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Statement of Purpose and Recommendation Letters most important?

  1. Sep 5, 2013 #1
    I was reading through Harvard's graduate school admissions FAQ, and a paragraph said:

    "The physics department's admissions committee reviews each candidate's entire application, including statement of purpose, transcript, experience, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation -- the statement of purpose and letters of recommendation being especially important. Beyond that, the department cannot determine in advance the likelihood of success in any particular case."

    This was quite surprising to me. I've always heard/read from people that the transcript (grades) is the number one deciding factor in grad school applications, and that admissions committees are usually quite indifferent to statements of purpose (unless its bad- then it will lower your chances).

    So my question is: how much truth is in that paragraph?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2013 #2
    They're not trying to pull one over on you. The most important thing in your entire application package is the letters of recommendation. Ask anyone who's sat on an admissions committee. Next in line is your statement, so make sure you tailor it a bit to each school, make sure you show that you've done your homework and looked into the people who are researching in your field(s) of interest, make sure you toot your own horn (this is the place for it, no one else will do it for you!), and show that you have some vision of what you intend to do with the Ph.D. However, do NOT say: "When I go to Harvard, I want to work with Professor X." Don't narrow your focus too much; Professor X might not be taking on students, s/he might not want to work with you, might not have funding, etc, etc. The trick is to state your interests and show how that fits in with the department, not to know exactly what you're going to do every step of the way.

    Oh, and there is a vast pool of people with near-perfect transcripts and GRE scores to choose from, particularly when applying to somewhere like Harvard. Of course A's in all your physics courses are going to help your chances, but in grad school, you just have to pass your courses. The Ph.D. is a research degree. So they want to know things like: are you self-motivated? Can you lay out goals for yourself and then determine a way to achieve them? Do people like working with you? Are you passionate about what you do, and will you keep doing it just to satisfy your own curiosity? Just how much research experience do you have behind you, anyway?

    In other words, are you ready to make the transition from homework-doing, grade-grabbing student to professional, working physicist?
  4. Sep 5, 2013 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    There is no single "number one factor". Different committees will rank different factors differently, and individual candidates will be weighted differently. A GPA of 3.5 vs. one of 4.0 will make some difference, but a 2.9 vs. a 3.4 will make a *huge* difference.
  5. Sep 5, 2013 #4


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    The specifics vary from school to school and, as Polluxy pointed out, a lot can depend on the pool of applicants under considerarion.

    Grades are critically important in an absolute sense. First, you need to make the minimum requirements. On top of that, the grades (along with the PGRE scores) are what objectively stratify you within the pool of applicants. A student applying with a 3.1 GPA is extremely unlikely to end up ranked above a student with a 3.9 GPA.

    Where reference letters and personal statements tend to play a decisive role are in cases where the committee is attempting to rank similar applicants - say one with a 3.7 and another with a 3.8. Strong references could very well put a 3.7 student ahead of a 3.8.

    So you can imagine at the more popular schools, where the program gets say 100 applications for 10 spots, the GPAs among say, the top quartile, won't stratify the students in any decisive manner. But at less popular schools it will.

    A GPA also has a kind of self-propagating effect. For one, as you move through undergrad, those with higher GPAs will tend to get more scholarships and therefore not have to work and be able to spend more time studying, thus reinforcing their GPA. They are also more likely to get the more desired lab positions. These lead to more rearch experience and stronger reference letters. Also when a professor writes a reference letter, he or she will often ask for your transcripts.

    The personal statement can also play a significant role. One thing that I was surprised to learn once I got to the other side was certain flags can get an otherwise outstanding applicant tossed into the 'reject' pile. One of the big ones is where the student clearly doesn't know anything about the particular program he or she is applying to (as demonstrated by overly generic language that doesn't mention the program or school, or critical errors in the specific resources that are available or subfields that people work in). Another is a simple lack of communication skills.
  6. Sep 7, 2013 #5
    Thanks guys. All very helpful responses.
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