# Admissions Graduate school applications: am I shooting too high?

1. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Hi everyone! This is my first post here, hopefully of many, as I love internet forums and physics. I just graduated from a small private university with a B.S. in physics (and a minor in mathematics)

I'm finishing up my grad school applications. I'm having panic attacks almost every day, worrying about whether or not I totally missed the boat on the schools I have a chance at. I'm hoping you guys can help me out.

My info:
Overall GPA: 3.90/4.00
In-major GPA: 3.92/4.00
General GRE: Q:160, 76% V: 159, 82% Writing: 4.5, 82%
pGRE: 640, 37% (no excuses, but I prepared for this the wrong way. will retake if everything goes poorly and I don't get into a school this year) :

I applied for 14 REUs last summer, almost got into about 5, but they were ridiculously competitive. So no research. My letters of recommendation are very strong. I have some neat stuff on my applications including helping to start my school's astronomy club, which is now very active on campus and in the community, and helping with Mathcounts stuff.

My grades are obviously my strong point. I have no delusions of a future at MIT or CalTech. These are the schools I've applied to so far:

SUNY at Buffalo
University of Rochester (I'm considering this a "reach")
Lehigh University
Stony Brook University (another reach)
University of Pittsburgh
Carnegie Mellon (reach)
Kansas State University
Arizona State University
University of Oklahoma
University of Utah
University of Notre Dame (reach)
Brandeis University

I'm just about done, but I still have some time if I need to submit some more applications to lower-ranked schools than these. But I have no idea if I need to, or not. Can anyone help out? I'd like to at least have to make a choice between a couple schools. Have I adequately gauged my chances or do I need to apply to a few lower-ranked schools, asap?

Thanks!

2. Dec 26, 2016

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
I think that you have made a realistic selection of schools. If it weren't for your GRE scores, I'd say that you could have aimed even higher. But these are a good group of schools that you have applied to with a fair range of competitiveness.

Good luck!

Edit: BTW, you didn't indicate if you already have an area that you intend to specialize in.

Zz.

3. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Thanks for the reply, and for the luck!

It's a shame, I didn't spend enough time studying and only took the last available test before this round of applications were due. I didn't do a good enough job finding out exactly how to get into grad school during my sophomore/junior years. I'm now ready for the decisions/process, but waiting and misunderstanding did its damage.

If I retook the test I'd feel a lot better. My late preparation was much more focused on an understanding of the underlying principles, and not on how to solve pGRE questions efficiently. As a result I was spending way too much time doing calculations and second-guessing, with no tips or practice for fast test-taking, and I answered less than 50% of the questions...total test day meltdown. I got a good percentage of those correct, but it might have been the most embarrassing day of my life.

4. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

To your edit, Zz:

I'm not really sure what I want to do most, but I'm open to basically any area of study. I think I'd prefer astronomy/astrophysics, but I'm open to anything but biophysics. I'd rather not do solid state type stuff, but haven't indicated this on applications. They've all asked me to select areas of interest in no particular order and I've most often put astronomy/astrophysics, high energy, particle physics, relativity, etc.

In short, I haven't been asked to be too specific yet outside of some personal statements, in which I've explained that astrophysics is preferred but that I'd be thrilled to do those others.

5. Dec 26, 2016

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
In which state do you live in, and have you included the top public schools in that state? Most public universities have a standing mandate to give preference to qualified in-state students.

Zz.

6. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

I'm in New York. UB, UofR, Stony Brook. What are other public schools in my range, do you think? Syracuse? RIT?

7. Dec 26, 2016

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
Those are it, I think.

Also note that Stony Brook is nothing to sneeze at. It is as good as any Ivy Leaguers, in my book, especially if you include its connection to Brookhaven lab. So if you get an acceptance there, you should be very happy about it.

Zz.

8. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Yeah, as far as I know it's the highest-ranked on my list. It's the "dream school." I'm not expecting it, but I was told by my adviser to include a few I don't think I have a shot at, if I have time, because why not?

9. Dec 26, 2016

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
I just remembered this: CCNY. This is another good school that you may want to apply to.

Zz.

10. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Thanks for the help, Zz.

11. Dec 26, 2016

Staff Emeritus
I don't think you're shooting too high, but if I were you, I would shoot some more. Your list has a lot of small departments, and small departments don't admit as many students as large ones.

You didn't do well on the PGRE, and when coupled with high grades, some committees are going to conclude "grade inflation". If your school has sent a lot of people to graduate school (like, e.g. a Kenyon or a Bates), that will mitigate this to a degree, because some committees will be able to normalize, at least relative to a previous applicant. If not, I think you will want to add some schools to your list.

12. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Thanks for the reply. I'll keep filling em out!

13. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Vanadium 50, do you have suggestions for other, larger programs that would fit the data I've provided?

14. Dec 26, 2016

Staff Emeritus
UC Riverside, Oregon State, maybe Wisconsin, maybe Michigan State as another reach. Maybe Maryland, Colorado, or Washington. Minnesota? Ohio State?

15. Dec 26, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Thank you!

16. Dec 26, 2016

### Staff: Mentor

University of Rochester is private, no? Maybe Albany? I agree with ZapperZ that Stony Brook is good, probably the best place for physics among the NY public universities.

(I taught for a couple of years at a college near Albany, as my first job out of grad school many years ago.)

Last edited: Dec 26, 2016
17. Dec 27, 2016

### Crek

You will soon be up to 1k in application fees.

18. Dec 27, 2016

Staff Emeritus

19. Dec 27, 2016

### Logical Dog

better to be one k in fees than spend some more K in an institute you hate because you did not apply elsewhere

Last edited: Dec 27, 2016
20. Dec 27, 2016

### Crek

I wouldn't suggest the OP do a graduate degree in science unless he has a TA position, so his degree should be "free" but regardless 15 applications seems excessive, borderline crazy.

21. Dec 28, 2016

### Delong

Your GPA is making my cry inside. I feel like you can get into 90% of all programs.

22. Dec 28, 2016

### Randall Flagg

You're right about the fees, I'm absolutely broke right now. But I graduated a semester early and thus have 4 extra months to work and make up for that, something I haven't had the past 3 years.

I know of people doing 20 applications! I don't think I'm being that crazy.
I hope I get into some, but don't cry! My physics GRE score will greatly diminish the quality of my profile, I feel. I almost think that long term it could be in my best interest to take a gap year because of not getting into any programs. I am confident in my physics and that I can score much higher with proper practice (working with practice tests and on my speed, not just reading theory like last time!) because I got a very good percentage of the questions I answered right, I just didn't answer nearly enough. I may also have research lined up in the coming months with a professor of mine, which would be a first and a welcome addition to my resume and applications.

I'd rather just get in the first try, and never have to think about the GRE again, though.

23. Dec 28, 2016

### ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
Certainly, other than the financial issues, if you can apply to more, you should do it just to increase your chances. But even if you don't, you have quite a realistic group of universities that you had applied to already that I will be very surprised if you do not get a few acceptance letters.

But I also think that if you wish to go for more, apply to less-well known schools that are still excellent schools in the fields that you are seeking to specialize in. Most people (especially those out of the US) don't know that schools such as Iowa State, Purdue, Indiana U. U. of North Carolina, U. of Virginia, UC-Davis, etc. are all excellent schools. Or knowing that schools such as University of Illinois at Chicago has a good HEP dept., and in close proximity to both Argonne and Fermilab, with faculty members doing work in both facilities. These are the schools where you have a fair to realistic chance of getting accepted.

BTW, I'm guessing that you are seeking assistantships at these schools as well. If not, you should.

Zz.

24. Dec 28, 2016

### Randall Flagg

Thanks for the advice, Zz. I am indeed checking the "assistantship" box, or doing the equivalent, on each application.

25. Apr 13, 2017

### Randall Flagg

Hey all,

I thought I'd check back in and report with some final thoughts and results. First, thank you all for the advice that you gave. I ended up applying to two more schools, but were not accepted to those two. From that list, I received four acceptances - Colorado State, SUNY Buffalo, Lehigh University, and University of Oklahoma. I visited Brandeis as they were interested in my application and offered to bring me to open house, but I have not heard from them since so I'm assuming waitlist --> rejection. I am still on Pittsburgh's wait list, and I haven't heard from about 3 others yet, but of those 3 the University of Oklahoma ranks above in my preferences anyway.

So, if U Pittsburgh does not accept me within the next two days (I have corresponded with them and I am a "high alternate" so I'm still allowing myself some hope) I am planning on attending the University of Oklahoma this fall. I visited the school and really enjoyed the department and the people. Part of the reason why I'm writing this out is to straighten everything out in my own head, and another part is to see if my reasoning is sound by bouncing it off of people. I essentially have two options, assuming a rejection from Pittsburgh. They are

1.) Decline all offers and wait for next year to try and get into a few more and a few higher ranked schools.
Pros:
- I could retake the physics GRE now that I have a much better understanding of the test and its study process. I am confident I can improve my score significantly.
- I could also retake my general GRE for better scores, plenty of times. Money wouldn't be an issue, I'll have more to start the next application cycle than I did last time.
- I would have more time to hit textbooks to really hone in on weaknesses I have from my undergraduate courses, making myself more prepared for graduate level physics.
- The GRE difference could get me into a school like Notre Dame, which finally rejected me from the wait list today, and is a tier above U of Oklahoma in most rankings.
- I have a much better understanding of the whole application process now, and which schools I would go for, and I'm pretty sure I would make my statement of purpose a lot more effective next time around.
Cons:
- Waiting a year sucks.
- I have little chance of acquiring any meaningful research to bolster that part of my application. I would still most likely be applying next cycle without research. I don't have the money to move somewhere with a lab and support myself if I was doing research with some professor at a school I have no attachments to (which is a rare situation in the first place). This inability makes me skeptical of any meaningful improvement solely because of a GRE score, when all the schools can see I had months and months to prepare with little pressure from my outside life and no other academics going on.
- I still have to do the work and make sure I don't choke on the GRE - there's always a chance something stupid happens or I don't put in enough work to improve a meaningful amount, though I'm confident in my ability to focus.
- I don't want to be at home another year. I'm ready for a change in my life.
- I may lose a small scholarship, to be elaborated further below.

2.) Accept the offer from the University of Oklahoma
Pros:
- I can commence with my dream of achieving a physics PhD beginning this very fall!
- I have no issue with the school's location, and the surrounding area is very cheap. I didn't weigh this much when applying at all, my undergrad university routinely gets 1 star out of 5 in location ratings and I love it. Physics will be all I do there, and my only other hobbies can be done anywhere in the country.
- The variety of research. In astronomy and astrophysics they do white dwarfs, solar system simulations, protostars, exoplanets, and other things. They also have a nice high energy experiment group, which I'm thinking about asking to switch into.
- The students I talked to were very nice and had pretty good things to say, except for...
Cons:
- You have to pass 4 qualifying exams within your first two years, and they aren't cake walks (3 if you aren't in astro). It's doable but the students made it clear that you hate your life during the months approaching them. They stressed not to let my first two years color my overall experience there because after you get through quals your life opens up and you can have a life outside of school a bit, and the kids who have passed them all really seemed relaxed, comfortable, and thrilled to be where they are. And I already know I'm going to have to grind like hell to get to where I want to be anyway, so this doesn't phase me too much. I've already started going through Griffiths' E&M and answering many of the questions to prepare, so I can focus on graduate material and the previous exams when it comes time to study while I"m at school.
- The stipend is a little low, it doesn't sound like students save as much there as I have been hearing from other places I visited (yes, I understand that physics grad students in general do not save money). They also have a $2K or$3K fee that one student told me he has to take out a loan to pay. BUT - I am not an expensive person, I don't go out to eat and I can live very frugally, and, that scholarship I mention above would likely take care of that fee (which might even go away once I'm done taking classes)
- It sounds like I might have to TA more than just the first two years. It sounds like a luxury to get an RA every semester after that, and like I shouldn't be counting on it.

Where I'm at right now:
I'm pretty much thinking I should go to Oklahoma. It's obviously a legitimate program, and I'm going to have some variation of the struggles mentioned above at any school. it would be something different somewhere else. The research available is key, and I love two areas that they do a lot in. Sure, some school may be higher ranked and not have a formal qual exam, but perhaps those classes' final exams are just as hellish as the quals that I'd be taking anyway. No matter where I end up, I need to grow up and accept the challenges and work my ass off to get through them, because this is how you get a physics PhD anywhere. I really believe that I can be happy there and succeed, because I believe in myself and that this is what I want to do.

Do you guys think I have anything missing in my analysis here? Any opinions?

Thanks a bunch for the help.

-Flagg