But even if the applicant only had research at the home institution, if it was long term/got a lot of results/received awards/published and therefore had strong letters, that was also a strong application. When it comes dwon to it...ANY research experience, even if you are starting late, is good on your application.

    Maybe the process doesn't work this way at all institutions, but I'd think ours is similar to a lot of schools that get swamped with applications (we had I think over 800 DOMESTIC applications the last year I served on the committee). So yeah... sometimes there are "cutoff-offs" where the committee wouldn't read your letters if you had a low GPA, GRE on the subject (and just plug in a "0" for the committee rating). Realistically though, if the committee is a STATE instituition or receives FEDERAL funds... the graduate school requires departments to look at all applications and have some type of rating formula/scale in place, in case a student is petitioning for entry after you've closed the doors. This happened in our department because someone's spouse was accepted to another grad program on campus (that program REALLY wanted that spouse to come, so they actually wanted us to accept the student)... but we were able to reply "sorry, our that student was ranked X of Y applications, and we stopped admitting students at Z... which was WAY higher than the student's rank, so realistically, that student probably would have difficulty in our program, so our committee unanimously refuses admittance."

    At a certain point, there are a bunch of similar candidates that just get thrown into the pile... that's where the committee reading the letter is SO important (at high-ranked schools, unfortunately those similar candidates all have high GPA's, high GRE's etc)... so I'd say getting good letters is critical... so go looking for that research experience! Don't let research ruin your GPA/GRE/academic performance though... it's all about balance. Be sure when you are looking for a spot to tell the prof what type of weekly hours you'll be able to do (and be realistic). All those numbers get thrown in the formula.

    Then like I say about getting into a grad school, getting into a research group is similar... There are techniques that can help you, but even if you don't get in the group you originally wanted, more than likely you'll end up in the one that is right for you. If not, you can always change.

    Good luck.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2006
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