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Low Score on the Physics GRE

Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 3:29 pm
by huckleberry5252007
just call ETS, 600(36%). It seems there is no chance to get into a gradschool.

Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 5:53 pm
by physics_sun
you can try to take the sub again.

Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 10:41 pm
by tnoviell
Well, what schools did you want to get into? You only need a high score if you were planning on going to ridiculous schools anyway.

no chance?

Posted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 7:25 am
by jormiga
huckleberry (and other suffering souls):
I completely understand your feelings, but I must tell you that it is not the end of the world. I don't even think that you have to take the Physics GRE again. It all depends on the circumstances and your goals, of course, but let me make a few assumptions based on...

First, most of the top 25% scorers are not US nationals. That means that if you are, your "US percentile" is maybe 50%. It would be illogical to think that people in this range are not accepted anywhere. (It would be interesting to know what the average US score is… any of you know?)

Second. The average Physics GRE score of US applicants offered admission last year at Rice University is 640, and the program is number 27 in the country (if I remember correctly) according to US News. If we simplify the issue and assume that there is a (negative) correlation between the rank and the average subject GRE of accepted students, then you might be competitive there and at other comparable programs. Top 20 programs are probably out of reach with your score, but there are many fine departments where you can excel in research and gain a solid understanding of your field (while being happy.)

Finally, remember that in graduate school, your research group is more important than the name of your school. I'm not saying that a brand name will not help you, particularly because the best groups tend to be concentrated around cities like Boston and Pasadena... but there are excellent researchers elsewhere.

There are really outstanding profiles posted here, with quasi-perfect scores on everything that is measurable (although what these things really measure, it's hard to know.) Please be aware that there is a selection bias here and that most applicants are not like them (I mean, not everybody can be in the 97 percentile… well, maybe… not sure). I have a friend at Caltech who told me: "yeah, I answer multiple choice questions everyday as part of my research." I would say the GREs were very helpful to him.

If you are a foreign student (and not US educated), then you might be in trouble, and you would definitely have to take the exam again. (But still, you might apply to smaller Ph.D. or even MS programs and come to the US anyways.)

Good luck, huckleberry! I bet my Feynman lectures you will get somewhere.

P.S. By the way group, what do you think of my first assumption? Somebody told me that, but I don't remember who. I am about 60% sure that it was a UChicago professor...

us vs. international

Posted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 12:32 pm
by braindrain
Does anyone know why the top 25% are not US nationals?
What are the international students doing differently?

Posted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 2:35 pm
by schmit.paul
Foreign students, particularly students from China, Russia, and other countries with a strong appreciation for science, enroll in programs with few required humanities and fluff courses. They take more hard science courses during their undergrad than similar domestic students with a liberal arts curriculum to deal with. Some will say that they are simply trained better to take a test like the GRE Physics, but that statement would be a little harder to verify. But yes, it's very possible that your foreign competitors have taken a handful more physics classes than you by the time both of you get to grad school, and consequently, by the time both of you take the GRE Physics. As far as score adjustment goes by selection committees, a prof. at MIT told me they tend to "subtract 10 percentile points from foreign applicants' scores" to normalize the field, which essentially has the same effect as adding to domestic students' scores. I'm sure the process varies from institution to institution, and most are not going to officially admit that they do this, but it is true that only the best foreign students get admitted into our domestic programs, while domestic students have a little more flexibility (which IMO is perfectly understandable).

Posted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 5:09 pm
by Singularity
I am not very familar with the typical American undergraduate curriculum but from my experience here I can assure you that doing advanced courses or even the basic ourses in a more rigorous fashion isnt going to get you far in improving your performance in the Subject Test. That is primarily becuase major part of the syllabus for the subject test is very elementary and can be expected to be covered in standard courses done in the first couple of years at most and in some instances in high school itself. What detrmines better performance in the Subject Test is ability to solve problems quickly and that's just about it. And that comes from practice and familarity with similar problems.
Besides, I am certain that this information about the top 25% of scorers is off. Sure, the overall average and the percentage of applicants beyond a certain score would always be more for international students but that is solely becuase only the very best in foreign colleges apply to these US universities wheras there is fair representation from a wide cross section of students from US. Given the greater funding availability for American nationals, the Subject Test cut-offs for admission is lower for them in comparison to int'l applicants.

Posted: Fri Jan 05, 2007 2:16 am
by braindrain
So, maybe a better question is, what are the high scoring Americans doing
differently from the low scoring Americans since our type of training and
philosophies should all be similar? Can anyone assess this?

Posted: Fri Jan 05, 2007 2:51 am
by artschoolapplicant
dude. i think it's a gender thing.

on a serious note, more applicants who don't have scores that make god pee himself should post about themselves and where they get in.

i'll be doing so in february or march, even if i get rejected EVERYWHERE, which is a distinct possibility.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 1:48 am
by soluyanov
I'm from Russia, and I really doubt, that the result of GRE Physics has got something in common with the nationality. And with the true understanding of physics too. I'll explain.

First, noone in Russia is used to multiple choice exams. This form of education is never used here. For example, applying to a university you are usually given 3-5 (in some places even 1(!!!)) problem to solve for 3-5 hours. These problems are really tough. Sometimes, you are not even supposed to solve it up to the end - the admission committee looks at what ideas did you have for solution and how far did you get. So, the whole educational system is very different.

Second, GRE physics (as any other standartarised test) score depends mostly on how well you're trained for this very test. For example, a good russian student may easily solve almost every problem on the physics GRE, but the test format itself confuses much. Some problems suppose that you should just evaluate wrong answers, because solving the problem may take something about 5-10 minutes and this is not affordable. So unprepared student from Russia will, probably, loose on the test to an American, who knows how to deal with this very test. But, of course, getting prepared to the form of the test is much more easy than to learn physics.

By the way, only those physics topics are used which are supposed to be known to Americans first of all...


Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 2:28 am
by braindrain
What about gender would make a difference? Do you know or
do you know what the common arguments are?

I'm just curious how they can design one test that can select
out for different groups. I would think that would be a formidable
task if you set out to do that on purpose :).

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 4:22 am
by Richter
First, noone in Russia is used to multiple choice exams. This form of education is never used here. For example, applying to a university you are usually given 3-5 (in some places even 1(!!!)) problem to solve for 3-5 hours. These problems are really tough. Sometimes, you are not even supposed to solve it up to the end - the admission committee looks at what ideas did you have for solution and how far did you get. So, the whole educational system is very different.

Your account reminds me of the Landau School and the famous Theoretical Minimum
Anyway, I do think that the process of revising GREs helps students to review many basic physics, which are easily forgotten when you get specialized.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 7:11 am
by soluyanov
Richter, I definitely agree with you. But every kind of exam makes you revise something))). I think that the most stupid thing about GRE is that a score difference mostly depends on the amount of hours(!) not years(!) spent preparing. One more week of practice results in +50 or even 100 to your score. Probably, I'm overreacting, but this is my opinion.

Also, I think that the difference in average scores between americans and foreigners comes out of the pool of applicants. Only top foreign students usually apply to US grad programs, while the american pool contains not only the top students.

P.S. Landau minimum is now only a myth. The name still exists, but the exam itself has changed alot. Although, it is still really tough, it is a piece of cake if compared to the original - Landau's questions))))

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 8:36 am
by Richter
Dear Soluyanov,
I agree with you that the GRE is unfair to judge whether the examinees are suitable for graduate studies. That's why schools we are applying to are requiring not only GRE, but also transcripts, LOTR and PS, which reflects applicants' research experience.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 8:41 am
by aquarius

Yes, it's true that the physics GRE is not as reliable as ETS says, but at list it's more faire than just transcripts. There is no uniformity between universities about the grading system, so I think (despite all its drawback) that the GRE is more pertinent than the GPA alone.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 2:00 pm
by schmit.paul
Most of the professors I've talked to have said that they liked the physics GRE and did think that it was a good test. First, for whatever reason, there seems to be a strong *correlation* between high GRE scores and relative success in grad school (notice I said correlation, so there very well could be little or no causal connection). I talked to a theoretical condensed matter prof at my school who devoted a few of our classes in Sept. and Oct. to preparing for the GRE (where we just basically answered any questions that someone was having a hard time figuring out), and his general opinion was that it was the thought process that went in to solving the problems, and not necessarily the details of the problems themselves, that provide a good measure of a person's ability to think creatively. Knowing how to discriminate between realistic and unrealistic solutions, take limits, look at units, devise quick ways to solve problems, and use mathematics to decompose a question whose physical basis is completely unfamiliar to you, all seem to be good skills that most physicists employ at times, even if these skills are secondary to actually knowing the advanced material and understanding it. So even though the GRE is supposed to "run the gamut" of undergraduate subtopics (EM, kinematics, quantum, etc), we all know that it only covers so much material, and most of the questions are fairly elementary. It's ability to test for a broad knowledge base is, as everyone says, rather poor. But it can test for some other strengths, and these are strengths that I would think many graduate programs care about. In the end they'll probably never get rid of it, and they'll probably never do no more than reformat it, simply because, as aquarius states, there's no way to gauge the strength of an individual program and the students coming out of that program without giving some uniform exam out to everyone and looking at the distribution of scores from each program.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 2:22 pm
by braindrain
The admissions committee guy I spoke to said professors are
for it or against it based on whether they themselves did well
on it or not. If you happened to talk to lots of professors who
did well you would get a more favorable response.
Some profs. are also involved in some GRE steering committee.
I don't know what that is, but they could have some vested

I don't believe this test or its format measures creative ability
at all just based on comparing the type of thinking to what you
do while you are doing research. I also don't know of any data
that says there was a strong correlation between high scores exclusively and success in grad school. That would eliminate a person's grades and research. One thing I read says the reason it looks like a high correlation is that they didn't accept the people with the lower scores so they aren't part of the correlation data.
I still have trouble seeing it as uniformity between schools,
since liberal arts schools tend to score lower.

There was a study done at UT Austin back in 96 and I
think it tried to find correlations but only found bias.

I'm actually surprised your professors were all for it. Maybe
they need to think more creatively about it :).

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 2:23 pm
by Richter
I agree with you. Some examination skills are very useful in getting physical intuition in practice. However, you must not omit the recitation nature of GRE. In the exam, you need to remember a lot of formula before you enter the exam room, as you don't have the time to derive them all. These formula are so widespread in different fields in physics, that you really need to remember them in order to finish the test on time. Often there are questions set that require the examinee to recall these formula before using the examination skills. So, it is disadvantageous for students that are not used to this kind of MC questions exam.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 2:45 pm
by soluyanov
Yes, this is exactly what I'm talking about - knowing how to deal with MC is a huge part of work. Moreover, GRE problems are very typical, and it's just a matter of time to get used to them.

Creativity in GRE??? Do you mean, that looking at the long formulae in the answer and deciding the limits has something to do with the creativity? I guess it has to do with a good knowing of what to wait for on the test.

I knew a guy, who could easily solve very complicated path integrals and could do it fast. His intuition told him where the asymptots are needed and where not. And his "creativity" has left him on the GRE - his score was only 520. I bet he could do much better in graduate school than 80% of all those scored >900. And he has a true creativity. Now, because of the score - he gave up the idea of applying to US grad school.

Furthermore, all of you, probably, know the very famous physics Olympiads, which are so well respected in Russia. I had 3 European Olympiad winners and one World one at the same enrollment with me. Only one of them is now doing something special in science. The other 3 are either getting into this "Olympiad business" (creating problems, etc.) or just making some average research. But, this is, maybe, one of the drawbacks of Russian education.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 2:54 pm
by somebody
the physics gre isn't perfect, but it is just one piece of material that graduate schools are using to judge you. if you are a good candidate it will show in your recs and grades. also, its hard to make the point that there will be no correlation between physics ability/knowledge and success on the gre. the fact is that people that do well on this test are probably better prepared for physics graduate school than those who do not. its hard to dispute this opinion.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 3:27 pm
by braindrain
Well, let's see. People are saying you don't need upper
level advanced physics classes to do well on the gre. So,
if you do well on the gre and haven't had the
advanced classes (because that's one category of people
who do well) then you are still better prepared than
people who have had advanced classes and didn't do well
possibly because they are so far beyond short answer multiple
choice in their thinking or they weren't trained on multiple choice?
How could that be? Maybe there is confusion about
what constitutes preparation for graduate school and preparation
for this test. I can't imagine they are the same preparation.

Actually, from the 5 physicists I work with the only correlation
(okay not really because its too small a sample size), was that
the ones who did better on the GRE did worse on the grad
school qualifiers and vice versa.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 3:54 pm
by icarus137
Well with most standardized tests there are tricks and ways to improve your score. There are question databanks that they pull questions from with only slight variations from year to year. So if you go through old tests, you automatically improve your chances of doing better. I believe for the most part that foreign students put much more effort and length of time into preparing for the GRE than most American students. Some people just are not good timed test takers. These people tend to have very good GPAs though.

Here is a very interesting link about that talks about foreign students and their success on the GRE as well as their drop out rates.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 5:07 pm
by phun
obviously, most ppl who did well on the gre are going to make it seen important and most ppl who didn't do well on the gre will try to make it seem trivial. Let me add my biased opinion, too.

The whole time while I was studying for the gre, I got an impression that this is a pretty fair test of *some* of the skill sets that aspiring physicists would have. Such as approximations, back-of-the-envelope calculations, dimensional analysis, and physical intuition, as mentioned above.

Assuming ETS doesn't have the resources to make the test format anything other than multiple choice, I think this is as comprehensive as any standard aptitude test can get, in a complicated field like physics.

Many people seem to argue against multiple choice format and timing issues. I honestly don't see how this could be that big an issue. Is it that hard to understand the basic strategies that work for multiple choice questions? I mean, if there ARE anything worth being called a strategy, it would be eliminating obviously wrong answer choices. And you get penalized for wrong answers anyway so I personally never guessed on any of the questions. As for timing, I don't see how if you have a through knowledge of something, it could be hard to work through problems fast. Even in classes, people who always leave early during exams are always the people who end up getting highest scores. At least that's my experience so far in life.

Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 6:37 pm
by tnoviell
I've stated this elsewhere in the forum, but I think the physics GRE is a fairly simple test IF you've had time to prepare yourself. Under normal circumstances I would've sat down and shook the cobwebs from my brain and practiced, but sometimes time is just not at your side.

I don't know people at other schools, but I know people at my school seldom have time to prepare for the exam and often do poorly due to that. I assume the majority of the people who score well are people who prepared themselves very well - probably studied all summer. This isn't a luxury we all have unfortunately.

I guess my opinion is that I can see that it's a good measure of a person's knowledge IF and ONLY IF everyone had time to prepare for it. It'd be interesting to do research on scores vs. time alotted to study.

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 6:07 am
by Ghagnastiac
With regard to the question of international students and their GRE scores, I doubt there's anything fishy going on in physics programs overseas. International students appear to score higher on the Physics GRE because only the cream of their cream apply to study in the United States. Thus, we have roughly 2000 american students competing against only the best physics majors from every other country. Of course the best of them will outperform the American applicants since all of us take the Physics GRE, while only their top 1% do.

As for the test itself, it definitely helps to regroup, review old exams and take it again. My score shot up from a 680 (55%) to an 840 (83%) and the main difference was that I took it seriously the second time around. While this may sound dumb, it really helps to memorize old questions because ETS recycles more than Greenpeace.

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 1:10 pm
by soluyanov
Dear Braindrain, that guy I was talking about, has great success in grad school Publications in PRL and very good math journals are quite a measure I think. I wish everyone of us could do that on his second grad school year.

But this guy had only 2 weeks for preparation for GRE Physics. And got his 520.

I don't say GRE is useless, but it depends mostly on how much time did you spend preparing. The argument that foreign students have much more time to prepare is not serious at all. It is a personal question. The best way to say that this test is a true measure of something scientific is to give everyone the same time to prepare, which is impossible. So, I think, that this test best reflects the ability of a person to schedule time - not for the test, but for preparation - and this is also very usefull in science. Moreover, preparing only 2 weeks, even for objective reasons, is also a failure and shows the lack of seriousness in a way.

My decision to go to US became solid just in August, and I had to go through all three tests (TOEFL, GRE G, GRE S) in three month. Almost two of those I spent preparing to the verbal part of GRE. The verbal part is the best example to illustrate the core of GRE - preparation is much more useful than knowledge. Sit down, learn by hart 1000-2000 words from any "GRE preparation book" and that's it. You have the same result as people, who were reading Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, Bayron and Shakespere and are true intellectuals. (By the way, would this test be in my original language, having less than 790 would be a shame for everyone even in math or physics).

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 1:15 pm
by soluyanov
By the way, Ghagnastiac is absolutely right concearning the results of the internationals. We can compare the results of internationals only to the results of top 10% of domestic students. Would this examination be held in any other country, their average result will also be lower than the foreigner's.

still not buying into it

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 7:56 pm
by braindrain
I'm glad Soluyanov that you can distinguish between real intellect and not and that you know the difference. I'm not sure a lot of
people know the difference. I'm happy that guy is doing
so well, but sad as an American that we lost the potential to have
him in the US just on account of that test. That seems stupid
on the part of the US schools to set up a system where he
would be discouraged from applying.

That's interesting Soluyanov would expect high scores from a native language verbal test. For the Americans, lots of the words on the verbal are not frequently used even for well-educated people. The funny part of that (and this is only my theory): I think Pres. Bush must have hired speechwriters that had that kind of GRE verbal vocabulary normally whereas he did not. So, every time he made a speech he stumbled on the big words and it made him look like an idiot repeatedly. Talk about getting creamed on verbal! :)

Everybody seems to claim the GRE physics is for uniformity, but
everybody is also saying how NOT uniform it is: the test can
differentiate between foreign and American, liberal arts, gender,
good time planners, multiple choice training and how much time you had to prepare. Maybe it forgot to test for physics since its testing all these other things :).

I think though the American's are not that used to multiple choice
as one might think. The multiple choice we always had was
4 answer choices and two are nonsense and the choices are
widely separable. On this test, 5 answer choices, not nonsense
that is immediately recognizable, and the choices are in some
cases numerically close together (.254, .255, .256 ...). There
are some questions that even had a 2 in the numerator, the
denominator, or in the square root factor and when we learned
to 'handwave' and derive formulas we might have handwaved the
2 out of there. So, its really the mother of multiple choice tests
even for Americans.

Paul said: Knowing how to discriminate between realistic and unrealistic solutions, take limits, look at units, devise quick ways to solve problems, and use mathematics to decompose a question whose physical basis is completely unfamiliar to you, all seem to be good skills that most physicists employ at times, even if these skills are secondary to actually knowing the advanced material and understanding it.
Phun said:
approximations, back-of-the-envelope calculations, dimensional analysis, and physical intuition,

I think the "use mathematics to decompose a question whose
physical basis is completely unfamiliar" is exactly the formula
pushing a good professor would have trainined us not to do -
that some people can do this really well and not understand
the physics. Regarding "back-of-the-envelope calculations" -
it's a true statement to say: When I do research I really do
20 back-of-the-envelope calculations per day. But the
converse is not true. The essence of research or doing
physics is not in the back-of-the-envelope calculations. To me its
more in the physical insight and concept understanding. So, testing the mechanics of the things we do while doing physics isn't the same as testing our physics understanding, insight, and intuition.

I hope people saying the best foreign students are not
designated the best on the basis of just this test because
then you are doing what you want the schools not to do -
just base things on one test. I think the schools and
foreign students like to create images of superiority. I
want very much to work with great scientists from all over,
but will not bow down to anybody being superior by some
sort of class structure we just made up and above all else
not from this test!

My personal belief is that the system of acquiring repositories of previous questions is much more efficient in group oriented societies - the brain dumping of questions after the test
for years and years is done better in certain places. I don't
think that accounts for all the perfect scores, but at least some
of them. And if you had to have seen the questions before,
how is that testing our ability to do physics?

So, my real question is, no matter what your score is, does the
score accurately reflect your ability to do physics and/or
physics research, and/or be successful in graduate school?
I still have to say I'm not convinced.

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 8:57 pm
by soluyanov
Dear Braindrain,

I did not mean to offend you. I used the word intellectual in the meaning of a man with a deep and broad knowledge, not a man with great talent. There are intellectuals whose talents are questionable, but the education is not. And I think it is not hard to determine whether the "common" knowledge of any particular man goes beyond the average. I still think that used to reading (classic books especially) people have a good chance to have a very good verbal score without preparation. From my experience of reading English originals (which is, of course, really poor as you can see from the level of my English) the words used in the GRE are not that rare.

By the way, most of these words being translated into russian are also bookish and sometimes almost forgotten. But they are pretty easy for a man who is used to read a lot.

I should add, that to get to my University (St. Petersburg State), which is considered one of the best schools in Russia, I had to pass not only physics and math exams, but literature too. Examinations toward a PhD here include phylosophy as a must. Probably, the need of these humanities in physics is arguable, but still.

But I still don't say, that having a bad verbal score is a signature of the lack of education. No way.

Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 10:02 pm
by schmit.paul
I think amidst all of this philosophical discussion we are losing sight of a very real issue in the graduate admissions process: time. Bear in mind that there is not a committee of third-party, hired guns that are being paid to sit down and dissect every single word of every single application that comes into a graduate program. The admissions committee will be composed of faculty, people with limited time but an EXTREMELY vested interest in the quality of students admitted to the program. Quality here is loaded word. It seems that most of the bitter sentiment in the exchanges above about the GRE are based on the loss of admission to a program on the basis of the subject test score. Bear in mind that this uber-selectivity runs most rampant in the top schools, and becomes less of an issue as one goes down the list of rankings, for obvious reasons (and oftentimes socially-based reasons: top students apply to widely-perceived top schools, and the run off goes down the list). Graduate programs like Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, etc, receive on the order of several hundred applications per year, with nearly every single applicant having the same opinion about themselves that most people on this forum do: namely, that they are competent, intelligent, creative, worthy minds deserving of a graduate experience at a top university. Every person will attempt to communicate that in his/her application, leaving the selection committee pressed for time and splitting hairs with respect to how students portray themselves in their writing. Of course more applicants than the number of students Harvard admits could be successful at Harvard, but that doesn't mean you are entitled to obtain admission. Every top university puts up obstacles, filters, and challenges to make sure that only those that try hard and succeed in *every* respect get through the admissions process. Only those that know exactly what level of effort it will take to get into the program will have the best shot. And of course there is some wiggle room, as often one hears of candidates who had no expectation of being admitted and yet somehow did.

I think those that shrug off the GRE, as well as any other person who shrugs off any of the other essentials (GPA, undergraduate research, etc), are correct that they are leaving themselves subject to being underestimated in terms of their capabilities, but they are also admitting outright that they are unwilling to do what it takes to get into so-called "top programs". Some may assert that they are so busy doing research and academics that they had no time to prepare for the generalized tests. If those people are not accepted to their top graduate programs, it's likely because someone else who was under the same amount of pressure found a way to manage their time, prepare for the test, and do well on it, and do equally well on all of their other tasks too. It would be absurd to declare that the former person is *more* entitled to admission than the latter, noting that the differences in their qualifications are minute, and it isn't that hard to believe that a professor might find the latter candidate more ostensibly attractive on the basis of things like time management skills, academic endurance, and perseverance (and I say ostensibly because we have all discovered in our discussions on this board that the graduate application process is no more than a rough, cursory way to portray one's talents to a selection committee). Realize that a person with a crapload of good research experience and shitty test scores is not going to lose his/her spot to someone with great test scores and shitty research experience.

I think most people on this forum recognized long before they took the GRE that it was important for the grad school admissions process, regardless of whether or not they started studying for it early (after all, why are you looking at this website?). Every person who takes the goal of getting into grad school seriously should have been willing to put in the effort to obtain at least the minimum required preparation to satisfy all of the requirements to get into the graduate program they truly wanted to be in (ignoring, for the moment, the unforseen events and circumstances that can, for instance, reduce a person's output on the day of a test). I AM NOT MAKING THE CLAIM THAT ANYONE ON THIS FORUM IS LAZY OR UNDESERVING, but I know how much slave labor and how many sleepless nights I've endured doing what I believed I needed to be doing to get into my top programs, and I know it took forsight, planning, compromise, and endurance to achieve it. I also know that I'm not the only one who's gone through this, and I acknowledge that there could be many individuals out there who have done more than I have in terms of preparation and hard work. And if I don't get into my top schools, I'm not going to blame anyone but myself, and I'm NOT going to let it make me feel undeserving or incompetent, and I'm not going to convince myself that "my" spot went to someone who was substantially less qualified than myself and only beat me out because of some trivial technicality.

And let's not all forget that the top 10 programs are certainly not the only place one can get outstanding graduate training. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the people complaining about the GRE are people who don't even know where they've been accepted yet. People who don't manage to get into MIT or Harvard because of some filter will certainly have a chance at many other good graduate programs. It would be awfully closed-minded to believe that one's career is shot if one did not get into a US News and World Report or NRC top-10 physics grad school.

Please though, don't let my banter squelch this cathartic thread, I realize there are many good points being made, futile as it may be, and don't hesitate to continue. If a *better* admissions process is ever proposed that is somehow better normalized and more consistent, then it will likely arise, over a long period of time, from discussions like this, though perhaps with more suggestions and fewer criticisms.

Posted: Wed Jan 10, 2007 3:09 am
by braindrain
You did not offend me.
I agree with you about reading which comes back to the time issue again. However, I come to really enjoy the classics as movies. I know its not the same. But, I'm not going to pick up much vocabulary from a movie :).
I heard that reading the major newspapers like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (or whatever your newspapers are) is a great way to improve verbal because the writing is so advanced.
I like the idea of studying literature and philosophy. It helps to think in ideas sometimes and not just equations. My required undergraduate courses are humanities of my choosing but they have to fit with the theme of getting a multicultural perspective. So, Americans had the impression that the Russian education was forced away from humanities and all you do is straight physics, so I guess that is not so.

Posted: Wed Jan 10, 2007 11:43 pm
by briscoe
I think the biggest question of all is "What are standardized tests really accomplishing?" I'm currently a grad hopeful (May 07) and just got my PhysicsGre back, which i did horrible on. This may sound like a jaded response, but our education system is beginning to be dependent on a skills that 'regurgitate what is known.' A nation of young scientists bent on memorization have little room for creative application, because that's not what equations are. As an example: I have a colleague who holds a 4.0 gpa, knows his formulas and equations inside and out. Has no idea what 'separation of variables' actually does or why it's applied, but knows that when you see x,y, and z one applies said formula. There is no advancement with this method. How can one creatively apply physics to alien environments when all you know is applications in known conditions. *I guess this is sounding a bit more jaded than I had anticipated* Because I test so poorly on "Math/Physics" type tests and test well on "Describe in Words" type tests, I fear I'll have to abandon my aspirations for a PhD...I'll have to become a fry cook or something : ) Or is the difference between my friend and I based on experimentalist and theorist type thinking. **As a side note I am married with two kids, a full time job, and school full time, so this might be the reason I don't do so well on memorization ...just don't have the time ; )


Posted: Thu Jan 11, 2007 12:48 am
by braindrain
I don't know if its an experimentalist vs. theorist phenomena, but I have seen it with engineering vs. physics. Some engineers tend to pull formulas out of a hat without feeling the need to know or do the derivations. The physicists laugh at them for that. But the physicists
handwave a lot and wave away coefficients and things. The mathematicians laugh at them, but then the mathematicians can work on cases that aren't physically possible. Then they get laughed at. Sounds like one of those jokes, what's the difference between a physicist, an engineer, and the mathematician. But, then there's a question of whether you have to derive it in order to understand it or not? I think engineering physics and applied physics may be more like engineers in that respect.
I agree there is too much formula pushing.

Posted: Thu Jan 11, 2007 2:43 am
by schmit.paul

If your friend is truly the kind of student you describe him to be, then he may make it into a grad program, but I get the distinct impression he's not going to be the kind of person who gets overwhelmingly flattering letters of recommendations from his professors saying that he has remarkable intuition, ability, and potential to do creative work in the field...if you are able to identify the pitfalls in his approach to education, then your professors will probably pick them out too. I have a friend who didn't do very well on his GRE's and has a somewhat faltering GPA, and I told him that if his grad school prospects don't necessarily work out at the schools he was really hoping to get into, he could hang behind at his bachelor's university and work on an M.S., knock out some of his grad school coursework, do some original research and write a master's thesis, and get a brand new GPA to work with and new prof's to get letters of rec from (you can also study for and redo the GRE). Seems to be a viable, and perhaps optimal, method to better your chances of getting into your ideal grad programs if you feel like they're currently out of reach. After all, why wouldn't a faculty member love to bring in a student who's had graduate-level coursework and research experience who they'll only have to pay what they'd pay a new entering grad student? It's win-win for you and them.

Posted: Thu Jan 11, 2007 5:00 am
by briscoe
Thanks for the support...I just get frustrated being scored on a scale of which I'm no good at. And you're right, he has a future (by his own admission) as an engineer of some sort. I keep pushing him to continue in Physics, but I don't think he'll go that route, as he's not a fan of extended trying to solve problems that may not have an answer flips him out. I just hope that Profs don't fall into a trap that pins a test score on a student and that's that. I specifically got a recommendation from my Diff Eq teacher in which she explains my C+ came from a D testing average and an A average for all my written projects. How does that happen? You have to have a good working knowledge of the subject to write reports and yet why won't that translate into a decent test average? Bah. I can't figure it out. Here's to hoping recommendations will outweigh the Physics GRE for my program hopefuls : )

Posted: Sat Jan 13, 2007 2:56 am
by braindrain
Responding to schmit.paul:
First of all, I don't measure my precious and unique research accomplishments in units of "craploads" :). There may be lots of people who think the same way schmit.paul does, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the basic philosophy of 'living for an admissions committee'. I agree no one is "entitled" to anything, not even people who have 'everything' and have done all the right things to get in because to me that sounds like cookie cutter assembly line stuff and doesn't serve well to science if we are all clones of each other. You are certainly NOT entitled to anything just because you tried hard. That won't fly in research - you still need a result. You are saying people should have been willing to put in the effort to meet all the requirements and low scores represent people not willing to do what it takes.
Life doesn't work that way. Some people decide later that they love physics and didn't have all the classes by the time they took the test. Some people became teachers first or took a different pathway. What are you going to say to the guy who spent 4 years in Iraq, that he has to know all the formulas equivalent to someone who just took the classes and if he doesn't then he didn't do what it took or plan out his time well? (He might literally have to know the projectile motion ones :) )
And what about the students who really didn't have time because they are putting themselves through college and have to work. It's a very commendable thing to put yourself through college and that spans all generations and all evironments. I don't agree with admissions committees or students who think the solution is well just study all summer the summer before your senior year and don't do research because the test is required or because you have done enough research. I think its scareligious to can a research experience during a critical summer just for a test. It's also very difficult to be doing research during the semester you are studying.
I've heard a professor say this and a university president also: the one thing a university can be guaranteed to do is that they can always teach you more physics. That they can do. What they can't teach you and can't do for you is what they call 'fire in the belly'. They need to see you have passion for something, not just I did everything they asked of me.
Yes, I do think all other things being equal, the person with the higher score should not be advantaged because the score is not
meaningful and the test has biases and whether people choose to believe it or not, some people are just no good at these types of tests. But, I also don't believe all other things are ever equal.
However, I do think people are 'entitled' to have their applications looks at beyond a single number filter, especially when that number has not proven to be the measure it claims to be and because people paid $100ish. There is something unethical about knowing full well there is a minimum acceptable score, not telling anyone what it is, taking people's money, and then trashing the application. The schools shouldn't be able to have it both ways. They should either announce the real minimums OR look at ALL the applications.
I don't think anyone shrugged the GRE, but in many of the posts, lots of people are surprised their scores were way lower than expected, meaning they put in a reasonable time and for whatever reasons, it didn't come out high for them.
I think students concentrating on trying to sell themselves, but if you change our perspectives to that of the professor, say you have budget, and are a world reknowned scientist which student would you take: the one that can plan out his time and has everything as was required on paper or the one that doesn't have everything but shows sheer brilliance at times. Many intensely creative people cannot plan out their time and work in spurts and when they are inspired to work, but what comes out is quite amazing.
I'm also disturbed that not only are some people attributing physics knowledge and ability to the test which it does not measure, but now also perserverance and dedication? I cannot accept that test as a test of dedication and endurance any more than it tests physics ability. I also think time management as a critieria of anything is ludicrous. Sure, its a helpful skill, but shouldn't be a criteria. But I'm sure as I said, lots of people probably think the way schmit.paul does. So, I guess its a good thing that decisions are done by committee.

Posted: Sat Jan 13, 2007 6:44 am
by schmit.paul
hmm, didn't think my post would incite such a response, braindrain.

First, the "craploads" was an attempt to deviate from my usual, more formal style of writing. Perhaps trying to convey some emotion there...whatever the case, you can rest assured that my "craploads" of research experience are important to me as well.

Second, I think we're blurring the distinction between top schools and tier 2+ schools, and my post was in response to the sentiment some have inferred that they were wrongly declined admission (or rather, believed they would be wrongly declined admission, since I believe most the people participating in this discussion are seniors who are jumping to conclusions prematurely and preemptively venting their frustration) to *top* (ie unreasonably selective) programs due to faulty test scores, GPA, etc. I must say that my post was not intended to express my complete advocacy for the current admissions process, which I believe you are interpretting it to be, but rather to draw attention to the reality of the graduate admissions situation. Yes the system doesn't spot every bit of talent swimming around in the pool of physics undergrads, but it has obviously worked well enough to ensure a high quality graduate class for all of those universities that still employ it (after all, if it didn't, then there would be even more substantial reasons to change the system beyond the accusation that the system overlooks a number of talented people in favor of other talented people...remember my comment, the person with the bad test scores is not merely being replaced by a person with good test scores, but rather by a person with good test scores AND a well-rounded undergraduate career complete with good course grades and research experience). And the truly talented people who might be overlooked by Harvard will surely be picked up elsewhere, and just because they didn't get into Harvard doesn't mean that their career is slighted in any substantial way. I agree with you that this is somewhat unfair to those that find themselves excluded from the very top programs due to minimally-informative things like test scores (which could have very well been severely affected by something as otherwise harmless as a bad night's sleep), but what I'm trying to do is point out the rationale for such a system, which doesn't spot all the talent but does a decent job setting up a rough classification system (once again referring to the selection system as a whole, and not just this purported, mysterious "GRE filter.")

I think we need to abandon the notion that the test is the only thing that matters in the admissions process. Clearly it is not. Look on Sean Carroll's "Unsolicited Advice Part I" (google it) blog on Cosmic Variance and he reiterates this claim. It is one part of many factors, and those that are up in arms against the test are those that are portraying it to be the most important factor. Sure, it's possible that some of the top schools might be employing cutoffs as a first filter (and I agree that paying a 100 dollar application fee should entitle every applicant to have their application read thoroughly), but I guarantee you there are a lot of great schools out there that accept applicants with a wide range of qualifications and accolades. You need to realize that the top schools (I keep using the phrase "top schools" to maintain the distinction) accept a very small cross-section of the overall undergraduate pool, and these students are supposed to not only be the brightest, but also the hardest-working, most persistent, and most accomplished, AND have the most potential for original research...and there are only so many diagnostic tools an admissions committee could employ to try to identify those students among a huge pool of applicants. Admission to top programs could often require a nearly picture perfect undergraduate history, as evidenced on the application and letters of rec, but certainly a particularly exemplary student with one less-than-perfect mark could make it through the system, though you seem to imply that this isn't possible and doesn't happen, which I think is erroneous to a certain extent. And a student that didn't quite make the cut in the elimination process at Harvard could very well be picked up by several other schools with great reputations. Furthermore, while I am certainly not part of an admissions committee, your example of a student that shows "sheer brilliance at times" being rejected over the person with a great paper application is not a great example, as I don't think it is at all self-evident that the brilliant student would be rejected (after all, if the student is truly brilliant, has gotten research experience, and for some reason screwed up the GRE, I'm sure his/her letters of recommendation are more than flattering, and perhaps his/her research history and publications are exceptional as well), and I also don't think that the person with a perfect paper application is inherently inferior...after all, if his application has "everything as was required on paper" to gain admission to a top program, then we can assume he has a solid research background, great grades, excellent test scores, and phenomenal letters of recommendation declaring that the student has a wonderful grasp on what it takes to be a good researcher...sounds like a pretty good candidate for admission to me (sorry, getting tired of using "he/she," but it is implied).

And personally I do believe the GRE Physics is in some ways a test of perseverance and dedication, and putting enough time into preparing for it with the knowledge that it could affect your admission into the graduate program you truly want to be part of is a self-affirmation of your own personal dedication to the future you want for yourself. Yes, there will be those that don't do any better with preparation than without, but you make it sound like that is the majority of students taking the test. It would be absurd to believe that preparation doesn't have a positive impact on the average student's performance on an exam with a well-established format (I'm sure we could take a statistical sample to prove this). I don't see my preparation for the test, which included coming into school a few weekends to run through full-length practice exams, reviewing old concepts, memorizing formulas, and running through speed derivations as the test approached, as an atrocious example of me pandering and capitulating to the admissions committee and the flawed admissions process. Rather, I knew ahead of time where I wanted to go to grad school, and I did everything I believed I needed to in order to increase my chances for admission given the current admissions process. And let's be careful about hoisting the students that have dealt with adversity (ie the military students, the working students, etc) up on pedestals of entitlement...I don't think these candidates are subjected to any less of a "fair" process than anyone else, but you have to realize that physics grad schools are not going to reward those that have dealt with adversity on the basis of their personal struggles, as often these personal struggles are completely irrelevant to a student's creative output and research ability...they are going to reward those that have clearly demonstrated a fundamental understanding of the science and an undeniable potential to do original, creative research--this is the what the ideal grad student should exemplify. So if your military candidate, or the candidate who put himself through school, invariably deserves admission into a top program, then he must have demonstrated his requisite talent to the liking of the faculty reviewing his application, and I think it is safe to say that a less-than-stellar GRE score could be overshadowed by these purported accomplishments. If the student has merely dealt with adversity and demonstrated average potential (which might have included, though not exclusively, an average GRE score), then I don't think that the student deserves to be given a handicap in order to increase his odds over other qualified candidates with higher potential and fewer incidental instances of adversity.

And I've got a bit of a problem with this picture you're painting that those that try their hardest to get into top programs are living and breathing only for this purpose (the people "can[ning] a research experience during a critical summer just for a test"). I've personally never heard of a student taking the GRE *this* seriously, to the point where they turn down an REU in order to spend an entire summer studying the (four) practice exams that are currently circulating for the Physics GRE. In fact, the people working their butts off to prepare *adequately* for the Physics GRE most likely also know the invaluable benefit of more research on their graduate applications, and they are most likely going to welcome that research with open arms. And just because these students recognize the need to overcome a number of obstacles to get into their preferred grad school doesn't mean for one second that they have completely forgotten about their responsibilities as a physics major (to learn and absorb coursework, to participate in creative research, to continue growing as an aspiring physicist) or have become completely disconnected from their love for the science. These people are simply those that are willing to go to any length to satisfy the somewhat unreasonable and haphazard tribulations that the top schools require to gain admission while they excel in their undergraduate studies.

I APOLOGIZE FOR THE LENGTHY RESPONSE, AND IN SOME WAYS I REALIZE IT MIGHT BE FLAWED (it is 3AM after all), BUT I AM TRYING MY BEST TO MAKE A POINT AS A NEUTRAL PARTY AND NOT NECESSARILY AS A DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. The truly exceptional students/researchers that feel slighted and wronged by the admissions process SOLELY because their GRE scores were not up to par should indeed feel frustrated. But I'm not really sure how many of those students are out there (referring to genuine cases, not students who merely rationalized that this was the only reason for their rejection), and I would venture to guess that most of those decrying the GRE are probably pointing out mostly hypothetical cases (and this accusation could result in a few people stepping forward with their anomalous anecdotal examples). I think a lot of us like to believe we are top notch students completely worthy of admission to the best programs in the country (and I'm sure in many cases this is, in fact, true), but I think some of us have failed to acknowledge that there is a significant number of other people out there who are just as qualified (or perhaps more qualified) than ourselves. We are participating in an uncertain and inconsistent process, and all we can do is try our hardest to exploit our knowledge of what is considered desireable while we simultaneously keep ourselves focused on our original purposes for wanting to become physicists. Top students with less-than-preferred GRE scores that truly could not have done better on the test with a reasonable amount of additional preparation simply have a somewhat more uphill battle to fight, but no one is guaranteed admission, and we are all participating in this same battle. Everyone who truly deserves admission and is willing to work hard for it has a decent shot of making it happen. Let's try to avoid villainizing the admissions committees and belittling the standardized tests and use this forum for more constructive purposes, like helping people deal with this imperfect admissions system and improve their chances, or if anything, make proposals for conceivably "better" admissions processes that could eliminate the contentions held against the use of standardized tests or GPAs as admissions criteria (it's too late at night for me to think of one).

In the spirit of the bulk of this forum, good luck to everyone in their quest to get into the place at which they truly want to spend the next 5-6 years of their life toiling away at their chosen and adored field.

Posted: Sat Jan 13, 2007 7:29 am
by schmit.paul
btw, i hope the sarcasm in my last sentence was obvious :wink: I for one have fallen in love with physics and am delighted with the thought of doing cutting edge theoretical research for the rest of my life...This is the kind of laborious effort I live for....can I get a "what what?", or at least a "me too"? :D

more of the same

Posted: Mon Jan 15, 2007 5:55 pm
by braindrain
In response to schmit's posting which is almost a small book :) I don't know what a 'what what' is nor do I care care. I'm on the east east coast coast and we don't talk like that here here :).
I think the worst outcome of the ETS experience and GRE subject is that the test is affecting people's perceptions of themselves and affecting decision outcomes of the students themselves. The first poster in this group thinks they are not qualified for any school and like the Russian with the low score who thought he wouldn't get in to a top school and did not even apply to the US. And then before you know it, people leave science altogether or worse ... go to work for ETS. And based on WHAT, how quickly you can answer multiple choice tests the questions of which you had to see a large portion beforehand and an exam that is riddled with biases? And now its also a litmus test for dedication moreso than a soldier or a student who has to work to pay for college on their own? This is become ridiculous how much certain people are attributing to this one test.
Before I started studying I asked some perfect score people what approach to studying did they take and do you know what they said? They both said the same thing: "The Physics GRE does not test your ability to think, to solve physics problems, or to be a good physics graduate student. It tests whether you have memorized formulas and can recall them quickly." I really respected them for that. They didn't try to paint a false picture of themselves or put themselves on a pedestal for it and on top of that attribute all kinds of personal character to it.
It's irrelevant that the test has a well-established format - it's not a well-established format in our education or in physics education in general, some people are notoriously bad at it and it doesn't assess much meaning to it for those that did well. Unlike qualifiers in which there is some benefit and learning attached to it.
And even more degrading is that students paid for this. No, I do not agree as schmit says "t[hat the the system does a decent job setting up a rough classification system" - hardly. Use of the test in an extensive way is overquantification, a form of illiteracy whereby every multi-scalar concept has to be reduced to one number. We as students are guilty of hypocrisy in that we follow rankings and reduce our schools to one number also, a ranking. ETS and US News and World Report as third parties have stepped in between the relationship between the student and the university and are laughing all the way to the bank.
Schmit says: "it obviously worked well enough to ensure a high quality graduate class for all of those universities that still employ it (after all, if it didn't, then there would be even more substantial reasons to change the system beyond the"
No, that's what bias means. If you think that everything is fine the way it is then why are they more interested in domestic applications right now and what happened to the diversity agenda? And really, aren't the top schools admissions heavy with people from elitist colleges than from state schools? MIT undergrads may argue that a B at MIT is worth an A at a state school. Harvard has been written up as having grade inflation. Liberal arts people aren't trained educationally for formula pushing but to think analytically and critically. Minorities are kept down to the percentages in which they make up the applicant pool and its debatable that that should be the right way to do things. I'm sure the foreign students are upset about having to be held to higher standards and not being eligible for government funding even though a grant from a professor still comes from a government agency.
In Schmit's posting he seems to have just nuked people with adversities and because he thinks the system is working, diversity as well. I know of at least one university president investing his career in how to make a minority scientist because it is unclear the system is doing it on its own. It is notorious that the system is leaking women out of some kind of pipeline. If you are saying adversity is only considered in conjunction with having everything else, then that's the same as saying the adversity doesn't count. Well, let's see: Galileo had that small problem with the Catholic Church, Benjamin Franklin started out penniless and didn't really start science until age 42 when he could afford to retire, Leonardo DaVinci was illegimate in a time when people cared about such things, Einstein had to run from the Nazi's for a short period of time, and Stephen Hawkings is a medical mystery. Everyone at one time or another may have adversity. So, yes, a regular person may be more affected then our treasured geniuses and show average scores. Should they be penalized for it?
Schmit says: "I think we need to abandon the notion that the test is the only thing that matters in the admissions process."
THAT is what a filter is by definition for the time that it is applied. At one point in time the GRE score is the single factor and ONLY critieria that gets you to the next level. Even ETS states that minimum cutoffs is an inappropriate use of the scores (see my posting on the score interpretation guide from ETS at forum/viewtopic.php?t=540). If a person is filtered out which is what the original poster is worried about, then the score became the sole critieria at that stage. Is there any other interpretation of a filter?

I do wish Schmit well in all his endeavors. I really do, but I feel he is overconfident and does not have a realistic assessment of the process or the competition. He is also assuming things about how the process works of which there is no real evidence. Schmit says: "Admission to top programs could often require a nearly picture perfect undergraduate" Schmit is assuming that the ideal candidate has everything and is nearly perfect. It may or may not work that way. And we shouldn't be telling huckleberry, the original poster that he/she really does have no chance when in fact it may not work that way. We do not know. Even for a top school I question that. Look at the range for Yale. They were the only ones smart enough to publish the range. I think maybe we might need
the median too :).
I did not assume Schmit thinks the system is perfect, but that he thinks he fits into the near perfect category and wants the system to work that way. Schmit's postings are trying to attribute more to the test than there really is and worst of all sounds like he is still trying to sell himself as if an admissions committee member was reading his postings. I can assure you, an admissions committee member at a top school wouldn't waste their time reading this.
Schmit says: "Top students with less-than-preferred GRE scores that truly could not have done better on the test with a reasonable amount of additional preparation simply have a somewhat more uphill battle to fight, but no one is guaranteed admission, and we are all participating in this same battle. Everyone who truly deserves admission and is willing to work hard for it has a decent shot of making it happen. Let's try to avoid villainizing the admissions committees and belittling the standardized tests and use this forum for more constructive purposes, like helping people deal with this imperfect admissions system and improve their chances, or if anything, make"
The original poster huckleberry assumed he/she had no chance at any graduate school. To say, let's not discuss what this all means and merely return to working the system doesn't help this individual at all. The discussion was an interpretation of low scores and the system at large, not getting back to the same thing, working the system to the point of "I did everything they asked of me."
This is more of Schmit making up what is uphill and what isn't. I'm against the philosophy of trying to convince the lower score people they aren't worthy of applying to a top school, when in fact it may not count as much as you think. Go prove it.
Schmit says: "These people are simply those that are willing to go to any length to satisfy the somewhat unreasonable and haphazard tribulations that the top schools require to gain admission while they excel in their undergraduate studies."
No, the test does not prove that either and implies the people who did not do well did not do what it takes. I disagree for reasons already stated.

So, in short, I think Schmit is full of Schmit. :) (Sorry, that just sounded funny to me.)

I hope Huckelberry applied wherever he/she wants.

Posted: Mon Jan 15, 2007 9:58 pm
by schmit.paul
I'm surprised no one has posted a big, capitalized "SHUT UP" yet. Honestly, I think this debate has gotten WAY too acerbic given the general spirit of this forum, but you know what? Everyone likes to debate, and I'm no different, so indulge me and allow me to write up as concise a response as I can.

First of all, I don't know how many times I have to AGREE with you to get you to believe that I understand and support the bulk of your arguments! Yes, I agree that the Physics GRE doesn't test one's true creative potential as a physicist, but rather drills on process- and protocol-driven problem solving. I don't think I ever attributed any more meaning to it than that, other than suggesting that one's success on it can be interpretted by admissions committees at particularly choosy schools that you actually care about and are willing to work hard to satisfy the lofty requirements they often impose during the selection process, no matter what merit (or lack thereof) you attribute to those criteria. This sentiment has been confirmed to me by more than one professor on more than one occasion--these schools want to know that you're willing to do what it takes to get through their doors.

I was attempting to give my argument from the point of view of the schools, and not from the point of view of the students that were overlooked by the current process (call it the "pragmatic POV", or the "heartless POV", or whatever), because most likely the only way the system will ever change will be if and when the schools realize they are not maximizing the quality of their incoming student body due to faulty admissions criteria or procedures. More specifically, and in a more human respect, the only way the GRE will ever be revoked is if it is ever proved that it puts a sizeable demographic at a clear, undeniable, and unfair disadvantage. They don't care if they're overlooking some qualified applicants and are getting other qualified applicants's going to be that way no matter what the criteria, because there are only so many spots available. And I always tried to phrase my argument with respect to the general admissions "system," whereas your beef seems to be entirely focused on the GRE. So a lot of your responses to me are derived from misinterpretations of my original message (the "rough classification system" comment, for instance, was not regarding the GRE filters, but rather it was about the entire amalgam of GPA, GRE, research, and letters of rec data).

You said "If you think that everything is fine the way it is then why are they more interested in domestic applications right now and what happened to the diversity agenda? And really, aren't the top schools admissions heavy with people from elitist colleges than from state schools?." You also said "I did not assume Schmit thinks the system is perfect, but that he thinks he fits into the near perfect category and wants the system to work that way." I agree, many schools could be very interested in domestic applicants, but is that really a surprise? Can you blame our national institutions for being a little nationalistic? We, as a nation, are trying to maintain our scientific supremacy on the international stage, and neglecting to educate the most bright and hopeful of our own citizens is certainly no way to achieve that end. And as far as the elitist comment goes, I'll agree, because the data is there--lots of students from elite schools get into elite graduate programs, though many certainly do not. I really think personal validation is unnecessary, but then again, you brought it up in the first place, so here's my attempt. I am not portraying myself to be a "chosen one". I am from a state school, not even top 50 in physics, and you bet your ass I'm concerned about not being taken seriously by an admissions committee when they're holding up my application next to someone else's from MIT. You say "This is more of Schmit making up what is uphill and what isn't," but I've been dreadfully convinced for more than two years now that I am one of those people fighting the uphill battle against those who may have some sort of advantage (whether they truly deserve it or not). The GRE was no more than a trial that in my mind equalized the vast majority of the candidates to some point, gave us all some common connection, and I prepared for it, did it, and it's done and overwith. No extra meaning, no standing on a pedestal and belittling others. Just one more potential obstacle out of the way. I recently visited my old high school and spoke to 5 physics classes about considering physics as a career and as a college focus. In every class, I encouraged students to take advantage of our state school programs and not to believe that they will have meaningless careers in science if they don't go to MIT or Caltech...and I meant it. However, I said all that with a caveat: if you choose not to go to an elite school as an undergrad and would like to move up to an elite school later, you must be proactive and assertive as an undergraduate, and you must take full advantage of every academic and research opportunity your school provides (and even if you go to an elite school, you must still make a strong effort to be noticed). And with that comes the belief that if you wholeheartedly want eventually to go to an elite graduate program, you better as hell be willing to do everything in your power to satisfy their lofty requirements and get noticed. If you falter somewhere along the way but you truly are a worthy, capable scientist, then as long as you don't resign you will find many great graduate programs that will welcome you with open arms and propel you into a great career, and you can still do your best to gain the favor of the elites (more on that below).

And as far as "nuk[ing] people with adversities," once again you are misinterpretting my message. Personally, for nearly two years of my undergrad I worked 35 hours a week as a personal trainer (working on commission with no base THAT is a stressful scenario) while maintaining a full academic load, and for a while I had to combine the training with my (low-paying) research job to get by. The stress nearly killed me, and by the end of one of my fall semesters I was diagnosed with a chronic medical condition that will have to be treated for the rest of my life. The stress set it off, and it hit me like a brick wall. Am I trying to make you feel sorry for me and ease off with your mudslinging? No, but I will say this: I don't expect Harvard, or Stanford, or any other program for which I have an application filed to give me any advantage over another qualified student who might not have gone through as much on a personal level, and that is because I believe that my own personal struggles say nothing about my ability to be a better researcher than the other candidate. I want to be evaluated for everything I did that directly relates to my capability as a physics student and researcher and to my commitment to do everything I believed I needed to do to get into the schools I wanted to attend.

To try to conclude, as I see this message is beginning to look like another novel, let me say this. Braindrain, I also wish you well in the graduate admissions process, I really respect everyone who sees the value in pursuing physics, because I've got friends that are being scared away from it toward the financial sector, and I will say over and over again that the world desperately needs more scientists, much moreso than it needs more bankers and stockbrokers. I hope we can come to some agreement, because I don't like to be villainized or made to look like a heartless ego-freak, and I also don't want to offend anybody by presenting a neutral, logical stance from a point of view that is not personally involved. I agree with your arguments (and many of the shortcomings regarding the admissions process you point out have been concerns of mine for a long time), and the ONLY reason I joined this discussion in the beginning was to try to tease out the reasons why universities have adopted this system and haven't changed it substantially in quite some time. Your criticisms are sound, but your overall stance has just a few too many glimmers of socialism to be compatible with our modern post-baccaleaureate educational system. The truth of the matter is that the schools that *might* employ a GRE filter (you'll never get a school to admit they use one on the record, though some profs with unusually high amounts of gravitas may unofficially tell you they do, I know I've talked to at least one who has made the confession) are not unhappy with the quality of students they are getting using their current system. And the vast majority of graduate schools aren't even relevant to this discussion...mine, for one, hardly gives the physics gre any weight at all, though I know at least one professor who strongly disagrees with that approach. And the handful of elite schools are going to do whatever they can to make the admissions process as fluid, but as consistently reliable, as possible, because these people don't have all the time in the world to make their decisions. They could just as well enact a high jump criteria as yet another filter (ironic, since that sort of what the GRE felt like), and I would still venture to guess that after taking all of their other criteria into consideration (GPA, letters of rec, research history), they would still wind up with a solid incoming graduate class...and if they didn't, they'd ditch that requirement (which they haven't done with the GRE). It would be great to get rid of the GRE, but one could imagine a sound argument against using GPAs ("just because I didn't get good grades doesn't mean I'm not a brilliant student," or "I'm not a good test-taker and so I didn't get the grades I deserved"), or research experience ("just because I didn't demonstrate my potential to do good research as an undergrad doesn't mean I couldn't do it well as a grad student," or "my school doesn't do research and nobody told me about REU's"), or letters of rec ("every letter of rec is flowerly and flattering, so how could anyone discriminate the true quality of the applicants based on a bunch of overly complimentary letters?", or "aren't those that have letters written by famous intellectuals gaining admissions preference?"). All valid points, but what is your better, yet realistic system? These are the rough diagnostic tools that have managed to get grad schools high quality incoming classes in the past, and until the process doesn't work anymore, this is what we as aspiring grad students have to work around. Any other set of admissions criteria is invariably going to deprive some capable people of admissions and award other people successful admissions.

My advice for huckleberry? (because my posts were never intended to belittle him/her, but rather to illuminate the truth of the situation and suggest that whether huckleberry applies to Harvard or not, they will still get a talented group of students when the admissions process is said and insensitivity intended) Go the extra mile for what you really want. If your scores aren't great, then don't sulk and criticize yourself--do what you need to do to prove to these schools that you are the real deal! One more story, since this is highly relevant: my good friend, also a physics major, felt that he screwed up the Physics GRE to the point where he had almost no shot at a "good school". What did he do? After getting over the initial self-doubt and disappointment he grabbed the bull by the horns and started contacting professors at the schools he really wanted to attend. He recently flew out to Brown University (of course not at this point having been accepted), and he scheduled meetings with professors he really wanted to work with. As it turns out, he impressed one of the profs after a single discussion and now has a sponsor who will get him into the physics program, and the GRE never ONCE came up in their discussion. If you can't, or simply didn't manage to, follow the mainstream path to get into a certain school (and even those that do are not guaranteed success, as many more than the number of slots they have open will satisfy the bulk of these admissions criteria), then find some way to get noticed, and be confident that you are exactly what that institution needs. I don't know how I could be more supportive (and realistic). And I don't think we're doing anyone a disservice by telling them to take extra measures to get through the admissions process successfully if they are concerned they won't be successful. After all, if the GRE is one way of measuring dedication in one set of candidates, and you don't happen to be part of that set, then there are other ways to show these schools that you are a dedicated, hard-working, and serious student.

How do these responses keep getting so long?

Posted: Tue Jan 16, 2007 12:01 am
by JackSkellington
Hows this:


No offense, but dont you guys have ne thing better to do??? I'm just happy that the whole application process is out of my hands and I can enjoy the rest of college. Please, go have some fun, go to a party or hang out w/ some friends before college is over, for my sake....

Posted: Tue Jan 16, 2007 12:17 am
by schmit.paul
thanks man, i needed that. believe me, i had one of my most unproductive winters I can remember, and it was glorious, and yeah, I do have better stuff to do, but it's hard to walk away from heated arguments. Got the last fellowship app out a few days ago, so now it's time to sit, wait, and try to savor this last semester more than I've been able to do in previous semesters.

Posted: Tue Jan 16, 2007 12:20 am
by JackSkellington
Yeh, i know how that goes. I'd better get off the forum myself and do something- Good luck w/ everything!

Posted: Tue Jan 16, 2007 12:56 am
by icarus137
I keep hearing everyone say "top school". I really thing that people put too much importance in it. I have to say that the most important thing in your graduate career will be your ability to do research. Your career isnt over if you get into number 42 as opposed to number 10 on the NRC rankings.

My undergraduate institution was ranked 52 on the NRC rankings. The graduate school I went to was ranked 15. Since I took a number of graduate courses at my undergraduate and did research there, I can honestly say that the overall experience at the 52 ranked school looked a lot better than the 15. I would rather goto a lower ranking school where I get to work closely with an advisor and have papers published than to a higher ranking school where I was a number and the faculty is more concerned with theirself than their students.

If you do not get a PhD in physics, you are not destined to become a fry cook. If you do not get accepted, you can reapply and try to get your masters. Master programs usually accept for spring admissions in addition to the fall. Consider that there are so many people going to college today that universities just do not have the room. So, many students goto a junior (or community) college first. You can teach physics at a community college with a Masters degree. Heck a lot of the people who do get PhDs do not stay in academia. They go off into the private sector where their problem solving skills are put to practical uses.

In any case, you shouldnt let the outcome of a single standardized test shape the future that you want to have. If you do not get into MIT, Harvard, Columbia, etc..., make them regret the decision by doing outstanding work at the school you get into.

Posted: Tue Jan 16, 2007 11:54 pm
by braindrain
A post 'SHUT UP' reply to Sir Schmit: :)

Schmit says: Can you blame our national institutions for being a little nationalistic? We, as a nation, are trying to maintain our scientific supremacy on the international stage, and neglecting to educate the most bright and hopeful of our own citizens is certainly no way to achieve that end.
Yes, BUT the foreign scientists helped to make us great. If we didn't have them in our graduate schools, departments would start to shut down for not having enough students. I agree we should grow our own talent too. I'm not sure US maintaining "scientific supremacy" as you are calling it is the reason for the desire for domestic applicants. It may be strictly due to security reasons, i.e. that we cannot promote foreign scientists high up in defense related research or something like that. Regarding the "supremacy" comment itself people may take issue with that. Certain countries like the former Soviet Union are better theoretically as the computer industry isn't housed there. Other countries like Japan are wonderful in technology and perfecting lots of engineering and high tech stuff. BUT, we did have Diana Ross and the Supremes :) so we had that kind of supremacy. The other way the foreign scientists made us great is they provided (like how market principles apply) competition to make everyone work harder.

The other point I take issue with is calling me a socialist. You said "glimmers of socialism" in my ideas. I can assure you, I am very much a capitalist :). I just want equal opportunity for everyone (so that they can be capitalists too :) ) so that nothing is out of reach based on bias or disadvantage. Is there really anything so wrong with that?

The real political issue here in this 'argument' and I say this stricty for the entertainment of the foreign students, is that there are red states and there are blue states. It is no accident that the "top" schools are mostly if not all in the blue states. And this argument is a result of a red state person trying to dictate policy for a blue state school. A red state person would only apply homogeneity, conservatism, maintaining the status quo as if there never is anything wrong, encouragement not even to ask the questions, rule following, and a complete lack of understanding about adversity and diversity and the foreign relationship. In the red state world, everything is fine and uniform and the rich get richer. But, the blue state world has more freedom and liberalness, more striving and struggle to overcome and to reach for something, and the relaxation of rules which by the way creates world-class research. Give brainy people money and freedom and get out of the way. And that is my retaliation for calling me a socialist!! I'm calling my opposition in this argument something worse, I'm calling him a republican! :)

So with that I officially end this argument.

Posted: Wed Jan 17, 2007 12:12 am
by somebody
I'm not sure I'm following your argument, but I don't think US taxpayers (democrat or republican) are really interested their tax dollars supporting foreign graduate students that will be educated in the US and then return to their home countries. There are more important things for that money to be spent on (just visit some of the public schools in NYC, Philly, Baltimore, DC, etc...) In this sense the US government should be funding US students much more than foreign students. As a US taxpayer this is my stance (no offense foreign physics guys) and I would estimate 95% of my fellow American taxpayers would have the same opinion.

Posted: Wed Jan 17, 2007 12:13 am
by tnoviell
There's nothing wrong with being a socialist. Don't believe what your history books tell you.

Posted: Wed Jan 17, 2007 12:57 am
by rjharris
right, believe neither history books, nor unemployment figures from the counties in the E.U. versus the United States

Posted: Wed Jan 17, 2007 1:11 am
by CPT

... I mean seriously! :roll:

Posted: Wed Jan 17, 2007 1:21 am
by rjharris
: continues thread jack :

I do wonder, on a serious note, the distribution of political ideologies on this website / in physics generally. I've heard it said that math/science people are in general more conservative than their counterparts in the humanities (except, possibly, economics), but that doesn't really say much since the people one hears about generally in the humanities are whackos that get press and make most academics look bad. any thoughts? maybe post to a different thread to reduce thread-jacking?

: ends thread jack: