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PhD application to top school - 3.5GPA with circumstances?

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Main Question or Discussion Point

Hi all! I'm currently a 4th year student in Combined Physics and CPCS in a top 3 university in Canada and trying to apply for grad school in top schools in US.

I did very well in my undergrad, got a fellowship to work at a National Lab from which I got 2 publications in PRC (but is n-th author and mostly did data collecting/some analysis + equipment maintenance during runs - will these make any real difference in my application?).

However, during my 2nd year, I did a full coursd load + TAed for 1-2 courses per term + was Resident Advisor. I ended up being very close to my residents and closely dealt with a suicidal resident, a resident whose partner committed suicide, and a resident who was sexually harrassed through messages by their biological grandparent amongst others. Furthermore, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and my dad got into a car accident with 2 twins where one passed away and one is still in vegetation state... He is still serving his sentence right now, but it was a hard year for our family. I was in denial and tried to act like everything was fine, but I was struggling hard with mental health issues, and my grad slipped to a C+ average. By the time I accepted that I was struggling, it was too late to help my disastrous GPA...

That summer I just tried to recover, and came back to 3rd year doing research and pulled back an A- average (got an A average first term, but my grandfather passed away during final season of 2nd term, so my average got slightly affected). So my current GPA is around 3.5/4.33.

During last summer, I got a fellowship to work at my research lab on topological insulators and was mostly leading the research as PhD and grad students were busy. I want to get into CME and had since learned stacking, AFM, SEM + will soon assemble our lab's Raman and might work with MBE. With CPSC, I know C/Java/Python etc. and can self-teach any new languages. Also, my prof is from my 1st choice uni + well-known in the field and is willing to introduce me to PIs I'm interested in working with.

Also my GRE is V158, Q160, W3.5 (was staying up til 4am doing research the night before, but will redo and should get better).

My question I guess is if I can get a PGRE ~900, do I have a chance for at least 1 of the top school (Stanford/Harvard/MIT/Yale/Berkeley), or is it a complete waste of time with my GPA? Also, how much details of my circumstance should I include in my application?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Matterwave
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I think you'd have a pretty good chance (but with those schools, nothing is guaranteed of course). One of my professors in undergraduate who used to work on the admissions committee told me, rule of thumb, committee members value 3 things: grades, PGRE, research. My understanding is that the regular GRE doesn't really matter much beyond setting a minimum standard of English communication skills (and mostly for foreign students). If 2 of those 3 are outstanding, then you have a good shot - you don't need all 3 to be outstanding. In addition, admissions wants students who are motivated to complete their PhD degrees - they would like to have a lower drop out rate if at all possible. So it's also important that you show significant motivation, determination and passion with your application. Lastly, if you can get a professor at any of those schools to become invested in you, it makes things much easier. Perhaps contacting a few professors at those schools with similar research interests as you would be a good idea.
 
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If 2 of those 3 are outstanding, then you have a good shot - you don't need all 3 to be outstanding. In addition, admissions wants students who are motivated to complete their PhD degrees - they would like to have a lower drop out rate if at all possible. So it's also important that you show significant motivation, determination and passion with your application.
I just wonder if my research is good enough to offset such a bad GPA? I've seen so many people with crazy research profiles that mine seems quite average in comparison...

Lastly, if you can get a professor at any of those schools to become invested in you, it makes things much easier.
Also, is this still true for the top schools as well? From talking to couple of professors, it seems they'll just trust the admission committee, and my prof also thinks professors don't have much say in admission in general?
 
  • #4
StatGuy2000
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To the OP:

Just to clarify, your 3.5/4.33 GPA is your cumulative GPA of your 3 years, is that right? (top 3 university in Canada -- sounds like my alma mater...)

If that is the case, then admission committees are usually less concerned with the GPA from your first or second year, and are more concerned with your later years, since this would demonstrate that you have a solid grasp of the advanced material and have shown progression or improvement in your academic standing and knowledge. So I feel that you have about as good a chance as any of being accepted to a top US school, although of course nothing is guaranteed.

BTW, since you are a student in Canada, have you considered applying for a Masters program in a Canadian university (including your alma mater)? In Canada, PhD programs typically require completion of a Masters degree, and for non-American students a strong performance completing a Masters degree will likely mitigate any problems that may have occurred in your undergraduate degree. Not to mention giving you a chance to pursue research opportunities that you could use to impress admission committees in US schools.
 
  • #5
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To the OP:

Just to clarify, your 3.5/4.33 GPA is your cumulative GPA of your 3 years, is that right? (top 3 university in Canada -- sounds like my alma mater...)
Yep that's correct!

To the OP:
BTW, since you are a student in Canada, have you considered applying for a Masters program in a Canadian university (including your alma mater)? In Canada, PhD programs typically require completion of a Masters degree, and for non-American students a strong performance completing a Masters degree will likely mitigate any problems that may have occurred in your undergraduate degree. Not to mention giving you a chance to pursue research opportunities that you could use to impress admission committees in US schools.
Yes I am considering this option. The problem is just that I eventually want to get my PhD from the states, but a Masters from Canada doesn't seem to relief much of the first 2 years of US school's PhD track, which effectively might just prolong my education by 2 years. So I will be applying to my alma mater as more of a safety choice, but will pray hard that I can get into a US school... Hopefully they'll take my circumstances into consideration, but I don't know how willing they are given they'll receive hundreds of other applications with 4.0 GPA :(
 
  • #6
Matterwave
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I just wonder if my research is good enough to offset such a bad GPA? I've seen so many people with crazy research profiles that mine seems quite average in comparison...
Admissions committees are not machines that crunch numbers. They don't have a specific formula that says "this much research offsets this much GPA" or "This PGRE score offsets this much research/GPA". They look at the whole candidate. What they want to see if that you have the ability and drive to excel - to both complete your PhD requirements (coursework, exams, etc.) and most importantly to produce original research. A high GPA and PGRE tells them that you have the ability and drive to excel and you have good potential to do research. A good research track record shows directly that you can do research and you have experience. How they weight the contrast between potential for something and experience in something is up to the individual committee member. I couldn't tell you if your research background is "good enough to offset your GPA".

Also, is this still true for the top schools as well? From talking to couple of professors, it seems they'll just trust the admission committee, and my prof also thinks professors don't have much say in admission in general?
Professors often sit on admissions committees. Even if a professor doesn't sit on the admissions committee they are likely to know the people who do. If you have a professor who's heavily invested in your research, I can't see how that could possibly not influence the admissions committee in some way. Maybe a very junior professor who's only been at a school for a year or two wouldn't be a huge influencer, but in any case, there is no harm in reaching out.

I have only anecdotal evidence, but a friend of mine got accepted to UCLA because she had a professor there who was interested in her research. Even though the admissions initially denied her, she got through later by having the professor advocate for her. Another friend got into an LLM program at Harvard because a professor was invested in her and helped her application process (admittedly this was not for a PhD or JD program).
 

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