significance of school

  • 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.
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maxwell200
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significance of school

Postby maxwell200 » Tue Nov 06, 2007 5:08 am

I know I've posted numerous times here already, but couldn't even help but wonder how grad schools dtermine your competitveness relative to kids of different schools. What I mean is, I've looked at grad schools like Caltech or Harvard or even Priceton in various sciences, and there are students there who got their BS in places like Iowa State, Swarthmore, Boise State, Univeristy of North Carolina, NC state and other noncompetive schools, or even tiny liberal arts programs no one's ever heard of before in their lives.

How would schools like this necessarily consider students like this to be ideal even if their gpa was a perfect 4.0? After all, a perfect 4.0 gpa at schools like these could easily be the equivalent of a 3.5-3.7 range at a school known for tougher physics classes. (I actually go to Ohio State, which is known for at least in some classes like quantum mechanics being very tough, hence the comaprision). I suppose the general gre and physics gre, flawed as they are, serve as one comparision factor between schools, but what about other possible factors? Does it ultimately just boil down to how good of a reccomendation you can get from your research and how strong your connections are to faculty from these grad schools?

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will
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Postby will » Tue Nov 06, 2007 10:36 am

Does it ultimately just boil down to how good of a reccomendation you can get from your research and how strong your connections are to faculty from these grad schools?


Yes.

Really, undergrad physics isn't any harder (or easier) at Princeton than it is at Boise State. Of course you'll probably have more knowledgeable professors at the former, and maybe a few cool classes that a big state school won't offer, but graduate school is a job application; everyone knows that GPAs are inconsistent measures of actual knowledge and much like the GRE it's really only used for cutoffs. On the other hand I have a ~3.7 GPA, a not-perfect physics GRE score (my perfect general score means nothing! ;) but my advisor knows people at Harvard who would want to hire me just because of the skills I have from my outside research. Granted that's not a free ticket in, but it's a foot in the door if I decide I want to stay in this topic. If you're going to be applying to top-tier schools you don't have to know all the professors personally, but you do need to know what they all do, who you'd like to work with, and have a damn good reason why their program is the best program for you (being Princeton isn't a good enough reason) and why you are a better addition to their program than all the interchangeable IvyUndergrad/4.0/990 students... To do that is primarily a function of having strong letters of recommendation and knowing what you want out of grad school.

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grae313
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Postby grae313 » Tue Nov 06, 2007 12:15 pm

Don't worry, they know it is much easier to get a 4.0 at a state school than at an ivy league. There is no quantitative way to compare gpa's across schools, but if you have a gpa that is better than 90% of the other students graduating from your class, I think that counts as a 4.0 whether it actually is a 4.0 or it's a 3.5 or whatever. They look at hundreds of these applications every year, I bet they have a pretty good idea of how tough it is to get a certain gpa from which schools, and I imagine they make their decision accordingly. GRE scores are a way to compare students all over the world, so I have a feeling they look even closer at GRE scores for students at noncompetetive schools. I also think research experience counts for a ton for these applicants as well.

I didn't have my act together in high school and wound up in a big state school with no reputation in physics. My 4.0 wasn't that hard to get, but I studied hard for the GREs and I think I did pretty well, I've worked hard doing research for a year and publishing papers, and I've made a great impression on my faculty.

Remember, it's not all a numbers game. The admission board wants to see applications that show a hard-working, motivated person who is dedicated to physics (competetive GPA), who is intelligent and in complete control of basic physics principals (GREs), and who provides strong and convincing evidence that they will be a successful researcher in graduate school (research experience). It is your whole package and how it is presented.

And also who your faculty knows at your prospective school :roll: :wink:

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twistor
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Postby twistor » Wed Nov 07, 2007 12:43 pm

"Don't worry, they know it is much easier to get a 4.0 at a state school than at an ivy league. "

Nothing is farther from the truth. Your statement is tantamount to saying that an "A" at "Big State U." is equivilent to a "B" or "C" at "Ivy League U." In fact, Ivy Leage schools have a history of grade inflation and very low failure rates due not to the fact that they admit superior students (only 10% get in based on academic criteria alone -- so called "selective admissions" lets in the other 90%) but to the fact traditionally they have valued "character" and geneology more than academic prowess.

Everyone here works hard for their grades no matter which university, so you should not diminuate others based on school. I remind you that G.W. went to Yale....

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grae313
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Postby grae313 » Wed Nov 07, 2007 2:50 pm

Well, perhaps I am mistaken about the quality of students at the top undergraduate physics programs. I was saying that a 4.0 at a big state school was probably equivalent to like a 3.5 or so from a really tough physics program. I say that becuase it is easy for me to get straight A's at my big state school. I think if I went to a top 10 undergraduate physics program, I might have to work a little harder for those grades. I wouldn't be getting the highest grade in my class on all the tests all the time. Similarly, take a strong A- student from a world class undergraduate physics program and put them in my school, I imagine they would be an A student with the same amount of work. I don't have to work that hard to be at the top of my class, whereas if I was going to Harvey Mudd or Cal Tech, I think I'd have to bust my ass to get it done. I think the calibre of students at CalTech is better on average than for the students at the state school ranked 300th in the nation. Am I wrong?

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quizivex
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Postby quizivex » Wed Nov 07, 2007 5:19 pm

I think many things all of you are saying are correct, and that's what makes interpreting students' grades so confusing... However, a few disagreements,

I was saying that a 4.0 at a big state school was probably equivalent to like a 3.5 or so from a really tough physics program.


I think the best way to say it is that a 4.0 at a big state school is "ambiguous." There's no telling what the student would get at a more challenging school. While I doubt I'd have a 4.0 at a top undergrad physics program, I think I'd be closer to 4.0 than 3.5. On many occasions at my school, I'd cream all the exams and homework assignments just to see other students with much lower scores get the same A I did. The problem is that grades at a school usually just compare you to your peers, and since many of the students are just so disgracefully bad, getting an A basically only proves that you can add. A high GPA at an Ivy may be more convincing, but probably not to the extent that we'd think... Many of the students there are there because they're brilliant, but they're probably the minority. The rest are there because, as we've seen, they have rich, influential parents or they played corny high school games such as becoming president of 10 clubs, playing 5 varsity sports while pulling off the 3.98 or running community service marathons that brought in $175,000 to relocate the geese displaced when the new football field was built. Top schools are filled with these kinds of people, and most of them would be very unlikely to have strong physics GPAs anywhere.

How would schools like this necessarily consider students like this to be ideal even if their gpa was a perfect 4.0? After all, a perfect 4.0 gpa at schools like these could easily be the equivalent of a 3.5-3.7 range at a school known for tougher physics classes. (I actually go to Ohio State, which is known for at least in some classes like quantum mechanics being very tough, hence the comaprision).


I don't think anyone considers these 4.0 students at random places ideal based on grades alone, they get rejected all the time from grad schools and REU programs. But these students deserve just as much consideration as anyone else. If the 4.0 is all they have to show, then they're probably not so great but again, being at a big state school puts a ceiling on what a student can accomplish. It's like the quantitative section of the general GRE... it's simply useless because any decent student can get the maximum score. It's not to say a student who gets that score couldn't be a genius. Ohio state, to most people, is just as random a place as the other schools you mentioned. If Ohio State has a more stringent grading policy than its peers, then that's something you should have your recommenders include in their letters.


Some of you have said it all boils down to your letters of recommendation and who you know/who your recommenders know...

I can't say that's incorrect since I don't know, but in these instances we should no discredit the physics GRE so much. For everyone who says the physics GRE is an inaccurate measure of our knowledge and skill, even though it tests all of undergraduate physics, combines knowledge questions with tricky problems, and is given to every prospective physics grad student under nearly the same conditions, I'd like to ask how these "other factors," could be more reliable...

Is a student getting some wacky famous old prof to say that he's great, or being lucky enough to get his name on the prof's research, or having high grades from one of 500 programs that has wildly different grading systems really say more than the physics GRE?

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twistor
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Postby twistor » Wed Nov 07, 2007 6:37 pm

grae313:

You can't generalize your own experience into a universal truth. What makes a class hard doesn't even depend on the school or the program, as many professors set their own grading policies.

quizivex:

While it is certainly true that physics students are being tested under the same conditions (this is of course debatable, as conditions vary with testing location) I claim that it is inaccurate because of differences in preparation students receive. For instance, the University of Chicago offers an optional class the sole purpose of which is to teach students how to get perfect scores on the physics GRE. Most schools offer no such classes, and students never worry about the GRE until their junior or senior years.

Finally, as someone else pointed out: geniuses only sometimes succeed, but hard working people usually do. It might be hard for some people here to imagine, but 99.9% of students going into graduate schools will not figure out how to unify gravity with quantum mechanics, etc. Admissions committees know this, and they know that not being Steven Hawking doesn't stop a person from being a productive physicist. Furthermore, I strongly doubt there is a correlation between school attended and salary (at least in physics).

The most important things here are who you know, after all it is your advisor and their contacts that will get you your next position. If you have a shitty advisor at Princeton with no contacts and who you don't get along with your far worse off than being in a research group and Big State U. where you get along with your advisor, they have some good contacts, and you have excellent prospects of getting a job in your field of choice.

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will
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Postby will » Thu Nov 08, 2007 3:23 pm

I can't say that's incorrect since I don't know, but in these instances we should no discredit the physics GRE so much. For everyone who says the physics GRE is an inaccurate measure of our knowledge and skill, even though it tests all of undergraduate physics, combines knowledge questions with tricky problems, and is given to every prospective physics grad student under nearly the same conditions, I'd like to ask how these "other factors," could be more reliable...


In grad school you will be solving things that have been solved before, possibly a hundred years ago, and that's fine. It's very important to know the history and especially the assumptions that are involved in our models of physical phenomena. Also in grad school you will be asked to solve problems that are distinctly non-trivial and that no one else has answered sufficiently, or maybe to come up with a better model, or to see the flaws in one that's widely accepted. When it comes time to do that, your advisor isn't going to give you a list of five answers and 1.7 minutes to try and remember a silly linear relationship from a field completely unrelated to your interests.

Yes, the physics GRE is one of the most important parts of your application, and it's more valid across the board than GPAs, but no one expects a kid with a 700 to be a complete failure, and no one expects all the 990s to be Feynman. It's not that kind of test.

A letter of recommendation from someone who knows you and knows (or even hopefully has in the past collaborated with) the people you want to work with, however, is gold.

If, on the other hand, you want to go to Harvard just because it's Harvard, well, you're playing a game of chance against 100 other people with 4.1 GPAs and 1000 on the physics GRE.[/quote]




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