Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

wolfman29
Posts: 11
Joined: Mon Oct 14, 2013 8:20 pm

Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby wolfman29 » Mon Oct 27, 2014 3:19 pm

Hi everyone. I posted here last year about my confidence in the PGRE (I am pretty arrogant, I know, I know), and now that I got my scores back, I am a little bit disappointed with how I did (considering I studied from July to September for the September test). Up until now, I have had a pretty solid list of schools I would apply to, but I want to make sure that these aren't too far out of my reach. I figure since the previous one was not in the proper forum for this question, I will repost (and update) my profile for this thread (coming from my other thread).

Undergrad Institution: Arizona State University. Something like #53.
Major(s): Physics, Mathematics (honors program)
Minor(s): N/A
GPA in Major: 4.0 (>4.0 if you count weighted.)
Overall GPA: 4.0 (>4.0 if you count weighted.)
Length of Degree: 4-year Bachelors
Position in Class: Definitely near top (but not ranked at my university) (see GPA).
Type of Student: White domestic male, but does Jewish help?

GRE Scores:
General: Not yet taken
Physics: 820 (taken again in October, hopefully I do better :( )


Research Experience: About 2.5 years years of HEP-EX research with a university professor in conjunction with Fermilab (spent two summers there working on the same project). Co-authored (with another student) a "paper" in this area (really a technical manual) now hosted on arXiv. Began work this August on another project with the same professor, working with Michigan and JPARC in Japan. Same area of HEP-EX research (kaon physics).

Papers: No published papers

Awards/Honors/Recognitions: Won the Tsong Award at my university. (This is an award given out to the three best research presentations given by physics students at my university. Presentations were given at an undergraduate physics symposium.) Also I was named an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship (those people only want applied!).

Pertinent Activities or Jobs: See research above.

Any Miscellaneous Accomplishments that Might Help: I run a small business out of my dorm room? It relates to laser hobbyists and electronics, which I suppose may help.

Special Bonus Points: Taking a graduate course in General Relativity this semester (I expect an A in the course due to how I did on the first exam). Registration for next semester courses starts today. I will be taking graduate Quantum Theory and, if the overrides go through, two graduate level mathematics courses (Abstract Algebra and Algebraic Number Theory).

Applying for: Theoretical cosmology and HEP-th.

(Reach) Schools Applying To: (in order from most desirable to least)
CalTech
Berkeley
Stanford
MIT
Harvard
Cornell
UCSB
UCSD
UCLA

Obviously, with the exception of ASU, these are all top-tiered schools, and are reach schools. I guess my question is, with a Physics GRE score of a lowly 820 (I was scored mid-to-high 800s on the practice exams - not sure what changed here), what are my chances of being accepted into a school on my top list? I hope that my October physics GRE score is better, but from what I have seen on the September test, I may not have done as well as I thought. I expect to do reasonably well on my standard GREs (or shouldn't I? I haven't really been studying. I hear it's really easy), and I hear those hardly matter anyway.

So tell me, O Wise Ones of the Internet: am I reaching too high? Is it unlikely I get into any of the schools above? (Obviously CalTech would be wonderful.) Maybe I need a reality check. What kinds of schools should I be looking at for applications for fit/match schools? I'm not very familiar with many of these.

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

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby bfollinprm » Mon Oct 27, 2014 4:01 pm

Yes, you're overshooting. Not that you're unimpressive, but there are a lot of excellent applicants, and positions with HET/cosmology theory are tight (most theorists only want 1-3 grad students at a time, so on a given year they're probably not even looking for anyone).

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

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby Catria » Mon Oct 27, 2014 4:13 pm

Are you sure University of Washington or UCD is not an option?

TakeruK
Posts: 812
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby TakeruK » Mon Oct 27, 2014 4:37 pm

In my opinion, your stats make you competitive for all of the schools on your list. That is, your stats are high enough so that I think it's worth your time and money to apply to all of your reach schools. But reach schools, by definition, are "reaches", so there's a good chance you won't get into a lot of these schools. However, you only need one acceptance!

Caltech's average PGRE score is 880 (http://www.pma.caltech.edu/GSR/gre&toefl.html). They don't provide a range though, so we don't really know if 820 is within 1 sigma from the average, or as far as 3 sigma. My intuition would say that given the top students probably score 950+, there is room for plenty of people with the low 800s to bring the average to 880. Therefore, I do think your PGRE is competitive for Caltech (that is, it's not going to be the best, but plenty of accepted people will have your scores in this range).

Finally, there's the question of whether or not your list is too "top heavy". I think this depends on your goals more than your stats. My strategy is to just have one or two true safety schools (i.e. a school you know for sure you would get in and that you would be happy at). Then the rest should all be reaches!

In my opinion, there is no point having a long list of "match" schools and then only 2 or 3 reaches -- this generally results in getting into 0 or 1 reach schools and probably half of the match schools. The goal is not to get as many acceptances as possible, but instead, to get acceptances at the school you really want to get into. Unless a student was already applying to all top schools (where "top" is defined as best match for student, not necessarily by ranking), I think if a student gets more than say 60% acceptances then they probably could have aimed higher!

tl;dr : If you only want to go to the schools on your list, and nothing else (i.e. you have a plan that you're happy with in case you get all rejects) then your list is fine. If you want to make sure you get into at least one school instead of no school at all, then add 2 schools that you are sure to get in. Otherwise, I think your top-heavy list is good!

djh101
Posts: 97
Joined: Tue Jul 15, 2014 4:08 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby djh101 » Mon Oct 27, 2014 5:27 pm

The goal is not to get as many acceptances as possible, but instead, to get acceptances at the school you really want to get into.


Of course, the more acceptances you get, the more choice you get in terms of location, stipends, etc. If you get accepted to 5 schools, you are now in a buyer's market and get to make choices based on trivial things like the weather (assuming, of course, that your preferences are otherwise equal). Plus there's nothing wrong with aiming low if you legitimately want to attend the lower ranked schools. I'll be applying to 7 schools and, other than Caltech and Boulder (and maybe Washington), they're all pretty safe, but they're also all schools that I would be very happy attending. I think that I will most likely get into USC so it's a pretty safe school for me, but given the strength of their Quantum Computing department, I don't think I'd really be any less happy there than at CalTech.

Additionally, I'd say the application fees are worth the trips to Oregon, Colorado, and Washington that I might get to take if accepted (note that I would gladly attend all of these schools and do not advocate applying to schools with the sole intention of harvesting cheap vacations).

wolfman29
Posts: 11
Joined: Mon Oct 14, 2013 8:20 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby wolfman29 » Mon Oct 27, 2014 6:22 pm

Wow, thanks for the quick replies everyone. I walked back from my StatMech class to find 4 replies. More than I expected!

I have yet to compile a complete list of the schools I want to attend. Those nine or so were just so the sort of thing I was looking to apply to - that is, I know those schools have strong programs in the area I am interested in. By no means is the list complete though. And yes, I think I completely forgot about UCD!

My life plan most certainly does depend on getting into at least one graduate program this next fall, so I most definitely should add more schools at lower ranks that I am more comfortable about getting into. Even then, I am not sure I could be certain! HEP-th and cosmology are hard to get into, I hear.

Unfortunately for me, for external reasons distinct from my own academic pursuits, the east coast, and really anywhere not in the west (i.e. Chicago, Georgia, etc.) are not as strong options for me - it is that reason that I am applying to so many UC schools. That said, I most definitely will be applying to Arizona State University because I have a strong shoe-in in the department (a large chunk of the senior physics professors [with the exception of Paul Davies and Lawrence Krauss] know me and recognize me as a strong student), but I don't know of many other "strong" universities that aren't famous for being highly ranked, which is most definitely something I need to further investigate.

@bfollinprm: I recognize that these are quite top-heavy. However, how likely is it to not get accepted into a single one of these universities? It may very well be the case that I need to reconsider. I may very well end up applying to 10-15 schools though - my grandfather was generous enough to leave me and my brother a substantial amount of money for our educations after he passed away, so application fees shouldn't be hugely problematic.

Maybe the best course of action should be for me to change my "reach" list to be
Caltech
Berkeley
Stanford
UCSB
UCSD
UCLA

And then, I could add three or four schools as "safeties" and "matches."

Now the question is, what could those safeties be? Already ASU is one, even though that's probably my least favorite option (if only because I don't want to be in Arizona anymore). UCD seems like a good option too, even though I'm not sure that's a "safety," per se. I'll definitely have to look into the programs of these schools more carefully, but I would appreciate any and all suggestions that anyone has for HEP-th and/or cosmology.

Thanks for all of your quick replies :D

djh101
Posts: 97
Joined: Tue Jul 15, 2014 4:08 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby djh101 » Mon Oct 27, 2014 6:38 pm

Be sure to consider other subfields as well. Since HEP is probably going to be the most competitive field wherever you go, applying for a less competitive field would make some of your safety schools even safer. Of course, don't do so unless you would be open to studying that less competitive field. If your heart is set on HEP, certainly don't settle for anything less.

wolfman29
Posts: 11
Joined: Mon Oct 14, 2013 8:20 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby wolfman29 » Mon Oct 27, 2014 6:50 pm

Is cosmology/gravity/relativity as competitive an area? Because I am actually more interested in cosmology and GR and (despite it's bad rep) quantizing gravity (which I suppose also falls into the HEP area).

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

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby Catria » Mon Oct 27, 2014 10:37 pm

djh101 wrote:Be sure to consider other subfields as well. Since HEP is probably going to be the most competitive field wherever you go, applying for a less competitive field would make some of your safety schools even safer. Of course, don't do so unless you would be open to studying that less competitive field. If your heart is set on HEP, certainly don't settle for anything less.


A school that is a reach in a subfield may not be one in another...

HEP-TH, cosmology, GR/quantum gravity are the ones where even a school outside the top-10 can be a reach, and sometimes even outside the top-20. For example, UPenn could have been a match for me if I wasn't set on theoretical particle cosmology (and was interested in, say, soft condensed matter instead)

In my opinion, there is no point having a long list of "match" schools and then only 2 or 3 reaches -- this generally results in getting into 0 or 1 reach schools and probably half of the match schools. The goal is not to get as many acceptances as possible, but instead, to get acceptances at the school you really want to get into. Unless a student was already applying to all top schools (where "top" is defined as best match for student, not necessarily by ranking), I think if a student gets more than say 60% acceptances then they probably could have aimed higher!


Again, PhD apps are very different from undergrad apps, where one was advised to have a long-ish list of non-reaches and only 2-3 reaches unless one is a top student for whom top-10 schools are realistic.

You just highlighted another area in which my professors are seemingly clueless... they may have agreed with all my reaches, but my secondary research-based recommender always talks about how critical non-reaches are, while aiming for 3-5 acceptances if one is applying to 10-12. Then again, it's perhaps because the last student he wrote a rec for at US schools was shut out in the US (and he had a top-heavy list not unlike this one).

TakeruK
Posts: 812
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby TakeruK » Mon Oct 27, 2014 11:45 pm

djh101 wrote:
The goal is not to get as many acceptances as possible, but instead, to get acceptances at the school you really want to get into.


Of course, the more acceptances you get, the more choice you get in terms of location, stipends, etc. If you get accepted to 5 schools, you are now in a buyer's market and get to make choices based on trivial things like the weather (assuming, of course, that your preferences are otherwise equal). Plus there's nothing wrong with aiming low if you legitimately want to attend the lower ranked schools. I'll be applying to 7 schools and, other than Caltech and Boulder (and maybe Washington), they're all pretty safe, but they're also all schools that I would be very happy attending. I think that I will most likely get into USC so it's a pretty safe school for me, but given the strength of their Quantum Computing department, I don't think I'd really be any less happy there than at CalTech.

Additionally, I'd say the application fees are worth the trips to Oregon, Colorado, and Washington that I might get to take if accepted (note that I would gladly attend all of these schools and do not advocate applying to schools with the sole intention of harvesting cheap vacations).


That's definitely true, but let's say there are 3 types of schools:

Type As are the schools you really want to get into.
Type Bs are the schools that you might be interested in.
Type Cs are schools that you only want to attend if you can't get into As or Bs.

Here, I'm separating rank/difficulty from this, so that type As are the best fit for you, regardless of rank etc. (i.e. I don't mean to say it's bad to "aim low" at all!). In this set-up, I would advocate for making your list mostly "A" schools and only a few "B" schools, because I think getting 2 "A" acceptances and 2 "B" acceptances is basically the same or even better (in terms of options available) than getting 1 or 2 "A" acceptances and 5 or 6 "B" acceptances.

And if the Type As are the "top 10", then even the best students will not be a shoe-in. The best way to increase the number of "A" acceptances, if they are schools that are hard to get into, is to apply to a greater number of them!

Personal story: I ended up with 5 acceptances, which was a decent number I think. I would say that 3 out of those 5 were "A" (not necessarily the highest ranked, just the ones that were the best fit for me) schools and the other two were "B" schools. In the end, I mostly focussed my final decision on those 3 "A" schools--I don't think having another 2 or 3 "B" schools to choose from would have helped me at all.

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

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Oct 28, 2014 1:30 am

wolfman29 wrote:@bfollinprm: I recognize that these are quite top-heavy. However, how likely is it to not get accepted into a single one of these universities? It may very well be the case that I need to reconsider. I may very well end up applying to 10-15 schools though - my grandfather was generous enough to leave me and my brother a substantial amount of money for our educations after he passed away, so application fees shouldn't be hugely problematic.


I don't know. It's within a 2-sigma fluctuation, I would wager.

wolfman29
Posts: 11
Joined: Mon Oct 14, 2013 8:20 pm

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby wolfman29 » Tue Oct 28, 2014 9:05 pm

The problem is, I'm just not sure what some "B" schools are. It's hard to find them, I've found. Anyone have suggestions? It's slightly like the trouble I have found trying to find "safety" schools. Everyone knows the top schools, and most of the "match" schools, but no one seems to know any safety schools for cosmology and/or HEP-th. Maybe there aren't any?

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

Re: Reaching too high? September 2014 Scores

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Oct 28, 2014 11:29 pm

Of course there are. Pitt & Case Western are my standard safeties when people ask about theoretical cosmology, and they work for HEP-TH too. Davis is probably a school you'd get into, and we're excellent in both HEP-TH and cosmology, and about to get better with 4 new faculty members split between the 2 fields.




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