Getting Into Top Tier Grad Schools

  • 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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Getting Into Top Tier Grad Schools

Post by gweilo » Thu Jun 21, 2012 7:53 pm

Hey all

I'm currently a junior physics major (BS) at a top public school with a good physics program, I'm somewhat oblivious as to where I should even be looking to apply. I'd really like to scout out research groups at specific schools to find something that would work for me.

Wondering if my credentials would qualify me for schools like MIT, CalTech, Berkeley and the like and what people's thoughts are as to what 'makes' a top tier acceptance (besides some good luck)

-GPA ~ 3.85
-philosophy double major (if that matters..)
-Research experience in solar cell physics/electrical eng, (avg 20 hrs/week for 2 yrs). Lot of experience with fabrication, scary tools, labwork, the like. Also doing quite a bit of programming to simulate basic optics, efficiency calculations, etc. Semi-renowned research group, will get a good rec)
-Doing work on the side in computational cosmology and parallel processing of n-body stuff with a prof.
-Python, matlab, C++, linux experience (would say I'm very comfortable with basic-ish stuff, no object oriented)
-Doing an honors thesis on my solar cell work.
-taking pretty much every upper-level physics class offered (mostly mathy/theoretical/quantum stuff)
-haven't taken GREs

Like I said, I would like to know if I would be overconfident in applying to top tier schools. I feel like I would be a good applicant, but there is some pretty good competition out there. Might want to do CM experiment tentatively, could also decide on particle theory if I can handle it.

Thanks a ton

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Re: Getting Into Top Tier Grad Schools

Post by quizivex » Thu Jun 21, 2012 9:13 pm

The best way to judge your chances is to look through the profile threads and see the types of profiles that were accepted and rejected by those schools. From the info you gave, you're not a person to who we can say "You're a shoe-in" or "forgettaboutit". A lot will depend on things not in your post... including how you do on the PGRE, how convincing your research record looks via recommendations and/or any publications when you eventually apply.

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Re: Getting Into Top Tier Grad Schools

Post by bfollinprm » Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:31 am

Look, no one is a shoe-in for the top schools, but as long as you score something respectable on the PGRE and graduate among the top of your class, one should apply for the top schools. Not saying they should be your top choice (though it sounds like they are), but in general I'd say the $100 or so it takes to apply to a top school is worth ending the wonder if you'll get in or not; and at least provides you the option if you end up getting accepted. So no, you aren't guaranteed a spot at Harvard et al, but everyone should be applying to a scattering of schools.

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Re: Getting Into Top Tier Grad Schools

Post by TakeruK » Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:07 pm

Just want to add that you should remember / take note that the profiles here represent only a small fraction of actual applicants. In addition, this small fraction tends to be biased towards people with the best GPA/GREs/research experience. So, I wouldn't try to infer too much from information that isn't there -- that is, if you see a profile similar to yours, then it could be pretty useful. But if you only see better profiles getting into the schools you want, and you don't see profiles like yours getting rejected, then that doesn't mean you won't get in -- there could be people at your level getting in but not posting here. Also, the applicant pool will vary from year to year, so it's still hard to predict.

Also remember that although the best students will probably get into every school, they can only actually attend one!

Just for the practice GRE test book, the table of raw score to scaled score says "based on performance of 14,395 examinees who took the test between July 1 2007 and June 30 2010", which means an average of ~4800 people per year. Let's say half of these people are actually applying to grad programs in your field in the same year as you (the other half could be in, say astronomy or repeat test takers). So, 2,400 students internationally are applying. HappyQuark posted his data on # of applicants per school (see: ... 715#p41715) and his fitted function for # applicants vs. rank is posted there. I integrated (on Wolfram Alpha):

Code: Select all

integrate 567.46*exp(-0.0204x) from x = 1 to 150 
and the result is ~25,000. So if a person applies, on average, to ~10 schools, the numbers kind of agree!

I actually don't know how many spots are open at each top 10 school....maybe ~20 spots per school on average? (a quick check at one school, MIT Physics, says they take 30-40 people). But with a conservative 20 spots/school, this is 200 spots distributed in the top 10 programs, and maybe ~400 spots in the top 20 programs.

So getting into a top 10 program means you need to be in the top ~8% of applicants, ~16% for top 20 with these crude estimates. It's a not very high fraction, and you can't really find out how you rank internationally, but I found it at least comforting to know that you don't have to be like the best 1% to get in. So apply to many programs, there may be a ton of really good people out there, but each of them can only "take up" one spot!

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Re: Getting Into Top Tier Grad Schools

Post by Failnaught » Sun Jul 08, 2012 12:26 pm

If you've just finished your third year, it's all mostly said and done, and your profile is mostly complete. There are three things to pay attention to at this point:

1. It's summer, so it's a great time to study for GRE and the Physics GRE. Make sure you do well! Don't put off studying for the PGRE especially. The test is probably in October/November, but you might be busy with courses and midterms by then.

2. Who will you choose to be your referees? You'll need three for American schools. It's best if they're all past research supervisors, but if not, you'll want somebody who knows you beyond the "I know him... sort of... ish... My records show he's got 96% in my E+M course". One way to do this is to take a summer reading course, related to your primary research, perhaps with somebody who taught you before.

3. Depending on what your courseload is like in first semester in 4th (senior) year, consider writing your external fellowship (NSF, DoE, NSERC if you're Canadian, etc) application in the summer. Also you can write your Statement of Purpose in the summer, and research which schools to apply to. That's sure to save a lot of work when you should be concentrating on midterms and exams. Otherwise, consider taking 1 less course in the fall semester.

Lastly, do well in 4th year. You'll need your grades and references again in the future for fellowship/grant applications, and in case if you don't end up where you wanted to be the first time round, you can definitely work for a year and try again. Somebody I met at an open house weekend got into significantly better schools by doing this.

Good luck!

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