Narrowing down a list of schools

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:11 pm

Hi all,

I'm applying to astrophysics programs this fall, and I feel as though my current list of prospective schools is way too large, but I'm having trouble narrowing it down. I was hoping for some advice in that respect.

Current List:

Arizona State University
Caltech
Ohio State University
UC Berkley
UC Los Angeles
UC Santa Cruz
University of Arizona
University of Iowa
University of Maryland
University of Michigan
University of Virginia
University of Washington
University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Colorado-Boulder
University of Chicago

My GPA is about 3.8 coming from a non-Ivy league school. I have several years worth of research experience in various projects, but no publications. I'm also a female, for what it's worth.

Anyway, I worry that I'm applying to too many highly ranked programs and too few safety schools. At the same time, I think I potentially stand a chance at getting into some of the more competitive schools. Ultimately, I'm hoping for at least a couple choices after all is said and done. My question for you guys; is it absolutely absurd to ask my letter writers to submit 15 letters? If so, what schools do you suggest cutting?

From browsing around, it looks like people typically apply to 8-10 schools, though I've seen up to 13, maybe even 15. I realize this'll cost a pretty penny, but I'm trying to consider worst-case scenarios, where I get in to very few -- if any -- schools that I apply to.

Catria
Posts: 353
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:14 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby Catria » Fri Jul 18, 2014 9:33 am

Did you check against what astrophysics research you would like to do? Perhaps some of the 15 don't have what astrophysics you want.

Or perhaps you could narrow down once you took the PGRE.

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Fri Jul 18, 2014 9:57 am

Catria wrote:Did you check against what astrophysics research you would like to do? Perhaps some of the 15 don't have what astrophysics you want.

Or perhaps you could narrow down once you took the PGRE.


Yeah, that's a good point. The majority are based on research interests, but a few others less so, I suppose. For instance, Michigan does not exactly cater to the type of research I'm interested in, but I feel like I have a better chance of getting in there vs Caltech or Berkley or some of the other top schools, for instance. That's basically why my list has grown so much. A lot of the safety schools don't necessarily have the research I'm interested in, but of course, my chances of getting in are greater. In fact, turns out most of the schools with research in my area of interest are generally harder to get into; I think my list contains all of the schools that even have said area of research. Would you consider any of the above safety schools, or will they all be fairly hard to get in to?

And yeah, I guess my PGRE score will be a rather large factor, too.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jul 18, 2014 11:43 am

I was an astronomer and now I am in a planetary science field but I work very closely with astronomy (my work is on exoplanets and planet formation). In 2012, I applied to many of these schools--most in astronomy but a couple of their planetary science programs too.

Given your description of your profile, I think these 15 schools are in the right range!

I agree that you can probably narrow it down a bit more though. I think this is a good start for the summer and over the next few months, perhaps you can look into the actual research currently going on at these places. I did this by emailing the profs I would want to work with and going to conferences to talk to current profs and students at these schools. It's helpful to look up the websites of the students and profs as well and see what kind of work they do. Two schools might both have 3 profs each in your research field, but some profs have their students do novel research while others do not. It's helpful to see what the students publish as a guide for what you might end up doing if you work for said prof.

Your PGRE score isn't as big of a deal when it comes to astronomy programs, unless you are doing something very very astrophysics related. Unless you score below say, 600 on the PGRE, I wouldn't cut any of the schools out. Here is an article about the PGRE scores of astronomy applicants to Caltech by a prof who was chair of astro admissions there: http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/2014 ... fails.html

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby bfollinprm » Fri Jul 18, 2014 2:01 pm

What are you interested in?

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Fri Jul 18, 2014 7:57 pm

TakeruK wrote:I was an astronomer and now I am in a planetary science field but I work very closely with astronomy (my work is on exoplanets and planet formation). In 2012, I applied to many of these schools--most in astronomy but a couple of their planetary science programs too.

Given your description of your profile, I think these 15 schools are in the right range!

I agree that you can probably narrow it down a bit more though. I think this is a good start for the summer and over the next few months, perhaps you can look into the actual research currently going on at these places. I did this by emailing the profs I would want to work with and going to conferences to talk to current profs and students at these schools. It's helpful to look up the websites of the students and profs as well and see what kind of work they do. Two schools might both have 3 profs each in your research field, but some profs have their students do novel research while others do not. It's helpful to see what the students publish as a guide for what you might end up doing if you work for said prof.

Your PGRE score isn't as big of a deal when it comes to astronomy programs, unless you are doing something very very astrophysics related. Unless you score below say, 600 on the PGRE, I wouldn't cut any of the schools out. Here is an article about the PGRE scores of astronomy applicants to Caltech by a prof who was chair of astro admissions there: http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/2014 ... fails.html



Thanks for this! This is incredibly helpful. You're right -- I ought to look more closely at specific projects that students and professors are working on.

And your comment about the PGRE is really a relief. I've already started studying, but I'm a terrible test taker in general, so we'll see how that goes.

In terms of contacting professors I'd be interested in working for, when is a good time to get in touch with them? I'm guessing now is way too early...?

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Fri Jul 18, 2014 7:58 pm

bfollinprm wrote:What are you interested in?


Mainly radio astronomy, observation and instrumentation.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jul 18, 2014 11:15 pm

blackmass wrote:Thanks for this! This is incredibly helpful. You're right -- I ought to look more closely at specific projects that students and professors are working on.

And your comment about the PGRE is really a relief. I've already started studying, but I'm a terrible test taker in general, so we'll see how that goes.

In terms of contacting professors I'd be interested in working for, when is a good time to get in touch with them? I'm guessing now is way too early...?


I took the PGRE twice (640 and 690) so I just barely made it above the median score! Granted, the PGRE score isn't even required for some Planetary Science programs, but I still made it into many good astronomy programs (some on your list!) even with these scores. I'm also a terrible test taker!

I think it's too early to start contacting profs right now. In my application year, I sent a few emails in September but only because there was a conference in my field in October and I was reaching out to see if I could meet any of the profs at that conference. For everyone else, I emailed them in October and that helped me make a list of schools and profs. My main time constraint for this was because I wanted to send my list of schools/profs to my LOR writers by early November so that they have over a month to write even the earliest deadline.

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Sun Jul 20, 2014 3:38 am

TakeruK wrote:
I took the PGRE twice (640 and 690) so I just barely made it above the median score! Granted, the PGRE score isn't even required for some Planetary Science programs, but I still made it into many good astronomy programs (some on your list!) even with these scores. I'm also a terrible test taker!

I think it's too early to start contacting profs right now. In my application year, I sent a few emails in September but only because there was a conference in my field in October and I was reaching out to see if I could meet any of the profs at that conference. For everyone else, I emailed them in October and that helped me make a list of schools and profs. My main time constraint for this was because I wanted to send my list of schools/profs to my LOR writers by early November so that they have over a month to write even the earliest deadline.


I guess I'll hold off from contacting professors, which is a shame. I'm trying to get a jump start on all this application stuff so I won't have to worry about it much in the middle of the semester. I'm also starting to think I may cut out U Chicago, U Colorado, U Michigan and Ohio State, for lack of specific research interests, and I've added University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign. That being said, of all (16) of these schols, which schools do you think will be the 'easiest' to get in to, and which are the most competitive (if you had to rank them)? I don't want to wind up cutting the ones I most have a chance with.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby TakeruK » Sun Jul 20, 2014 4:24 am

I'd say there are almost an infinite number of ways to approach grad school applications so there's no reason to not contact them now if you think it could help you narrow down schools or if it would fit your schedule better. I'm Canadian so part of the reason I held off was because I was in a MSc program and the summer really is the best time to do research so I was trying to get as much research finished that summer as possible and my courseload wasn't as high that Fall. Also, now that I think about it, that summer was also the summer I got married so I probably did not think about applications until the fall term began.

So after thinking about all that, perhaps starting now might not be a bad idea after all. My main reasons for holding off might not apply to you!

It's pretty hard to rank schools. But I'll try to do it anyways because you asked! One thing to keep in mind: As a Canadian, I am an international student so public schools are a lot harder for me to get into and this might influence my "rankings" below.

Also, you can find my profile in the 2012 thread if you want to see the rest of my profile (it's pretty similar to yours I think).

I'll rank them in groups/tiers from hardest to get into to "easiest", from both my experience and my perception. I'll distinguish this by putting my result in square brackets after the schools that I applied to! That is, anything without square brackets is completely due to estimation/hearing about other people's experiences and should probably have an errorbar of +/- 1 tier.

"Hardest to get into tier by my completely subjective opinion"
Caltech [accepted/attending; but in planetary sciences]
UC Berkeley [rejected; "only 6 out of 150 applicants accepted" is what their letters usually say]
UC Santa Cruz [rejected]

"2nd hardest tier"
University of Arizona [accepted; but in planetary sciences]
UC Los Angeles
University of Washington [accepted; they did a round of interviews in 2012]
University of Chicago
University of Maryland

"3rd hardest tier"
University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign
Arizona State University
Ohio State University
University of Iowa
University of Michigan
University of Virginia
University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Colorado-Boulder

Finally, I would actually recommend a list that is heavy on reach schools / match schools instead of "safety" schools. You should probably identify one or two programs that you feel that you would both be happy in and feel confident about your admission. These are your "safety"s and there's no point having a ton of them. But you'll have to be able to identify these schools as such! My advice is to talk to your advisors/supervisors. Mine gave me a lot of advice of where they thought I would get in and they were very accurate.
Last edited by TakeruK on Sun Jul 20, 2014 4:30 am, edited 2 times in total.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby TakeruK » Sun Jul 20, 2014 4:26 am

Oh and since you are interested in observational astronomy, you definitely want to consider what kind of telescope access these schools have as part of "research fit" too, if you haven't already!

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Sun Jul 20, 2014 4:55 am

TakeruK wrote:Finally, I would actually recommend a list that is heavy on reach schools / match schools instead of "safety" schools. You should probably identify one or two programs that you feel that you would both be happy in and feel confident about your admission. These are your "safety"s and there's no point having a ton of them. But you'll have to be able to identify these schools as such! My advice is to talk to your advisors/supervisors. Mine gave me a lot of advice of where they thought I would get in and they were very accurate.


Wow, thank you so much! I'll keep all of this in mind. I definitely think I've been loading up the list with more safety schools than anything, but sounds like I'd be safe cutting some out. I'm just worried about walking away from this whole process with no offers, ha. One of my research professors did mention having contacts at one of the "top tier" schools, if I decided I wanted to go there. Do you think connections can actually make a difference?

My revised list:

Arizona State University
Caltech
UC Berkley
UC Los Angeles
University of Arizona
University of Iowa
University of Maryland
University of Virginia
University of Washington
University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Illinois at Urbana -Champaign
UMass Amherst

And I may throw Harvard in there, too, based on your comment about having more reach schools. They were on my original list, but I decided to cut them when I thought I had too many reaches. But they also have relevant research, so it's worth a shot!

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby TakeruK » Sun Jul 20, 2014 5:10 am

Harvard would be a good addition! I applied there too but only got a rejection letter (it was on nice paper though). Your revised list is 12 schools which is a good number. In your shoes, I'd switch out one of the safety schools for Harvard.

I don't know the rest of your profile, but 3.8 GPA and several years of research experience is a good foundation! I'd say that you are almost certain to get at least one offer, so that's why I would still say it would be safe to convert 1 or 2 of your current safeties to reach schools. But if you are not as sure, maybe showing this list to a couple of professors who would advise you on grad school might be a good idea, to get their feedback as well!

blackmass
Posts: 61
Joined: Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:01 pm

Re: Narrowing down a list of schools

Postby blackmass » Sun Jul 20, 2014 5:35 am

Ok, after all is said and done:

Arizona State University
Caltech
UC Berkley
UC Los Angeles
University of Arizona
University of Iowa
University of Maryland
University of Virginia
University of Washington
University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Illinois at Urbana -Champaign
Harvard

I'll take your advice and show this to some professors as well and see what they think. I wonder if I should throw in my undergrad institution as well, just in case? Thank you so much for all the help!




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