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 Post subject: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Tue May 01, 2012 12:19 am 
Joined: Mon Apr 30, 2012 10:35 pm

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Joined: Mon Apr 30, 2012 10:35 pm
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Hello, this is my first post on the forum. :)

I have a question for you guys - what do you do if you're applying to grad school and your junior year is looking a bit shabby - say, you got B+'s and A-'s in the 4 upper level physics courses you took. (I go to a small college that only offers 4 upper level physics classes per year.)


To put it simply, last semester I had a physics class that basically consumed my life - after we got into our projects, for about two and a half months I was putting in about 20-40 hours per week. The weeks the 2 projects were due I put in >40 hours (every free waking moment). And this was on top of 10 hours/week of homework for the other physics class, which coincidentally had tests the same days the projects were due (though the prof was nice and gave us an additional 13 hour take-home for the weekend). By the end of all of this I was pretty burnt-out. EDIT : These hours were typical for pretty much all of us.

Then this semester, there was some personal stuff I had to deal with that distracted me from my courses (which were a lot easier than last semester). As a result, I will probably have about a 3.33 gpa for this semester (about 3.6 total) and be kicked out of the honors program.


Questions : (1) Is this a typical workload for a physics major? (2) What can I now do to make this look better or fix it? Is there any way that I can gracefully explain last semester? Transcripts don't do it justice.

Looking back, I actually appreciate last semester's courses - I got a lot from them, even if the whole experience was painful. It's just a lot of the things I learned are more to do with time management, working under pressure, and getting stuff done - and these things aren't conveyed in the letter grade at all!

Pretty much any pointers would be welcome.


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Tue May 01, 2012 6:16 am 
Joined: Sat Mar 03, 2012 2:06 pm

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Joined: Sat Mar 03, 2012 2:06 pm
Posts: 62
That sounds to me like it's a bit heavy for an undergrad, personally. Those grades don't sound too bad either unless you are gunning for an absolute top-tier program and a highly competitive scholarship (which maybe you are) but it's not like you'll have trouble 'going' into a phd program now.


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Tue May 01, 2012 4:02 pm 
Joined: Sun Oct 16, 2011 12:06 am

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Joined: Sun Oct 16, 2011 12:06 am
Posts: 32
I had some worse semesters than this... honestly, I wouldn't try to explain it. You tried your best, but didn't get spectacular grades. That's fine, it shouldn't be a big deal if your gpa is still over 3.5 cumulative then you are still able to get into pretty much any school depending on things like pgre scores, gre quantitative scores and LORs etc. There are so many things to work on in the application that I don't think it is correct to be trying to "explain" your faults. Instead, try to improve things that you can actually change in the future.


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Tue May 01, 2012 7:08 pm 
Joined: Wed Feb 08, 2012 2:11 am

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Joined: Wed Feb 08, 2012 2:11 am
Posts: 23
I got an 'F' in English on my transcript, but I just ignored it, and so did all the schools (that accepted me at least).


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Tue May 01, 2012 11:13 pm 
Joined: Mon Apr 30, 2012 10:35 pm

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Joined: Mon Apr 30, 2012 10:35 pm
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Well, the grades comments are reassuring at least!. Although I remain convinced that last semester still looks horrible - I dropped 2 math courses. So I only had 4 courses total, and only two of them were physics. From the point of view of a larger/better university, it might look like I can't even handle a "light" workload.
Quote:
Instead, try to improve things that you can actually change in the future.

Well, I'm going to be doing an REU/research and studying for the pgre's this summer - both of those will continue into my senior year.
The only thing I'm concerned about is how much of my free time I should put into the pgre's vs. research, when I've already done undergraduate research for the past two years and have decent recomendation letters. But, that's another topic...


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 2:13 am 
Joined: Sun Oct 16, 2011 12:06 am

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Joined: Sun Oct 16, 2011 12:06 am
Posts: 32
throwWiffle wrote:
Well, the grades comments are reassuring at least!. Although I remain convinced that last semester still looks horrible - I dropped 2 math courses. So I only had 4 courses total, and only two of them were physics. From the point of view of a larger/better university, it might look like I can't even handle a "light" workload.
Quote:
Instead, try to improve things that you can actually change in the future.

Well, I'm going to be doing an REU/research and studying for the pgre's this summer - both of those will continue into my senior year.
The only thing I'm concerned about is how much of my free time I should put into the pgre's vs. research, when I've already done undergraduate research for the past two years and have decent recomendation letters. But, that's another topic...


you are definitely worrying too much, sounds like you are very serious student, and shouldn't have any problems getting accepted somewhere, you're worried about 1 bad semester c'mon man... not everybody is a superstar all the time. i'd say focus more on pgre but that's just my personal preference


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 11:19 am 
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm
Posts: 552
I think an average courseload for Physics majors is between 4 and 6 upper level Physics (or related) courses per year. 4 of them in the same semester would be a pretty heavy load though! But it would depend on your school if they want their students to have many electives or not.

I also don't think your GPA needs explaining. But maybe you can appeal to stay in the honours program at your school (if that's important).

You should take a practice GRE as a diagnostic to see how much time you need to study for it. The 2008 exam published by ETS is very similar to exams given in 2011 and 2012 so far. So, you could take it now and see how you would do. Or maybe you want to save the 2008 exam as a "test conditions" practice later on in your preparation and take the 2003 exam now instead. Or maybe even if you take the 2008 exam now, after your studying/preparation, you will have forgotten enough of the 2008 exam that you can take it again.

As for this summer -- if it were me, I would spend my days doing research (9 to 5 or whatever your regular research hours are/will be) and then spend my some of free time in evenings/weekends studying for the PGRE. Personally, I can't really concentrate on research-activities for the whole day and then go home and do more work. For some reason, my mind shuts off research mode when I eat dinner! So studying for the PGRE is a good way to concentrate on something else -- sometimes it's just nice to have problems you can solve in a few minutes! I also think a good research record strengthens your application more than a stellar PGRE score. But I think astro/planetary science programs really de-emphasize PGREs. Find out what is the competitive "cut off" level (usually much higher than the minimum) PGRE score you would need for your programs and then study enough to be sure to make that mark. If say, the cut off is a score of 800, I think having a score of 800 plus a great research project + paper from the summer would make you look much more attractive than a score of 900 but with a mediocre project that didn't go anywhere.


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Wed May 02, 2012 8:17 pm 
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

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Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am
Posts: 1162
In response to a typical workload, realize in grad school you will be expected to put forth 50-70 hours a week of some combination of coursework, teaching, and research, nearly every week of the year. So definitely don't try to explain it, you'll come off as telling the admissions committee you can't handle a graduate workload. On the brighter side, I know people with C's in upper level undergraduate physics courses currently in some pretty good grad schools, so no te preocupes.

About how much time to put into the PGRE, there are two things I like to say:
(1) Once you get into grad school, any time you spend working on this test will be pretty much a waste. So only study as hard as you need to in order to get into the kind of school you want to go to. You should spend some time thinking about your future goals and the kind of graduate experience you want, and where you can realize these. Time spent on research is something that will help you for the rest of your physics career, but is less of a compass mover than a really good PGRE score at top schools (unless you publish in Nature et. al as a first author).

(2) There is a law of diminishing returns on studying for the PGRE, especially when coming from a smaller liberal arts school. One doesn't need to get everything right to get a good score, but if you focus on the material you were taught well as an undergrad, and make sure you're getting 99% of those problems, you can afford to ignore certain things to a large extent. Trying to, for instance, teach yourself thermo after a bad stat mech course could take half a summer and only end up netting you 3 points out of 100. Having said that, memorizing some results (like, in the aforementioned case, the efficiency equation and heat capacities) that show up relatively often isn't a bad idea, you can sometimes snipe a point simply by knowing a formula.


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 Post subject: Re: how to explain a bad semester
PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2012 4:48 am 
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Joined: Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:17 pm

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Joined: Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:17 pm
Posts: 127
I wouldn't explain it personally for 2 reasons-

1) You're reading into this WAY more than any admissions committee would- I think there's a good chance they wouldn't even notice until you pointed it out to them if the rest of your record is good

2) I think when there's a crappy grade it's best if you don't mention/explain it (because often that just sounds like a student grabbing for an excuse) but rather explain to your letter writers the situation and ask them to address it. They will also tell you whether they think it's something that needs addressing (see #1).


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