Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

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physicsJay
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Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby physicsJay » Tue Mar 11, 2014 6:13 pm

Having been a frequent browser of PhysicsGRE.com for a while now, and having survived a tumultuous admissions season, I would like to share my thoughts on the physics PhD admissions process. Going into my senior year, I had a very strong application. I was told by numerous faculty that I would have my choice of any graduate program I would like; however, for reasons out of my control, the physics GRE did not go so well for me. As a particle theory applicant, I was told that I needed to have at least a 900 to have a decent shot at any of the top 10 schools; I received a 780. I explained my situation in my application, and had a recommender write a brief note concerning the GRE score, but, in retrospect, I believe that my attempts to explain my score had little impact on my application. I should have either a) not mentioned it and let the rest of my application speak for itself, or b) had all my recommenders make a point of it to strengthen my case. I am unsure of which route would have been better to take. I applied to nine programs and was admitted to one, albeit one of my top choices from the very beginning, and, in fact, a top 5 school.

The physics GRE definitely matters. I think a high physics GRE score, combined with a high GPA (>3.70) is good enough reason for the admissions committee to not doubt the rest of your application. I do not, however, think a low score calls for automatic dismissal of your application. Here, by low score, I mean a low score that is still within an acceptable range of scores for the program to which you are applying. I do think that a low score (or GPA) does cause the admissions committee to nitpick your application moreso than they would if your score was higher. In my case, I could see some holes in my application. My personal statement might have been a tad too specific with regards to my interests, and one of my three letters was from a faculty member with whom I did not do research (nor take a graduate course from). Moreover, I did not have any publications, which may have been a concern given the amount of research I had done over the past four years.

Nonetheless, while a bad score may keep you out of a number of programs due to nitpicking, it is not the end of the world. If your application is strong and competitive otherwise, there is no reason to be turned off from applying to top programs.

Thoughts?

TakeruK
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby TakeruK » Wed Mar 12, 2014 12:32 pm

Your description is consistent with my own experience and that of my friends and others I've seen on this forum :) It's also consistent with conversations with professors about admitting students in general!

Sorry to hear that your PGRE did not go so well (me neither--I scored 640 and 690 on two attempts) and I am glad you did get into one of your top choices in the end. I also was able to get into a few of my top choices with my low score, but I applied to programs that are not purely physics (Astronomy and Planetary Sciences). So the importance of PGRE is definitely correlated to the field you are applying to, I think. You said you applied to HEP theory, and I think theory programs in general (but especially HEP Theory) consider the PGRE to be pretty important!

I think your comment that having a low PGRE or GPA will make the committee nitpick your application more is probably true. But I am an optimist and I would think that this "nitpicking" is really to look for other redeeming qualities that might offset the poor PGRE or GPA. I think that ultimately, admission committees are looking to "accept" people not "reject" people, and I think they approach the process with the mindset of "finding the best people", not "let's weed out the bad people". But maybe I'm just naive :)

Mmm_Pasta
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby Mmm_Pasta » Wed Mar 12, 2014 6:23 pm

I was happy with my physics GRE. I feel my lack of research experience as well as somewhat broad interests in my statement of purpose hurt me. I applied for quantum optics type of stuff at nearly every school I applied to, but I didn't make a mention of specific faculty. Also, I feel I should have transferred to a different university. For current and prospective undergraduates: do pick your school wisely. If you are able to go to a stronger university in physics within reasonable means, do so.

Monkerest
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby Monkerest » Wed Mar 12, 2014 7:59 pm

I sort of have to disagree with the last post, or I would qualify it by saying that it it may depend on the tier you're going for. I went to a no-name school in physics but fared well in large part (I believe) because my school was very small and the faculty knew me very well, so my letters of recommendation reflected strong personal relationships.

I think the PGRE helps to normalize the disparity in quality of schools. Someone who does awesome on the PGRE and has good grades is obviously a good candidate even if they didn't come from Caltech. I would argue that so long as your PGRE and grades are good, things like letters of recommendation and research experience would matter MUCH more than your school's reputation in physics. Of course, you might have advantages insofar as research opportunities if you're at a school that is strong in physics and doing a lot of research, but based on my personal experience, there are other ways (even aside from REUs) to come by solid research experience.

Also, I would certainly concede that between two otherwise identical candidates, someone from Caltech might have a better shot than someone from a lesser known school.

bfollinprm
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby bfollinprm » Thu Mar 13, 2014 2:07 am

Monkerest wrote:I sort of have to disagree with the last post, or I would qualify it by saying that it it may depend on the tier you're going for. I went to a no-name school in physics but fared well in large part (I believe) because my school was very small and the faculty knew me very well, so my letters of recommendation reflected strong personal relationships.


This is probably what you're getting at, but to make it more explicit: the top students at the top schools are assumed best equipped to go to grad school. That said, the students in the pack at places like MIT, CalTech, etc. have real trouble marketing themselves, since their professors don't find time for them over the dozens of other intelligent students they're competing with.

At a small school, you're almost always one of a few physics majors in your year, which means you almost always have the opportunity to work closely with a(t least one) professor on a meaningful project, if you take the initiative. Put another way, at large schools you have to be either otherworldly or both driven and somewhat lucky to get noticed; at a smaller school it's enough to be driven. Nothing is more damning for a top 10-20 application than a lukewarm letter of recommendation, or a recommendation that says, "I don't really know this student at all." Such a situation is much easier to avoid at a small school; though you won't get those door-breaking letters from luminaries unless you go somewhere famous, you will find yourself easily obtaining 3 solid letters from professors who have a real, personal history with you.

TakeruK
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby TakeruK » Thu Mar 13, 2014 2:15 am

I really agree with what bfollinprm said.

However, some programs at schools like MIT and Caltech are pretty small and I know people who did undergrads there and have close/good relationships with their advisors!

Also, it's definitely true that the "top student(s) at state schools" might do better than "average student at MIT/Caltech" in admissions for the reasons bfollinprm. I am a graduate program in a school like MIT/Caltech and the incoming students are a good mix of top tier schools as well as state schools. We accept tens of students per year and while we might get like 5 or 6 of them from the same top tier school, it's pretty rare to see more than one person from the same state school. I think this supports what bfollinprm stated above!

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby WhoaNonstop » Thu Mar 13, 2014 8:37 am

If you want to go to a top 20 for graduate school, your best chances are to go to at least a fairly well known undergraduate. Your research, PGRE, and GPA can only get you so far. When I was on one of my school visits I was actually told that I almost did not get accepted even though I had great credentials because I had come from an unknown university. 3.9, 890 PGRE, decent research, no papers, but no name school.

Back to the main topic here though about the PGRE:

I understand why some schools do not look at lower PGRE scores or cut off applications at a certain level. I'm sure for the most part if in the past they traditionally accept students 900+, they may cut off scores at 750+ and only look at those. Why? It's "possible" that someone under 750 may have a lot of research under their belt and a perfect GPA, but the fact of the matter is there are probably quite a few of these candidates with a 900+ score as well.

Personally I think you hurt your chances when you try to explain why you did poorly on the PGRE. Sorry to have to say it, but the biggest reason someone doesn't do well on the PGRE is because of their own preparation for it and nothing else.

-Riley

tsymmetry
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby tsymmetry » Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:35 am

Regarding top ten schools, I think most will overlook a lower PGRE if you are otherwise an outstanding applicant. However, I think a few schools, most notably MIT and Princeton, have unofficial cutoffs at around 800. Even though my PGRE was mediocre at 760, I was still able to get into five top ten schools (Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, Illinois, Stanford) probably because of my outstanding research experience and letters (I had a first author PRL and am working on another first author paper and a third author paper). I was even able to get very prestigious fellowships at Harvard and Chicago despite my PGRE

However, I did come from an Ivy league school and had outstanding recommendations from four very well known professors, one whom I had take a two semester graduate course from. It probably did help to have a lot of graduate coursework from a top physics school. I am also female, however looking at the low percentages of women at top schools and considering that women are most likely stronger applicants on average (only the top female students usually stay in physics from what I have observed), I really don't think gender matters much.

Mmm_Pasta
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby Mmm_Pasta » Thu Mar 13, 2014 1:14 pm

Monkerest wrote:I sort of have to disagree with the last post...


I guess I should have mentioned that my school has almost no physics research going on. The research opportunities is what I meant by "stronger" - I should have been clearer. :P

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midwestphysics
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby midwestphysics » Thu Mar 13, 2014 5:12 pm

The "nitpicking" isn't probably as extensive as people might think at least at top programs. It's like applying to a job, especially at places that get hundreds of applications. I don't care how large your committee is these people don't have the time to look meticulously through every application from #1 to say #150, which is why they set minimum standards. They'll do a very general overview of your application, and do a preliminary ranking. Those with stronger profiles numbers and less red flags will rank higher in that initial review. So now they're down to maybe 50 applications, which means a 100 or so never got to a point they would even nitpick. So your profile needs to be strong regardless, after this a 4.0 verses 3.7 or perfect GRE vs. near perfect probably won't be the make or break aspect. Letters, Research & publications, personal ties to advisers, and interviews will be the factors to look at. I think the thing to take away from this site, and from us who have spent enough time in our grad programs and with our professors and departments, is that all aspects are important however they're not equal at the same stages of the process. Also, that there is no general standard, different schools will do things very differently.

tsymmetry
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby tsymmetry » Mon Mar 17, 2014 8:50 am

I heard another interesting at UChicago that I would like to add. Apparently the head of admissions said they plotted the GRE scores in respect to the rankings professors gave you based on their reading of your application (they give you an overall letter grade). They saw almost no correlation between the grade they gave and PGRE scores and in some score ranges they even saw a slightly negative correlation. I think this has to do with many of the issues I had with the test. I wanted to work out all of the problems completely so I could be satisfied with my answers. This is not the right thing to do with the PGRE since you would need to work too fast to do this and have a high risk making careless errors (I believe this is what happened to me because I got the same score on a practice test a week earlier and would have easily gotten somewhere in the 900s if I hadn't made so many careless errors and misread questions). The best way to take the test is to memorize and make smart guesses, which is not how you do physics. While some of this is potentially related to having a knowledge of the subject (I do think you should at least a 700 if you have a strong foundation), at the higher end of the test I think this prevents making an accurate measure of one's ability.

Arbitrary
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Re: Reflections on Physics GRE in the Admissions Process

Postby Arbitrary » Mon Mar 17, 2014 9:25 am

tsymmetry wrote:I heard another interesting at UChicago that I would like to add. Apparently the head of admissions said they plotted the GRE scores in respect to the rankings professors gave you based on their reading of your application (they give you an overall letter grade). They saw almost no correlation between the grade they gave and PGRE scores and in some score ranges they even saw a slightly negative correlation.


This is rather reasonable, and probably holds for many schools asides from UChicago. My research on acceptance rates of international students to top schools raises the possibility that PGRE scores (above a certain school dependent threshold) are uncorrelated to acceptance probability.




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