1. Not finding help here? Sign up for a free 30min tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How (un)common is this?

  1. May 6, 2008 #1
    How often is it that a student does "badly" (let's say around 3.0) for the first two years of college, then gets straight A's for the last two years?

    Also, is this looked upon more favorably by graduate schools than a student who always got straight A's, because it means that the student struggled but learned to overcome whatever obstacles that kept him from doing well before? It is actually REALLY hard to go from doing badly to doing a 4.0. I know this is wishful thinking in most cases, but it *has* happened.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. May 6, 2008 #2

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2015 Award

    No, schools don't prefer a mix of A's and B's to straight A's.
     
  4. May 6, 2008 #3
    I didn't mean just any mix of A's and B's (and C's), the particular trend I'm talking about is like I said above, around a 3.0 for the first two years, then straight A's for the rest of the time. I thought this obviously says something about how the student struggled before and made a 180 degree turn for the better. It's quite a feat to pull, going from a 3.0 for the first few years to a 4.0 for the next two, because long grounded bad habits are hard to change. How would graduate schools see this as opposed to someone with straight A's forever who seems to have coasted throughout undergrad?

    I do go to a top school, so it's not like this trend is for any old community college.
     
  5. May 6, 2008 #4
    This was more or less my experience. I got dismal grades my first couple of years (my worst grades were actually in my non-physics classes). I then finished my last two years with excellent grades. I got into a decent graduate program in physics.

    Is this favored over straight A's for your entire four years? Absolutely not. Certainly it's better than a person who gets straight A's for his first two years and then starts on a downward trend. But a person who gets consistently good grades will definitely be favored by an admissions committee over someone who shows improvement. Showing improvement in your last two years goes a long way with admissions committees, but not that far.
     
  6. May 6, 2008 #5
    So...it is better than someone who's always gotten 3.5, but worse than someone who has always gotten straight A's? By how much? You've proven that in the end, you understood and were capable of doing well in undergrad (especially if you have a good GRE on top of that). How good would your GRE have to be in order to bring your application to the same level of consideration as the student who always got straight A's but a so-so GRE? I'm just thinking of how much doing well from now on is worth, if it won't even make that much of a difference.

    Also, how often does this happen?
     
  7. May 6, 2008 #6
    I have a few friends doing Cambridge PhDs in maths and physics. About 80% of them got high 1st all the way through uni. The other 20% are a mixture of steadily improving through the years from say a bad 3rd the Christmas in 1st year up to a top 10 in 4th year along with bad 3rds and 2.2s up until till 4th year where a shock extremely high distinction occured.

    All Cambridge cared about was their results in the 4th year. Doesn't really matter what they used to be capable of, the important thing is where they are capable of when it came to starting the PhD.
     
  8. May 6, 2008 #7
    Why is your 4th year as a physics major more important than your other years as a physics major?

    You mean to tell me that you can do excellent in quantum mechanics but perform average with all the rest of your courses and the graduation committees will overlooked the course you did average in compared to the A+'s you received in quantum mechanics?

    What about survey courses that you might take in your senior like subatomics physics and advanced astrophysics?
     
  9. May 6, 2008 #8
    Interesting. Unfortunately, it is not that way in the US. :-|
     
  10. May 6, 2008 #9

    Moonbear

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    It would all be considered by an admissions committee. Your chances might depend on how many other applicants there are when you apply and where you apply that fall into the other categories. If there are enough students with straight-As throughout college and high GRE scores to fill up the entering class, whether you were always a high B-average student or showed steady improvement will be a moot point.

    When there are decisions to be made between a student with a steady mix of As an Bs, and one who has made steady improvement, other parts of the application will help in the decision. All else being equal, the letters of reference and interviews will make or break the decision (unless there are large discrepancies between things like SAT scores and grades, or really horrendous letters of reference sending off warning bells, all of those applicants would likely be brought in as a cohort for interviews to determine which ones stand out amongst the others).

    From my perspective, it's not so much that steady improvement would trump steady performance throughout university, but more that if you start out poorly, you MUST show improvement to have a chance to compete with those who have done well all along.
     
  11. May 6, 2008 #10
    If you can get a high distinction in your 4th year then it's a demonstration you understand the relevent 1st year material pretty well. After all, you cannot do 4th year GR if you don't know what a gradient from 1st year vector calc is.
    The way the Cambridge maths (and I think physics) degrees work is that your grades are done as a total, not as individual courses.

    For instance, in my 1st year I got something like 290/300 for vector calculus. I got 9/300 for probability. I didn't have to resit, because my total mark was high enough to do fine. Yes, it's great if you're good at everything but if you're going to do a PhD in theoretical physics, your knowledge in fluid mechanics or mathematical analysis doesn't have to be top knotch. Yes, you have to be familiar with some of the concepts but you don't have to be PhD level in everything.

    The Cambridge mark scheme rewards excellent in one thing over mediocrity in 2. For instance, if you get, in a 20 mark question, 10~14 marks you get a 'beta'. That's 3 extra marks. So it's better to get 14/20 then 7/20 + 7/20. If you get 15~20/20 then you get an 'alpha'. That's 7 extra marks. And if you get more than 20 alphas across your 4 exams, you get 10 extra marks per alpha, not 7! So it's better to get 20/20 20 times (so 20*20+20*10 = 600) than 9/20 50 times, only 450, despite 9*50 > 20*20.
    There are no required courses past the 2nd year. 3rd and 4th year you have total freedom. I did theoretical physics courses during my 4th year (QFT, Symmetries in particle physics, GR, String theory, The SM, Black holes, Advanced QFT). A friend who was also doing the 4th year in maths did things like Galois theory, Number Fields, Lie algebras and Rep theory etc. Another one did fluid mechanics, waves, acoustics, slow viscious flow, ocean dynamics etc.

    I think if you do physics there's a synopsis paper but even then I think you only answer the questions which relate to the courses you took.

    When it comes to the 4th year results, since you cannot take more than 6 courses you're expected to be nye on perfect at those 6. You sit exams in each topic you took in term (6 topics from more than 50!). But for 1st~3rd year the exams are done in bulk. You get a question paper with 1 or 2 questions from pretty much every course, answer what you like, as much as you like. Answer all the questions from 3 topics only, you could get a 1st. Answer badly questions from 15 topics, you could still only get a 3rd.

    It's shifted towards quality, not quantity. Obviously just one perfect answer isn't going to get a 1st, but as my example with the alphas show, 20 perfect is better than 50 bad.

    Oh and the 4th year as a maths student is a seperate course at Cambridge. You get your degree and graduate in the 3rd year. Only half the year stay on as postgrads to do the 4th year.
    The outline of our courses I just gave is pretty much unique to Cambridge I think. But it does demonstrate that top unis for physics and maths aren't all about "You must be perfect at everything all the time". You must be perfect at all your subjects of relevence in the 4th year but you can get onto the 4th year with a bad 2.1 in the 3rd year and still get a PhD if you pull your finger out in the 4th year. A friend of mine did that.
     
  12. May 6, 2008 #11
    It's starting to sound like from this thread that sudden improvement between the two halves of college don't even mean much when there are people with straight A's. When admissions committees sit down and look at a transcript, I'm starting to doubt they even take the time to consider the significance of doing badly then doing absolutely well. As in, they notice that the student made a sudden improvement, but they don't think about how *extremely difficult* it must've been for the student to do (3.0 to a 4.0) when obviously anybody who got straight A's is "better" (I'm assuming most people on an admissions committee with straight-A applicants also got straight-A's themselves and wouldn't really understand how hard this is to do when you're doing dismally bad at first). It's actually a LOT harder than it sounds. But it doesn't sound like admissions committees reaaaally consider the kind of effort the student had to put in to make such a change.

    Nobody has answered how often this happens yet.
     
    Last edited: May 6, 2008
  13. May 6, 2008 #12

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2015 Award

    No admissions committee will prefer two years of B's and then two years of A's to four years of A's. It's good that you've improved, but it's not that the admissions committees are somehow missing the point by not ranking BBAA over AAAA.

    Good thing, too. By that argument, CCAA would be better still, and DDDA better still.
     
  14. May 6, 2008 #13

    mathwonk

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    2015 Award

    let me put it this way: how would you feel about dating a beautiful girl, if she had been only moderately beautiful as a child, even a teeny bit plain?
     
  15. May 6, 2008 #14
    I actually agree that AAAA is objectively better than BBAA, but nobody who matters looks past that and actually considers how hard that must've been to do. Nobody gets a BBAA for the sole purpose of "showing improvement." It's a lot easier to go from an A for two years then an A for the next two years, than a B for two years then an A for the next two years.
     
    Last edited: May 6, 2008
  16. May 6, 2008 #15
    I wouldn't really care, actually. (???)
     
  17. May 6, 2008 #16

    mathwonk

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    2015 Award

    the point is nobody cares how good you were three years ago, just how good you are now.
     
  18. May 6, 2008 #17

    lisab

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Actually, DDDA looks like you finally saved enough to buy the textbook :wink: .
     
  19. May 6, 2008 #18
    *facepalm* I think you're missing his point...
     
  20. May 6, 2008 #19
    ah my bad. late.
     
  21. May 6, 2008 #20
    Yea, but that obviously isn't the case with grad school admissions (in the US).

    I'm starting to feel SOL because it sounds like all drastic improvement means to grad school admissions is that you're finally getting to be "more like" the forever straight-A applicants but still worse in the end. I guess that's what you're working towards (being more like 4.0 students) when you drastically improve, but there is more to it than that.

    Edit: Hence the (???), because I think the stuff that goes on in the UK is irrelevant to this case at hand. Grad schools *don't* just care how good you are when you apply.

    I should say that I wasn't always this bad, but this particular semester brought down my GPA substantially. I wanted to apply to a good grad school (why I keep talking about straight A applicants) but my chances of getting in seem slim at this point.
     
    Last edited: May 6, 2008
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?