Looking at past years applicant profiles makes me doubtful of my chances

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Looking at past years applicant profiles makes me doubtful of my chances

Post by whyispiparallax » Fri Jan 18, 2019 3:15 am

So I was browsing past years applicant profiles, specifically looking at ones that have acceptances from top tier programs, and I can't help but notice trends in regards to their undergrad like Top 20, Ivy, UCB, Top Liberal Arts, etc. Of courses all of their applications were excellent by all measures, but I felt many others who didn't get such acceptances were also comparable, but instead got accepted at respectable, but not prestigious, programs.
(I know the forum is not perfectly representative, but I sort of think it is somewhat representative of the most competitive applicants)

I come from a a decent R1 school but it isn't comparable to those schools and I fear its physics reputation may have been tarnished as of late. Given the reality that most research positions are taken by graduates of top schools, I worry that my school will dissuade schools (especially top schools) from accepting me, despite comparable achievements, to student at better universities, perhaps not being helped by me being a prototypical Asian American male. I love going to my school, but I worry about my chances. Apologies for the meandering thoughts, but what is your take?

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Re: Looking at past years applicant profiles makes me doubtful of my chances

Post by scytoo » Fri Jan 18, 2019 9:51 pm

I think it's way less about your institution, and more about what you achieve/do. I've seen a lot of (apparently) great applicants who were rejected from top schools, sometimes rejected across the board, but then again, we don't actually know what their application looked like.

We don't see the actual research that people have done. Some people put down 4 years of research experience, but maybe it was in a totally different area, maybe they didn't contribute that much, and maybe they just couldn't talk about their experience effectively.

We don't see how competitive their sub-field is. I'm pretty wary of any results that are not specifically for astrophysics because e.g. HEP-Th is going to be an entirely different beast to get into. And even in astrophysics, it'll matter what specialisation you're going for, what specialisations each program has, and whether you even have that kind of direction yet.

We don't see their SOPs. Maybe their SOP was a really boring rehash of their CV. Maybe it was far too informal, like an undergrad application essay. Maybe it had spelling mistakes, or wasn't personalised to the program, or had a cringey introduction about their love of science prior to age 18.

We don't read their LORs. Maybe their letters were bland, contradictory, or fell under the "Did Well in Class" type.

I think that if you've had a clear direction for a while, and you're good at writing and speaking, you'd probably do pretty well in admissions.

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Re: Looking at past years applicant profiles makes me doubtful of my chances

Post by lob_124 » Wed Feb 06, 2019 12:10 pm

I recently got into a top ~5 school for physics (Caltech), coming from a large R1 school that typically ranks about ~50th in physics.

You definitely do not have to come from an elite institution to get into an elite institution, though it helps - mostly because your letter writers will probably be pretty well known. If you have strong research experience, strong letters from those experiences from known professors (not necessarily world-famous, but if you searched their name you could find a long list of pubs), then these will easily overcome not coming from an Ivy for undergrad.

The point is, you can get into an elite program without going to an elite undergrad (and in my case, I got in for theory, without a publication yet!). If you're applying for experiment, you even have a bit more leeway with regards to GPA & test scores.

So don't rule out applying to elite schools just because your undergrad isn't elite - if the rest of your application is elite, the school doesn't really matter (unless it' a complete no-name, but that's not the case for you).

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