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Grade wise, what does it take to get a PhD in Math or Physics?

I know grades aren't everything to get into a PhD program, but do know it plays a significant part in determining how well one will do in graduate school. With that being said, what does it take to get accepted into a top 20 math or physics PhD program?

I've seen some applicant profiles online and their GPAs seem to be around 3.8 or higher, with stellar GRE scores. Is this because many international students apply for these PhD programs and they need higher grades? How will I stand out among these applicants?

I predict my GPA to be around 3.5-3.6 by the end of freshman year, but I will have only taken three quarters of the calculus series, an introductory computer science class (python), and general education classes. I know the classes are going to start to get very very difficult, and I'm afraid my GPA will plummet. At what point do you think I should stop thinking about applying to a PhD program right after undergrad, and maybe attend a masters program? Thank you.
You still have a lot of time to raise your grade since your still a freshman. You will need to work hard to get into graduate school. This is the same advice for anyone planning to go to graduate school. Now you might hold the preconceived idea that you have to be a genius to go to graduate school, but that is a completely fallacious fact. The only way you will make it to graduate school is if you work hard(even geniuses had to work hard to get to where they were at). That being said, if you want to enter a 1st tier graduate school you will need your GPA to be 3.8 and above. I'm guessing that part of the reason your grades are low is because of your general education classes, but that is only a conjecture. If you didn't do so well in your calculus courses you will have to ask yourself why you didn't do so well. Was it because you didn't put in enough effort, are your studying habits inefficient, etcetera... ? My advice is if your having trouble now, don't be afraid to ask professors questions about what you don't understand. Go attend office hours, and make sure you understand the concepts that your learning. This is the only way you can truly raise your grade. Understanding the concepts is much more important than remembering the concepts by rote. Once you've understood what the concepts are talking about, the memory of the concept naturally follows. Also saying that you have a fear that your GPA will fall tells me that your intellectually insecure about your abilities. If you have this anxiety issue, my best advice is to plan your classes for each semester in advance. And buy the books in advance for those courses and read through them. That way when your classes start for real, you will already have some prerequisite knowledge for that course, and you will then have an easier time trying to comprehend the subject that the professors discuss.
My undergrad gpa was around 3.4 from an average university, and I got my PhD from what is sometimes ranked as a top 20 program, or at least top 30. My subject GRE score was only just a hair above average. This is a bit misleading, though, because my math gpa was around 3.5 and my gpa in the last 2 years was probably more like 3.9, which made a big difference. Plus, I got all A's in proof-based courses, with the one exception being a course I took in the summer straight out of high school, in which I got a B. So, math grades in the last 2 years trump overall gpa, although it's good to have both if you can.

Also, recommendation letters are the most important thing. I had 3 great recommendation letters, and I think that was the main reason I got accepted to the one place that I did get into out of the 5 I applied to.

It's true that the courses get more difficult for most people, but if you happen to be a weirdo like me, it actually gets easier in some ways, as you can tell by the fact that I aced every proof course (except that one B), while still managing not to have that fantastic of an overall gpa.


Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Physics PhD programs are not overly concerned with GPA. While they want to make sure you did very well in your upper division courses, challenged yourself in course selection, and understand the material very well they are very forgiving compared to other grad programs. Like for me, most of my lower grades (B+s Bs) were due to inconsistent exam performance which I think they understood well from the rest of my application (will be starting grad school in the fall). The most important thing is to do great research and get to know professors who will write great letters. Those two things are by far the biggest factors in admissions.

Vanadium 50

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
I think you're asking the wrong question. It shouldn't be "how low a GPA can I get without it interfering with my goals" but rather "how can I best take advantages of the opportunities I have right now".


Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Yes you should definitely do the best you can in all of your classes since the upper division classes are where you build your foundation. That being said, if you do really well in those you shouldn't worry if you got a few Bs in the past. It is definitely not true you need at least a 3.8 to get into grad school. If you take challenging classes, do excellent research and have outstanding letters it will make up for getting a few Bs, especially freshman and sophomore year.

For example, I had a bit of a rough start for my first three semesters but picked myself up in my fourth semester and went on to really excel in a lot of grad classes and do outstanding research in theory. I ended up choosing between Harvard, Stanford and Chicago

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