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What do grad schools like?

  1. Jan 7, 2009 #1
    I'm not yet an undergrad, but I'm curious as to the difference between grad vs undergrad admissions (specifically for sciences; also, I'm not asking so that I can spend my time as an undergrad trying to impress grad schools, just out of curiosity). As an undergrad, you have a lot more access to research than a high schooler (most of the time), but there are fewer competitions to win and such, so is research looked at more? Would professor recommendations valued a lot more because they are coming from professional scientists (or writers or historians etc.)? Is it as competitive? Are "good" undergrads expected to do anything particular?
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  3. Jan 7, 2009 #2


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    This advice comes from a senior undergrad applying to grad school right now. If I was to advise a freshman in university interested in grad school, this is what I would say:

    Research is VERY important, since this is what you'll be paid to do in grad school. My advice is to get involved in a research project as early as possible. I know some schools even have a "freshman first research experience" type of program. Look for those. Publications are not required of undergrads (yet:rolleyes:), but they can't hurt. If you can get involved in a very active project and get your name on a paper or two, that will look good on a resume.

    Other than research, having great recommendations is also important. Get to know several professors as well as you can, including whoever your doing research with. If they know you better, they will be able to write a more realistic, more personal recommendation that does not sound like it was pulled from a template. This will help your recommendations stand out.

    That said, good grades and good GRE scores should not be forgotten. Keep your GPA as high as possible (>=3.5) at the least. Also, make sure you study for the Subject GRE!! Many of the students in my year did not study for it and are hurting because their scores are very low. My advice is to start studying the summer before you take the test.

    There are also many extra-curricular activities you can get involved in that won't hurt your resume:

    Get a student membership in the professional society of you field. (IEEE, SPS Membership Etc.) It would be even better if you become an officer of a student branch for one of these groups. Get involved. I volunteer as a judge for the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science ( an high school science compeition). I also volunteer at another high school physics competition run by my university. Becoming a tutor is also a good idea. It will help you remember introductory material and it looks great on an application for a teaching assistantship.

    Anyway, that is probably more than you asked for!
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2009
  4. Jan 7, 2009 #3


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    Undergrad admissions are based on high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores and factor in extra curricular activities

    Grad admissions are based on your undergraduate GPA and GRE scores (especially math if you are going into sciences for graduate school), and may factor in relevant work experience or extra curricular activities (like if you did an internship or worked as an assistant for a professor or were active in campus societies).

    in each case (undergrad and grad admissions ) they want to see achievements - proof that you weren't wasting time, but that you did stuff and that demonstrates you are hard worker and can think. Preferably stuff that is academic or community-oriented or leadership-oriented. This is in addition to having good grades and good standardized test scores.

    Also if you want to go into science for graduate school, then your undergrad major should be in a closely related discipline, e.g. if you want to do grad school in physics, you don't do an undergrad major in biology unless you take extra physics courses to be on par with the background of the physics majors. In addition, admission to PhD programs requires passing department-specific exams, which happens after you have been admitted to the grad school.

    There's plenty of science competitions available to undergrads. You may have to join campus clubs or your university's chapter of professional societies to know of them or participate. You can also compete for scholarships.

    Undergrad is more competitive than high school, and grad school is more competitive than undergrad (and postdoc is more competitive than grad school...you see the trend...)
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2009
  5. Jan 8, 2009 #4
    Basically what I've noticed from my experience applying to grad school, and from talking to professors in the physics department where I'm a grad student, is that admission is based primarily on grades and research. I know grad students who had superior undergrad GPAs but little research, and others who had not-so-hot grades and excellent research. Apparently the two are interchangable to some extent (though you can't get all B's and C's and expect to get in).

    My undergrad experience was somewhat interesting, since I originally wanted to get into medical school, but decided my last year to go to grad school in physics instead. Med schools look for community involvement, altruistic motives, etc. I'm assuming that law school and other professonal programs are similar. Grad schools, however, care almost exclusively about research. So if you're going to grad school, you'll want to make sure that your undergrad experiences focus heavily on research. It would be a good idea to start working with a professor your freshman year. If you get your name on a paper it will significantly increase your chances of getting into a good graduate program. Even if you don't, the recommendation letter you get from him/her will be far more powerful.

    Anyway, those are just my random thoughts. It's good that you're thinking about this even before your freshman year. If you start building up your academic reputation now, I'm sure you'll get into an excellent graduate program.
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