Anyways, I'm a student at the University of Washington. So basically, I want to get into an astrophysics grad school, although I am also open to other grad schools with an interdisciplinary focus (as I have interdisciplinary interests). I have a number of questions that are stated below (which can be answered independently of context), although I have also provided context below my questions (which may help with answering the questions as they pertain to me, and also give me an assessment of how I could best overcome my obstacles and get into grad school).
So I'm a math major right now, although I'm only studying math for its broad usefulness and not for any desire to continue further in math.
- Would it be helpful for me to take graduate level courses in applied math? Especially in topics like numerical analysis? I don't intend to go into theory, and the amath computation level courses cover a lot that would be very helpful for data-intensive astronomy/physics research. What about graduate level courses in statistics?
- Might some study of biology help for programs with faculty members in astrobiology? (I'm really into astrobiology). What about atmospheric sciences? (which is relevant in the study of planetary atmospheres, which I'm also very much into). I know that one of the factors of admission is compatibility with potential advisers, and I believe this might help (if there are comparatively few applicants with experience in biology/atmospheric sciences).
- Right now I'm trying to decide between an astro/physics major and more graduate level statistics/applied math courses. Will it be bad if I get very close to an astro/physics major but end up not doing the major? I'll have done all the basic physics courses like E&M and Quantum, but not much more than that.
- How important is GPA for astro grad school? And what are the general acceptance rates for astro grad schools? I had fairly severe undiagnosed ADD for several years, which really annihilated my GPA for a while and caused me to get 0's (also desperation caused me to prematurely take Amath graduate level courses before I was ready for them). Also I entered school two years early. But I finally got diagnosed and put on medication, and am averaging a GPA of 3.6 for my last two years of undergrad (but I can only pull my overall GPA up to around 3.1), with a mix of around 30% grad level courses and 70% undergrad lvl courses. I'll take 5.5-6 years for undergrad, although I entered two years early so this cancels out (and people might be more forgiving of immaturity in early entrance students)
Incidentally I also have Asperger's Syndrome, but this probably shouldn't be mentioned anywhere as it is orthogonal to grad school chances. ADD is only mentionable since it was a factor in the past and now should not be as significant (due to medication). I also developed social anxiety that became pretty severe, which made me leave the astro department (for another department where no one knows the undergrads - aka math) for some time. I've mostly grown out of my social anxiety though (and I do not think it will be a significant factor postgraduation, like my ADD, since my social anxiety came out of severe immaturity in college).
Unfortunately though, the combined influence from my mental conditions makes it extremely difficult for me to do anything on top of academics, so I pretty much have no ECs. I used to have an amazing amount of passion that was legendary in 8th grade; in fact; I'm almost inclined to ask my 8th grade teacher for a supplemental recommendation (I know it's really really far off and cannot be used as a substitute for the 3 letters from current faculty)
Looking at the acceptance threads, there are some people with similar GPAs who actually do get in some astro programs, which is encouraging.
- How much does publication in the Astrophysical Journal count? (for something related to SDSS)? I'm one of many coauthors, but admittedly, I did not do that much work (my prof was just nice).
A lot of my situation is better described here: (Only difference is that I switched from Concerta to Adderall XR)http://www.addforums.com/forums/showthread.php?t=73894
Also, I'm really good at self-studying (I self-studied 8 APs, enough to get AP National Scholar), and I expect that I can do the same for the Physics GRE
I know that in order to get in, I must convince them that I am able to take grad level courses and to do research at the same time, and also that I am able to do them at a level superior to that of other applicants. Furthermore, I must demonstrate that I would not drop out (as all grad programs seem to have high attrition rates). The ways to demonstrate these are through GPA, Physics GRE, personal statement, recommendations, research, and things other people may not have did (but which may be helpful). My only real strength (relative to others) is that I'll have a lot of grad level courses (which shows ability to take grad level courses), although almost all of my grad level courses are outside of astronomy (since the astro dept here doesn't allow undergrads to take grad level courses). I have passion for the area too, although I have passion for practically all areas of science (although I have more passion for astronomy and theoretical biology than I do for any other areas). I'm thinking that I may only have a real shot where there are fields with a heavy astrobiology influence (or heavy atmospheric science influence, as many of my grad level courses are in the atmospheric sciences). Unfortunately, it seems that higher ranked schools seem to have broader areas of focus and 2nd tier/3rd tier schools are more narrow (and so 2nd-tier/3rd tier schools rarely have astrobiology or anything interdisciplinary). This is also why I believe that places like caltech/MIT are actually best (relative to others) for things like theoretical neuroscience, since undergrads at "lower" institutions practically have no options, rather than for things like math/physics where undergrads can take grad level courses and do research. But I may only have a chance at 2nd-tier/3rd-tier due to my situation, unless I manage to do something exceptional in my gap year (or two).
Another possible source of strength is that I have more math/amath background than other students, and so if a department has numerous grad students who struggle with the math in astrophysics, I may have an advantage.
Hm though, after looking at things more, it seems that the University of Washington doesn't seem to be highly ranked in astro at all. Strength of UG does matter when it comes to recommendations/research, which are the only way a low-GPA person can get into grad school. I'm really deliberating between astronomy and something more cognitive neuroscience-ish (which I'm also heavily interested in).
[May 2012 edit: The original poster here ultimately managed to score top-applicant fellowships at both UChicago and Brown (and almost got into Yale)]