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Admissions Grad School Admissions Myths

  1. Jul 18, 2011 #1
    Well after reading tons of posts and talking to my friends who are headed off to grad school here is what everyone says:
    PGRE is really important, GPA is really important, publications really important, leadership roles really important, multiple years of research experience really important, recommendation letters really important.
    Is it just me can all these things not matter the same to every school. Also I see many people saying things like "I have a GPA of 3.7, which is terrible" Does any one else find this ridiculous!? I mean yes lets say you are wanting to go to MIT then yes you probably wont make the cut but does everyone here define themselves like this cause that seems miserable. I don't mean to offend anyone just wish people could see their accomplishments as how outsiders see them.

    Legitimately, what are the top 2 things most schools look at?

    Also to everyone who is saying things like "I'm a sophomore in college and just finished quantum mechanics, and I took calc 3 back my senior year of high school but I know I'm not good enough" please realize your achievements and be proud of them.
    I know people who interned at CERN and had a 4.0 and got a few rejection letters to grad schools so a lot of schools are hard, but I have heard of a few people who also got a 3.5 GPA and then got into a place like Harvard or Yale so what is really happening with this type of stuff?
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  3. Jul 18, 2011 #2


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    It really depends on the school. I had a professor who didn't even take research experience or publications seriously because of his experience with research students. A friend of mine was on the admissions committee at Harvard a few years back, and she said they ranked all the applicants using a combination of GPA, PGRE, and research experience - and although half the applicants were women, they all ended up on the bottom of the rankings (that was the year I applied - 3.7, publications in a top journal, internships at Harvard, two other top schools and a national lab). An internship at CERN might sound really impressive, but everyone else has something similar.

    So I'd say it's not so much rumors as every school is looking at something a bit different, and graduate school admissions are always a crapshoot. I got turned down from one of my top choices (not Harvard); a friend of mine applying 2 years later with no research at all and the same GPA/test scores got in.
  4. Jul 18, 2011 #3


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    You need to look at this from the graduate school's perspective. Why should they accept you instead of the other random Joe? As much as you'd like to believe, GPA really isn't everything. You can get a 4.0 in basketweaving, but it won't mean a hill of beans. From the graduate school's perspective, they would accept someone who got a 3.5 taking very difficult classes as opposed to someone who got a 4.0 taking GPA boosters.

    Also, undergraduate research is definitely a plus, but isn't a dealbreaker when getting into a graduate school. Graduate schools want evidence that you'll be able to work hard, get good grades and contribute to their school. Evidence that you've taken difficult classes, was a leader in a prominent club/activity will greatly improve your chances to get into a decent school.

    So to answer your question, I would say the two most important things to get into a graduate school are:

    1) Challenge yourself. Take difficult courses and push your limit. Show that you can excel taking difficult courses (if your school allows it, try taking a graduate-level course or sit in on one to get a taste of what graduate level work is like)

    2) Get involved with a club and be a leader. Show that you have leadership potential and you can lead a club.

    I would have to agree with your professor. Research at this level (at least in mathematics) is more inclined to give the student a learning experience in how to perform mathematical research (or research in general). I have seen some pretty cool topics, but you have less tools to work with at the undergraduate level.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2011
  5. Jul 18, 2011 #4
    K I love this. This is how I feel it should be, its just the idea I get from other people on here is that its all about publications and GPA. I personally have a pretty good GPA but amazing leadership experiences (I'm on a counsel that advises congress on health legislation, along with 2 club officer positions). I take hard classes every semester and always a full class load. I just felt like some people were saying it'd be better to take less classes and do better than actually learn more and do *slightly* worse.
    Also I totally agree that some research experiences are not worth much, I know people who drive around to collect data collection units and then download the info and that is all they did for their REU
  6. Jul 18, 2011 #5


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    The consensus seems to be that leadership is actually NOT important; in fact it may even hinder your application. Grad school admissions are a lot more logical than undergrad admissions. You need to think about what a grad school wants. Does a grad school want someone who's too busy with something else to do his/her work? No. Graduate schools are going to basically support you with tuition and living expenses for 5+ years (as opposed to undergrad where YOU paid THEM and supported yourself). They're also expecting you to publish for them and help build the reputation of the department. So they DO want people who would take less classes and know the material instead of someone just trying to get through his bachelors. In fact, they enforce the idea of wanting you to know as much as possible with the exams everyone has to go through. If you can't pass your qualifying exams, you'll be kicked out. Period.

    As for exactly what they look for in an applicant, it's not so much the 2 or 3 most important things that matter. It's making sure you don't have 2, as many put it, red flags. If you have a 10% PGRE and a no good recommendation letters, you're application is worthless. A poor GPA can be excused, a bad PGRE score can be excused, a bad GRE score can be excused, but when there's multiple problems, you're in huge trouble.

    Assuming everything in your application is fine, you also have to start thinking about schools being good matches for you. For example, when I applied to PhD schools, I was looking for programs doing work in plasma physics. If I had applied to say, Berkeley or Stanford, they would have tossed my applications simply because no one does plasma physics in their departments! Maybe they don't have funding for your particular field. Who knows! Graduate admissions are more like finding a good employer to do your 25 year career with than finding an undergraduate school where people really don't even know who you are.
  7. Jul 18, 2011 #6
    I find it hard to believe that grad schools would be ignorant to the fact that people who poses good leadership skills tend to be highly motivated individuals- doesn't that make them more qualified?
    Obviously I have not had the experience I do find it odd though that it plays no importance, if anything is a negative from what you make it sound like. Don't you agree that people with leadership experience have a great-likely hood having greater successes in their professional life which will in turn reflect well on their school? Maybe that's just me.
    Also can you clear the class thing up with me, yes I completely understand in grad school focusing on your classes is great but as an undergrad is it really not good to be well rounded, especially if those other classes are still physics/astro classes just pursing lots of topics?
  8. Jul 18, 2011 #7


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    If it's assumed that you're going to drop all that extracurricular stuff when you attend grad school, I doubt it'd look bad then. Remember, they expect you to work 60-80 hours per week on your work. You don't want them to get the idea that you won't be willing to do this.

    If they're related and helpful it's good, definitely. The thing that is the most important part is once you enter grad school, you're going to be very quickly tested on the field you're entering. So if you enter a program in condensed matter and you took some astronomy courses, that's great and all, but they won't be testing you on astronomy. Being well-rounded is nice, but those qualifying exams must be passed no matter what.
  9. Jul 18, 2011 #8
    I agree with Pengwuino that leadership positions are generally not considered relevant to grad school applications. The possible exception being if that leadership position was related to your field. I was talking to my advisor about this during the spring when he was in the process of making offers to new potential grad students. When looking at applications he doesn't really care if the student was involved in student government or something like that because it doesn't have any relation to the applicants ability to do research. The type of work you do in research is very different from what you do as a leader of some club while an undergrad.

    Besides there are plenty of applicants with a lot of research experience which means they are also highly motivated.
  10. Jul 18, 2011 #9
    I'd have to agree. Extracurriculars, including leadership, would hardly make a difference for grad school. I'm sure they only care about things actually related to your academics. Why should it matter to them that you're student body president, or if you've made an impact in your college's community?
  11. Jul 19, 2011 #10
    I've always found (most) extracurricular activities to be CV-padding. Surely admission tutors see this too? Perhaps I'm feckless and malcontented...
  12. Jul 19, 2011 #11
    Graduate school in what? What physics Ph.D. programs look for is *vastly* different from what MBA or Law schools look for.

    Disagree. Leadership roles are irrelevant for physics grad schools. Also a low GPA is bad, but a high GPA is not necessarily good.

    They don't matter the same to all schools. They also don't matter the same to different people in the same school. So far a particular school, there is a lot of randomness. However, if you apply to the standard six to eight schools, then a lot of the randomness disappears, because if you apply to eight schools and you didn't get one admission, then something was seriously wrong with your application.
    It's random.

    There's a lot in an admission package that isn't obvious. Also there is just plain dumb luck.
  13. Jul 19, 2011 #12
    I don't think it is. It's a different sort of logic, but it's not more or less logical.

    You are making some awfully broad generalizations here.

    In fact it isn't. Graduate admissions is *very* different form the job search, and no one in high technology nowadays expects to work at the same company for 25 years. That's one of the things that you have figure out. When you are in high school, someone told you to do X, Y, and Z, and you got ahead by doing X, Y, and Z.

    The "real world" is different. You might find that to get A, you need to do X and Y, but to get B, you need to do not-X and not-Y.
  14. Jul 19, 2011 #13
    The problem is that if you do exactly what people tell you to do in Ph.D. and become the perfect graduate student, you run into problems once you get your Ph.D.

    The other thing is that remember that you are applying to six to eight schools, and as long as one of them likes you, then you are in good shape.

    My department didn't have qualifiers.
  15. Jul 19, 2011 #14


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    Well I wasn't really meaning to emphasize the 25 years part. My point is you don't want to just find any company that will hire you, there's a lot of things you have to consider. Hell, when you're looking for an undergrad institution, all you're looking for is a bigger name with a higher ranking.

    Sure but you can have a few years to overcome that problem and realize it's not something you want to keep doing.

    Hmm, I haven't seen one university without qualifying exams.... then again I haven't been paying much attention.
  16. Jul 19, 2011 #15
    Let me ask a question here, as well:
    To what extent can it be useful if you apply for top US physics graduate schools, to hold a European Master degree already? In particular, is it likely that they will ignore a not so perfect (~3.6) Bachelor GPA if one already has a very good Master degree ("very good" meaning 4.0 GPA and a long list of additional math and theoretical physics courses over the years at a top 20 university)?
  17. Jul 19, 2011 #16
    You know the old saying "beggars can't be choosers"?

    If you have a family to support and are looking for work in a bad economy, then yes you are looking to find any company that will hire you. Once you start looking for work, then you will get so many rejections, that at some point you will be happen to work for ***anyone*** that says yes.

    Now once you have more than one person saying YES, then you can choose, but getting to the point were anyone says YES is a pain in the rear end.

    People do. That's a horrible way of looking for an undergrad institution.

    1) You are going to be extremely busy. Unless you actively make time, it won't happen.

    2) It's not a matter of what you want. It's a matter of what you can get. The overwhelming odds are that you will not get an academic position when you have your Ph.D., so you have to get your parachute ready and jump when the time comes.

    UT Austin astronomy has 2nd year projects and no qualifiers.
  18. Jul 19, 2011 #17
    I actually want to argue this, if you apply only to schools that have research in an area you are interested in then you will only get accepted to schools that do research in an area you are interested in. Considering how difficult graduate school is, it seems like a terrible mistake to go somewhere for a field you are not interested in. If somebody wants to do number theory then I wouldn't recommend applying for schools without research in number theory. I'm not saying you can't have a few options, I'm saying only apply for the ones you know you want to do unless you really have no preference in which case, I don't know how to help.
  19. Jul 19, 2011 #18
    In my albiet limited experience on a graduate admission committee, I'd list these as the top two things to focus on:

    1) meeting (or exceeding) academic content knowledge standards (by good grades in coursework at a reputable institution, good PGRE scores, etc.)

    2) research experience (documented by letters of recommendation, and perhaps by presentation/publication)

    The more you can demonstrate these things, the better... that's why all the specifics and opportunities for demonstration. Why these? You need to get through core coursework in a graduate program (perhaps including qualifying exams and/or comprehensive exams) and then complete your research project successfully.

    Don't forget, however (as explained in an anecdote by eri), that your acceptance may be largely dependent on how you look in the pool of applicants, and perhaps what you want to do at the institution. I would, nonetheless, be hesitant to say in my experience that acceptance ever becomes "random." We had a numerical formula that ranked applicants according to various weighted criteria in which the only fudge factor was an averaged "readers' score" to provide a number for letters of recommendation, anomalies in the transcripts, etc.... and we always really examined the few students at the cutting point in the list. (So called "leadership" however, never played a role, even in the cutting edge cases.)

    Don't forget however, in your quest for admission, that you have to really know why you want to be in graduate school (and even that particular program), and how to really get the most out of it (including, perhaps as two-fish notes, not being the model graduate student and having "your parachute ready").
  20. Jul 19, 2011 #19
    Sure, but I was talking specifically about the job market. One problem that Ph.D.'s have is that they are used to the academic system of admissions and promotions, and assume that companies are like universities and handle hiring the same way that universities handle admissions when they are vastly different.

    If the alternative is not to go at all, then you have to make some decisions.

    I have a hypothesis that a lot of people have attitudes that were formed in the "boom times" that don't quite make sense now. In the good old days (i.e. before 2005), people assumed that the boom economy was a permanent situation, that when you got out you'd have a choice of jobs, and that you can pick and choose between your options. You were supposed to do what was "fun" and "rewarding" because the wonders of the free market economy would give you infinite choices and possibilities.

    That's not the world that we live in today, and that's likely not going to be the world for the next few years. You take what you can get, and if someone gives you a job, you are thankful.

    In a bad economy, being picky is a luxury that you can't afford.
  21. Jul 19, 2011 #20


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    I think it's a fair assumption that anyone reading this won't be entering the workforce for at least 5 years. Hopefully this economy will not be the "new economy".

    That's the reality of the situation though. I'm not saying any of this is the way life would be, just how it is for the most part.
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