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Graduate applications, how many safety schools, and am I deluding myself?

  1. Sep 20, 2012 #1
    (chemistry major applying for grad school)

    I would consider myself a very good candidate, but I'm pretty biased. I won't run down everything, but I feel like I am on the very high end of all the things they look for in an applicant.

    My trouble is in figuring out where to apply, and how many places to apply to. Right now I would really like to apply to ~10 schools. I am just so incredibly afraid of not getting in somewhere and being utterly devastated. If I only have a 10% shot of getting into a top program, I could easily not get accepted anywhere. Just like you could flip a coin a few times and never see heads...

    Right now I am applying to two "safety" schools; my home university (I really don't want to go here for grad school) and where I did my REU, both ranked as average programs. I am fairly confident that my acceptance is pretty much guaranteed at these schools. The rest of the places I want to apply to are mostly top 20 programs. I'm not sure if I should spread out more safety schools between my current safety schools and the bulk to the "reach" schools I'm applying for. I just don't want to apply to too many safety schools and miss out on applying to better programs.

    I just don't know what I would do if I don't get in anywhere. I feel like such a strong candidate, but sometime I worry that it is just a matter of time until the rejections start rolling in. Nothing against lower ranked programs which I'm sure are full of great scientists (especially where I did my REU), but I have worked so hard to try for a spot in a good program. Now it is getting down to the wire and I'm panicking that it won't pay off.

    How can I stop this anxiety about graduate school (which I want to stress is due to the magnitude of my dedication these past years) and more importantly, take steps to ensure that the worst case doesn't happen? So far I have tried to list three faculty from each school that I want to work with. Could this end up backfiring at all if, say, those are the only people working on that subject and they decide my interests are too narrow for their program?
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 21, 2012 #2


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    OK, then you absolutely must have some safety schools. I would recommend at minimum 2 that you are highly confident you will be admitted to, but don't set the bar so low that you would be unhappy going there if you don't get into the others.

    If you're concerned about your safety schools causing you to miss out on applying to some other schools of interest, then fine, submit 11 or 12 applications instead of 10.

    More applications can only improve your odds, assuming you're applying to schools where you stand a reasonable chance. At the top 20 level, a reasonable chance is about the best you can hope for, unless you are an extremely strong candidate.

    If your experience is anything like mine (I also applied mostly to top 20, in math), you'll be rejected by schools where you thought you had a good chance, and accepted by others that seemed like long shots.
  4. Sep 21, 2012 #3
    If you apply to ten schools and you don't get anywhere, that means that you weren't anywhere close to be able to attend graduate school.

    Graduate schools (at least in physics) do not work like undergraduate schools. There are no "safety schools". Graduate schools get flooded by a lot of high quality foreign applicants which means that even schools that you never heard of can pick and choose. There's also a huge amount of randomness in the process. Different committees will rank people differently which means that you should count on getting into any one particular school.

    However, if you apply to a large number of schools, and they all say no, that means that you weren't cut out for graduate school.

    They will. You'll get a lot of rejections. As long as one person says yes, it doesn't matter how many people say no. If everyone says no, then that's a sign for you to do something else.

    I find that watching mindless cartoons helps (seriously). Freaking out isn't going to help, so just do what you have to do and don't freak out about it.

    Absolutely it could backfire. Something that you intended to make yourself look good could very well make you look bad. That's why getting into a particular school has a huge random element. Now if you apply to many schools, then randomness helps you. What kills your application to school A could ensure your admission to school B.
  5. Sep 22, 2012 #4


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    With applications, more are better. I sent out twenty. None to the big five (harvard, princeton, stanford, caltech, mit), ten to the next bunching (the top tier state schools like boulder, maryland, uc berkley, ohio state, psu, wisc, etc), and ten to some very average schools that were working on interesting things. I got an insane amount of rejection letters but still had a great deal of choice. With a notsostrong application profile i managed to attend a "top 20" (if you believe such rankings, i dont) big state school. The lesson is to apply, apply, apply.
  6. Sep 22, 2012 #5
    An important principal to keep in mind is that applicants of sufficient caliber are effectively guaranteed to be accepted (somewhere) when they play the odds. An extreme hypothetical example of this is, for example, the number 1 applicant on the planet. Such a person has literally nothing to worry about. Then there is a class of people below him who, though not perfect, are close enough to the top that they have "effectively" nothing to worry about, and that class is probably relatively large. Look honestly at yourself and decide if you are in that class. If you find that you are, then you have nothing to worry about; of course, you might just get freakishly unlucky, but that's not worth worrying about anymore than it is worth worrying about getting hit by a truck.

    You said you felt that you were on the very high end of things, so if you've done all that you can then I would just chill out, give your fate over to the system, and wait to see what happens.

    If you find that you're not capable of controlling the anxiety against, even against all logic and reasoning, then maybe go see a doctor; I was once temporarily on a benzodiazepine because it helped with a muscle problem, so for me the anti-anxiety mojo the drug played on my brain was just tangential, but I as a result of the experience I can confidently say that a pill once in a blue could probably calm temporarily anxiety flare ups.

    Or just vent here on the forums as you already have, that can probably help calm nerves too :-)
  7. Sep 23, 2012 #6
    Why so many schools?? Thats so much money to lay out and realistically you could never visit them all. Personally I spent so much time finding the right schools to apply too that I was burned out after 6. I'd say reach as high as you can and look for what you love. That way no matter where you get in you'll be happy. In my experience, I applied to 6 schools, got accepted to them all. 2 were in the top 10 in the nation. The rest were in the high teens and mid 20s. For some reason though, I accepted my application to one of the mid 20s schools. I dont know why, I think it was a lack of confidence - I'm not really sure if I regret it. The point is that my advice to you is to be confident and go with you gut feelings.

    Fyi I did not have the perfect application. I had ~3.5, internship but no research experience. I think what made the difference was a solid essay that cited why I chose each school to apply too.
  8. Sep 23, 2012 #7
    I'm not worried about the money if it means having a better chance of acceptance.

    It's hard to write an essay about why I want to go to each school. Like I said I have been pointing out the faculty members that are doing work that interests me and why, but I don't really have anything to say about how program X is a good fit outside of their faculty. A chemistry department is a chemistry department, so unless it is a specialized program (most aren't) it is hard to generalize about that specific program's benefits. Is my approach ok do you think?
  9. Sep 23, 2012 #8
    No honestly I think you should have distinct reasons why you want to go to each school. I think you'll find that the essays that are easiest to write are for schools you are most enthusiastic about. The admissions commite will probably notice too.
  10. Sep 23, 2012 #9
    are you supposed to write about anything other than the strength of certain faculty's research and possibly their facilities?
  11. Sep 23, 2012 #10
    You're not "supposed" to write anything technically, however I feel like it is good to include why you would love to work with a certain person/group. Answer, for instance, how would working in xxx lab help you reach your life goals. What interests you about the work and why do you chose to pursue this particular line of research. Writing only about the strength of a faculty members research tell them anything about yourself. They already know what they are good at and what their areas of expertise. The purpose of the essay is to convey to the applications comity why they should select you as a candidate. Anybody can say "Ohh professor X is well respected in the field, which is why I want to work with them" - yeah, you and probably 100's, if not 1000's of others.
  12. Sep 23, 2012 #11
    If you can't think of a good reason why you are applying to that school, then you really need to reconsider why you are applying to that school. Writing an statement of purpose is a lot like writing a good love letter, you have to explain why you find that person/school interesting.

    One way of thinking about it, is suppose they reject you. Would you be disappointed? If you would, then think about why you would be disappointed and go from there.

    Don't generalize. Find a specific reason why you want them to fall in love with you.
  13. Sep 24, 2012 #12
    My specific reasons are all about specific faculty members doing research relevant to my interests. I would never say "I want to work with so and so because he is famous". I am saying, however, that I want to work with so and so because their research involves a field I am interested in and I am excited about their research. Honestly what else can I say? That is a great reason to apply somewhere. Other than looking up their facilities to see if they have some special instrumentation what else can I say about their department?
  14. Sep 24, 2012 #13


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    If at all possible you should visit the campus and speak with potential advisors and graduate students. This will give you a lot of material for an admission essary.

    Something to avoid is to talk too much about what you think someone is doing based only on their faculty web profile. Mine, for example, gives a great picture of what I've done, but doesn't say a whole lot about what I'm doing.
  15. Sep 24, 2012 #14


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    This many many times. A much better (although still not perfect) guide is to look at their recent publications. There's really no substitute for having an actual conversation though.
  16. Sep 26, 2012 #15

    I've sunk tens of hours into writing about people based on their profiles. I think I'm ok though because I was pretty general. For example I would talk about the field they are in, and looking back now of course all of their publications are still in that field.
  17. Sep 26, 2012 #16
    An actual conversation is not much of a possibility until I actually get accepted and visit the campuses.
  18. Sep 26, 2012 #17
    You should still visit first. It will only help you find things to write about and give you a better feel for the university. Also you have a good opportunity to network. Dont wait.
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