Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

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Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby tsymmetry » Thu Feb 20, 2014 7:00 pm

Now that the 2014 admissions cycle is coming to a close, I thought it might be helpful for future applicants to share some observations I have made from my experience as well as the experiences of several of my friends.

The absolute importance of the PGRE seems to vary widely from school to school as well as circumstantially. There are some schools (MIT, Princeton, and possibly Stanford) where you need to get a very high score to be a competitive applicant regardless of the rest of your application. However, there are several top twenty and even top ten schools (most notably Michigan, Harvard, Penn, Chicago) that will overlook a poor PGRE score if the rest of your application is great, especially if you have outstanding letters of recommendation and research experience.

You should definitely take the PGRE very seriously, however it is not the end of the world if you don't do quite as well as you would like. It is very bad I believe if you do very poorly (probably below 700), but if you get above this I think you can compensate with other strengths for many top schools. Eat breakfast and read the questions carefully!!!

I also think the PGRE is more important if you come from a school that is not well known as it gives them a means to compare you with other applicants. I think coming from a well known school gives you the advantage that the committees have probably have seen several other applicants from your school. It also makes it very easy to get well known recommenders and funding/opportunities for research. However, I think if you come from a less well known school you can make up for this by spending a summer doing an REU and getting a recommendation from someone there. I also think that there are some REUs which are specifically looking to find potential grad students, so if you do really good work there you are basically in for graduate school.

Grades seem pretty important, but again I think grad school admissions seems to be pretty forgiving as long as you have an upward trend and have challenged yourself. Your recommenders can probably attest to this. Taking grad courses may also help, but I am not sure how much.

It seems that the most important part of the application are letters and research experience. This is where you can stand out as a really great applicant. If you have been recognized as an outstanding researcher as an undergrad, that shows that you have the potential to do great work in grad school as research is much different from taking courses. It's very good to have done research in a group for a while, especially during the year. I would recommend doing this and maybe do an REU the summer after junior year so you can get stuff done at your home institution but also have an experience somewhere else.

I think publications help although you are not disadvantaged if you don't have any. It seems publications are extremely impressive if you are first or second author as in that case there is no doubt then that you contributed significantly.

Don't bother studying for the general GRE. Any time you would waste studying for the general GRE should be used to study for the PGRE. Unless you don't do fairly well on the quantitative section (Like probably above 165 which shouldn't be a problem at all) or do extremely poorly on the other sections (as to raise doubts about basic reading comprehension), no one cares about it AT ALL. At my REU this summer they showed as a graph which revealed that there is pretty much no correlation between acceptance rates and the general GRE.
Last edited by tsymmetry on Fri Feb 21, 2014 2:35 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby Arbitrary » Thu Feb 20, 2014 7:10 pm

Well thought out, and very interesting indeed.
However, if I may add, the school you come from seems to be an important factor. Coming from a well known institution is is highly correlated with acceptance to top schools. I am not sure if this is because the faculties are well connected, or simply due to the committees' lack of knowledge about less famous schools.

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Re: Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby photomagnetic » Thu Feb 20, 2014 7:23 pm

from what i have seen
-visiting the department works like a charm.
-mentioning the prof's name you want to work with in your SoP works like a charm.
-they dont really read all those things we send.
-honestly i have no idea how they do stack the deck
-heck i think some lower ranked schools even do not check the papers you had published nor fellowships you had earned....
-pgre is just overrated. you gotta show them that you will be able to endure the phd=permanend head damage.
-undergrad papers, they dont give a crap. they know a prof must have helped you.
-if you are an international try to pick a school that they had accepted one from your country in previous years. otherwise they dont know how to evaluate your application. (happened to me, silly me)
-they are slow as ***, i mean they are worse than snails. at this point i know i got accepted at least 3 schools (unofficial) yet no official mail. takes tones of time.
-most of the schools picks an admission day, and evaluate 1-2 maybe 3 applications, no more.

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Re: Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby r4ve » Fri Feb 21, 2014 1:22 am

like literally any social situation involving applying for something and being admitted, connections and networking is so important. i used to think one way going to grad school is different from getting a job in finance, etc., is that academic success is highly valued over networking.. however, ive come to understand the reality of this world we live in, and you can't discount connections and networking.

go to a good school, work with renowned professors that have widespread connections, get an amazing rec letter, and youre good to go. of course, granted that you fulfill some standard in academics (high gpa, good gre scores, etc. but i feel like almost everyone who applies for physics phds have that under control).

the thing i learned about the pgre is (after taking it twice), the score is definitely not an insignificant factor in applying. especially if youre going for the top tier programs, pgre is definitely very important, and as someone stated earlier, i would deifnitely recommend using the time to study for pgre that youd use for gre.

but in the end, i think the most important thing i observed from this years admissions cycle over the last (i applied last year also, but failed miserably) is the importance of how well your research interests/previous experiences will match the school/professor youre applying to. i learned the hard way that you cant just randomly decide to switch to another track within physics if all your research experiences and abilities come from a different track.

so my advice to future applicants would be to get three things down (again, i assume that people who apply generally have high gpas and other academic achievements): networking/connections, pgre, and applying to the correct research interest/professor program. in the end, the profs are paying you to do research, and theyre not about to splurge their fundings on some rando.

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Re: Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby TomServo » Fri Feb 21, 2014 3:11 am

Take this for what it's worth: two of the schools I applied to had previously not required the PGRE, but had just started requiring it for the incoming class of which I (hypothetically) am a member of. These were schools that are mid-lower ranked for physics and are actively trying to bolster their profile with glitzy new professors, research groups, amenities, etc.

Don't expect the PGRE to go away unless the top tier programs stop using it entirely. Subject GREs *can* disappear if they're disliked enough. Look at the CS GRE.

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Re: Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby Monkerest » Fri Feb 21, 2014 3:31 pm

What ive learned (as a white domestic dude with about a 3.5 gpa and less than 700 pgre) is that you can still get into top 30 schools with baller letters of recommendation and substantial research experience. I think it is particularly helpful if at least one stellar rec is from a research mentor. I think top 10 requires either better gpa or better pgre. In my experience, the sort of research you've done is unimportant.

Finally I think unless you have an avenue to develop a meaningful personal relationship (ie work with the person) networking is not as important as many people think. The most important question you can ask a professor is simply whether or not they anticipate having opportunities for new students. Asking this question saved me twice.

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Re: Observations from the 2014 admissions cycle

Postby XC423 » Sat Feb 22, 2014 12:01 am

Arbitrary wrote:Well thought out, and very interesting indeed.
However, if I may add, the school you come from seems to be an important factor. Coming from a well known institution is is highly correlated with acceptance to top schools. I am not sure if this is because the faculties are well connected, or simply due to the committees' lack of knowledge about less famous schools.

Yes I think that this is a very overlooked aspect of the application. Last year when I applied for PhD's, I was an applicant from a completely unknown liberal arts college and was rejected from everywhere, but miraculously was accepted to Cambridge for a Master's program. This year, I was accepted to pretty much every PhD program I applied to. I think that the school at which you studied matters a TON. PhD programs accept applicants that they think are 'safe bets,' meaning people that will be good researchers and will complete the program.

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