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How to make up for a sub-par undergrad?

  1. Sep 17, 2014 #1
    Posting this here because I know that many of you come from similar backgrounds. Back a few years ago when I was just starting undergrad, I chose my current university because it's near my mom who had been diagnosed with cancer immediately before, and they offered me nearly a full-ride. Needless to say, now I'm regretting it.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I love having a small department. I've had research opportunities that I wouldn't have had elsewhere, mainly because there is no graduate program. However, it's frustrating in other ways.

    • I'm the only one going to graduate school. Neither of my advisors even mentioned it as an option. When I asked where I should consider applying and what I should consider specializing in, they told me that they felt going into the industry would get me more money in the long run. I'm pretty sure I want to go to graduate school though.
    • Many core classes aren't offered. Mechanics II is only offered every six semesters - meaning I won't be able to take it before I graduate. I also tried to get an independent study, but the professor (also the department chair) didn't have time.
    • No one even told me about the GRE until a few months ago! But I guess that's my fault for not looking into it.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I've tried my best to make up for these sore points on my graduate applications. I've been studying vigorously for the GRE and I have a 4.0, but I know that my application simply won't stack up to the people I'm competing with to get into graduate school. I've had an internship at a national lab (and am continuing to work with them, as long as I can afford to) and hope to do so again next summer. I'm also a Goldwater scholar, but as a female that doesn't mean too much.

    Long story short... what can I possibly do to make up for my poor choice in universities? I can be as successful as I want, but I'll never be able to compete with even an average student from an Ivy League. Is there *ANY* chance of being able to apply to a tier 1 school, or am I out of luck?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2014 #2


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    Hi Sam,

    A couple of things:

    (1) I think you're selling yourself wayyy short.

    Is what you're saying to yourself here really true? How do you know your application won't stack up? Why wouldn't a great internship and being a Goldwater scholar stand out?

    Regardless of what school you're coming from, these are significant and impressive accomplishments. Recognize that and sell yourself on those points in your applications and I think you'll be surprised at the response you'll get if you're confident.

    (2) Be grateful you're not buried in student debt.

    This is huge, and you probably won't realize what an impact earning an essentially free education will have on your stress level, finances, and career options. Most students who have to take out loans are forced into careers they hate just to pay off their debt for the next 15 years. You have options, and that's a great thing.

    Bottom line: if grad school is what you want, don't hold back. If you have a 4.0, acing the GRE will be well within your capabilities, and based on your other selling points it sounds like you have a great chance of being accepted, as long as you view them as such.

    Hope this helps.
  4. Sep 18, 2014 #3


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    It sounds like you have perfectly fine credentials, and the internship at the national lab is huge! Also keep in mind that schools may admit or reject you based on more than just your scholastic record and accomplishments. They may have certain specific needs that are hard to know about coming from the outside, so apply to several schools you're interested in.

    In the meanwhile, contact some of the people in the departments at those schools, introduce yourself and learn about what they're doing!
  5. Sep 18, 2014 #4
    I went to two talks over the summer about how to apply for graduate school, both given by an admissions committee member who is with several universities. One thing that they both said was that there are so many high-caliber students (scholarships, 4.0s, internships, etc.) that it's difficult to weed them all out. So they rely on some very minor selling points.

    One of those was the difficulty of the curriculum. How can I, coming from a school where the professors don't even show up to class half the time and 20% of the professors don't even have PhDs in their field, compare to a school where the professors have PhDs from the top schools in the country? I could be wrong, obviously... I just don't know.
  6. Sep 18, 2014 #5


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    You can't change that now, so there's no use in stressing out over it. What are some of the things they suggested, that you might be able to do something about?

    Also, what sort of schools are you considering applying to? (some examples to show the level, not necessarily the specific ones you have in mind?)
  7. Sep 18, 2014 #6
    jtbell, main issue was getting involved in research and getting excellent LoRs. those things i can manage.

    As far as schools, I'll definitely be applying to U of Illinois and U of Nebraska (one is a half hour away from home, the other is where my significant other attends). I'd like to stay on that level as well as some "safety schools", but I'd like to go for particle physics which is very competitive, so I may be restricted to some lesser-known schools.
  8. Sep 18, 2014 #7
    There's no substitute for passion. I was a mediocre student in college....really bad at calculus...but I lived for the lab. And it's served me very well for 40 years. I have over 150 published articles, 4 technical books, and was the recipient of the 2010 William Orr Technical Writing Award, conferred by ARRL for the best article of the year.

    But it didn't happen overnight!

    Bottom line. Do what you're supposed to do and everything else will fall into place.

  9. Sep 18, 2014 #8
    My sense is that unless you have your heart set on the top schools, you should get in somewhere. You might also think about not doing particle physics. From what I hear, that's usually a good idea. I got into a top 20-30 graduate program for math with a 3.4 gpa, average GRE, no research experience, and from a not so great school, and ended up being probably a little bit above average student there, considering probably half the people don't finish. What got me in was doing very well in the last two years and great recommendation letters. I only got into one place out of the five I applied to, though. So, I think your fears are somewhat exaggerated. Of course, there are advantages to having one of those name-brand degrees, but if you get into sort of a 2nd or third tier place, you'll probably have a lot of time to make up for the undergrad at that point--not that that will be easy, at the graduate level.
  10. Sep 18, 2014 #9


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    I don't know what a "teir 1" school is, or why anyone would bother taking time out of their life to bother defining such a thing, but I thought I would reply becaue it sounds a little like you could be focusing on more productive goals.

    First, as a senior undergraduate student considering graduate school it's important to think about what subfield you're intested in and then look at the kind of work that's being done in that field. Are there specific projects you want to be involved in? Specific problems you want to work on? Do you have ideas of your own you might like to explore? It also pays to think beyond graduate school - it the subfield growing or shrinking, how will the skills you learn in graduate school on such projects translate into a career?

    Once you have this figured out, it makes your graduate applications a lot easier to figure out, because you can scope out particular schools/programs/projects/potential supervisors that align best with your interests and goals. You then come up with your own ranking of schools to apply to.

    Starting with someone else's ranking can lead you into a situation where you're accepted to a program that can't offer you what you're looking for.
  11. Sep 18, 2014 #10
    The ranking is useful mainly for estimating how competitive a place is.

    In math, there are precise definitions of tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3 schools, but here I just meant it in a vague sense of how big of a name brand you are going to get. As I pointed out, it does carry some advantage, but is not the most important thing. If you get an Ivy League degree, but have a bad experience there, it's probably not going to be as good as a lesser known place where you find the perfect adviser and topic to work and so on.

    In my case, I ended up going to a place that wasn't a terribly good fit, despite the fact that it looked like a good fit on the surface of it (in fact, the whole subject of math wasn't a good fit, despite how it seemed at the time). It's actually quite difficult to gauge that. I've known other people who got into our program and thought they really wanted to work with so and so, but it turned out not to be a good fit at all. So, you have to bear in mind that appearances can be deceiving. Visiting different schools and trying to talk to people about it may help.
  12. Sep 18, 2014 #11
    I take that to mean a Tier 1 Research University, rather than a vague notion of a "top school". As I recall, there are about 100 Tier 1 Research Universities in the US. Its not a clear definition, but it distinguishes places that do "significant" amounts of research.
  13. Sep 18, 2014 #12

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    First, I think that you are overworrying about the degree of competitiveness. We know that the number of people who take the GRE is about twice the number admitted to grad school, not ten times.

    Second, you wouldn't the first person to go to grad school who graduated from a less than stellar program. Grad schools know what to do. However, it is critical that you do well on the GRE. This will also be how they judge your 4.0 in the context of other 4.0. Strong letters from your internship will also help.
  14. Sep 18, 2014 #13


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    Doing well on the GRE won't get you into anyplace good. Doing badly on the GRE will weed you out. So do well, but don't think that will achieve anything useful for you.

    Coming from a place where the undergraduate program is mediocre and lacks rigor is bad in one sense, but it also sets you up to show your independence and drive. You get to own your achievements and you'll have demonstrated that you can make things happen despite lack of support. That's a big deal. Many grad students lack initiative, so you'll stand out.

    Also, don't look for a "top school" for grad school, look for specific researchers you want to work with. You are not shopping for a school, but rather for a thesis advisor. If you understand that you'll be a big step ahead of the competition. You want to sell yourself to a professor or research group, not a school. Act on that.

    Best of luck! You sound like a person who can reach your goals.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2014
  15. Sep 18, 2014 #14
    I'm curious, are there actual statistics for this fact? I've been scouring all of the admissions profiles of people who post them to the physicsgre.com forum, I just didn't know if there was some more quantifiable way to look at it.
  16. Sep 18, 2014 #15


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    Honestly, my take is not to read too deep into the statistics. Be yourself, be confident in what you've worked on and what you're interested in. Getting into grad school is just the beginning.
  17. Sep 19, 2014 #16
    I know numerous 4.0's who bombed the PGRE which locked them out of their school choices. So that's very important for you to do well on (it's easy to bomb, but also easy not to bomb, because you just need to refresh all of the stuff which has become foggy if you haven't used it much recently; I don't know how easy it is to ace but that's not relevant).

    As for top 10 schools, that's hard to do. A friend of mine with a 4.0 under insane conditions (think 18 credit hour semesters of all graduate level math and physics courses, research on wilson loop QCD stuff before graduating) only got into one top ten school, UC Santa Barbara. With tight funding and an increasing population of people who want to do physics, it's even harder than it used to be, and it used to be pretty hard.

    Just do some statistics on where professors got their PhD's to see that there isn't much of a difference between top 10 and top 20-below that can't be accounted for simply by the number of top 10 graduates vs. 20 below graduates. If you're optimistic, it means you have the same chances as anybody else at face value. If you're pessimistic, you'll notice this means you're doomed no matter where you go.
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