Rejected everywhere. Best ways to strengthen my apps for next year?

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Posts: 15
Joined: Wed May 23, 2018 9:56 pm

Rejected everywhere. Best ways to strengthen my apps for next year?

Post by hopefulastro » Sun Apr 14, 2019 6:34 pm

Unfortunately, I applied to 10 PhD programs (mainly UCs, for theoretical astrophysics) this fall and was rejected everywhere. Looking back, I'm not very surprised because I feel my profile was very average -- and of course you have to be among the top applicants to get any offers. I intend on re-applying next fall, and will also branch out a lot in the schools I apply to, including more that are ranked ~50-100 (I only had one of those this time).

I'll be retaking the general and physics GREs. The first time around, my general GRE scores were alright but not amazing (Q163, V156, W4.0) and my PGRE was very bad (21st percentile) although that was only required for 5 of the 10 programs. I'm also still doing research and will be starting a new project over the summer too, and based on my conversations with my PIs it seems possible that I could get at least one publication, which is great because I didn't have any before! Also, my third LOR will be stronger next cycle because I'll have a new PI to ask instead of a professor I just took one class with who wrote it before.

Lastly, I've started taking a graduate level class at the university where I went to undergrad. The class is in cosmology, so it's highly relevant to what I want to pursue in grad school. However, I've started doing the homework assignments and am finding it extremely difficult -- especially since I missed out on taking the first course in this series so it's a bit more advanced (the professor told me it would be challenging for me but not impossible to catch up). My intention was to officially enroll in the course, so that I could get an official grade and have it on my record so that it would also strengthen my applications for next year (assuming I get an A -- the grade is only based on homework assignments and an end-of-term report and presentation). But now I'm having second thoughts, seeing how difficult the homework is to me (and I think to the others in the class also, since I overheard one of the grad students mentioning how hard it was).

Do you think it's worth it to officially enroll in the class? Would this even have the potential to strengthen my apps that much? Or if I didn't officially enroll but audited it instead, could that help strengthen my profile anyway? Any advice is appreciated!

Posts: 19
Joined: Wed Dec 05, 2018 7:26 am

Re: Rejected everywhere. Best ways to strengthen my apps for next year?

Post by scytoo » Sun Apr 14, 2019 11:41 pm

Hey! I'm not in theoretical physics, I'm in theoretical astrophysics, but I was successful in all applications and did get a few personal offers from European groups for cosmology. Cosmology in particular I think works on connections, so you'll find it really tough to crack in if you don't know people already.

When you're going into theory, the most important thing is that your on-paper application is top-notch. There's this standard trope that experimental physicists do great in labs but get lower grades because their theory isn't so crash-hot and most courses are more theory-heavy in physics, but theoretical physicists are expected to do well in this stuff. Your GPA is definitely going to hold you back for a lot of the schools on your list, so you'd really want to be acing those GREs/PGREs to make up for it.

Published research in the field is also a really big boost, but you have to be able to "own" that work. If you're interviewed, you need to be confident enough on the topic to intelligently discuss the field as a whole. I had a few interviews where I was asked for my opinion on open research questions that are/were beyond my actual research area. If you read widely in the field, you'll probably end up using better terminology and generally sounding more put-together.

Doing the cosmology course is a good idea because you don't otherwise have any experience in the area, but you really need to get an A/A+ in it, otherwise you'll actually harm your profile. Talk to previous students to see if what they got grade-wise matched up with how they personally felt about the difficulty.

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