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How can my application to a prestigous graduate school be strengthen?

mathematicingmathematicing Registered User Posts: 3 New Member
I have recently graduated with a Bachelor of science majoring in physics and mathematics-a GPA of 2.8-2.9 / 4.0.


After graduating from a good polytechnic with a diploma in material engineering equivalent to second year University in most countries -after credit transfer-I opted instead to pursue a three year bachelor of science in physics and mathematics in another country.
I received a grade A- for a one year long research program core to the diploma program in the polytechnic I was enrolled into. My supervisor for this project was a research in my polytechnic and now a technical director of a firm involved in research into polymers and composites.

The year I was involved in my final year research project is the year I lost my brother to an accident; my mum passed away at age 11 of me.

Turning this around:
Graduate admission typically requires a personal letter and, par for the course, would help for me to turn the above into strength in the face of adversity.

Undergraduate grades suffered in my second and third year-primarily due to severe mental health issues and an inability to cope under time pressure in an exam; failed three final year subjects at ~30 but consequently scored 58-60 for the same subject retaken in the following year.
This is a doubling of the grades into a credit/ close to credit range-not the best but a huge improve while keeping in mind my struggle with my mental health.

I have a physics professor Y who took me for two semesters for most subjects and is fully aware of a genuine inability of mine to cope under time pressure in an exam - questions published in an assignment for which I score full marks, I score poorly in the exam for that same question and this general trend is observed in many instances.

The faculty head of physics-an alumni of an Ivy league- say, professor X, whom I communicate with often is aware of this issue communicated to him - both by me and the professor Y.

In particular:

2.1) I have demonstrated solutions to the exam questions for which I panicked under time pressure - either right after the exam paper or as a causal take-home back-of-the-envelope attempt.

2.2) Questions on the exam for which the class is unable to answer, I was the very few who could.

The department head of physics has offered to be my referee for academic and employment purpose- and so has a math professor who is the chair of a national research group.

Turning around 2) and 3):

In light of 2), I have no reason to think that any professor who has volunteered to be my referee or/ and willing to comment on my enthusiasm has any intention to speak poorly of me-it seems superfluous work to achieve what could have been by simply not being my referee.
If the letter of recommendation provided by my academic referee is able to shed light on the fact that my GPA is not an indication of my abilities and that I continued to persevere through my program despite the setbacks , I may in fact have a strong application, I think.

I'd like to know what my chances are and if my application can further be strengthen.

Replies to: How can my application to a prestigous graduate school be strengthen?

  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 35,729 Senior Member
    I think you have a lot of issues. GPA is low. Test anxiety -- have you taken the regular GRE and the Physics subject GRE tests? Many programs require 3 rec letters, too. Many graduate schools on the US have a 3.0 GPA cutoff, too.

    Often students in your position pursue a master's degree in their home country before applying to PhD programs in the US.
  • mathematicingmathematicing Registered User Posts: 3 New Member
    Can you elaborate on 'alot of issue'?

    My lower than the cut-off GPA for graduate application is an issue but that hardly counts as 'alot of issue'.
    No, I have not attempted any GRE but I am open to taking it.

    I have been invited to do an honour year-despite not meeting the formal requirement-by a globally renowned pure mathematics professor in my department so in a way, there is an opportunity for me to show case my research potential. This is an invitation I have yet to take up-but is open for me to accept at any time.

    Should I take up this honour program and do well, I would have another academic referee and if I do not, I would equally still be able to obtain another letter of recommendation from another referee.

    This issue of insufficient letter of recommendation is, thus, put to rest.

    Admittedly, test anxiety is an issue but this is only true insofar as there are tests. I would think that at a postgraduate level, the emphasis is on research abilities and less on standardised test.

    I have heard that the letter of recommendation is a very decisive factor.
  • MandalorianMandalorian Registered User Posts: 1,754 Senior Member
    edited December 2017
    You do realize you will have to take qualifying exams in grad school before moving on to dissertation work.
  • PentaprismPentaprism Registered User Posts: 482 Member
    During Christmas dinner, a guest asked my D (3rd year CS PhD student at a flagship state univ.) regarding admission to grad school. This was what she said about her department:

    - The applications were screened by a staff of volunteer grad students.
    - They looked at GRE scores, GPAs, and SoPs (they didn't have access to the LoRs).
    - The files of the candidates who passed this stage would then be forwarded to the faculty.

    In her department, the GPA cut off was 3.0, unless the candidate was very very special. They had so many "perfect" candidates that admitting someone with 3.5 GPA was rare. On average, the admission ratio is about 4%.
  • bluebayoubluebayou Registered User Posts: 25,642 Senior Member
    edited December 2017
    fwiw, Duke is one of the few Unis that publishes statistics of grad admission. While Duke is a prestigious Uni, you can assume that the Ivies and their ilk (Stanford, MIT) will be even higher.

    While sure, research is paramount, but the school is going to have a minimum cutoff. A sub-155 Quant score would be highly unusual at a prestigious graduate program in math/physics. So you will have to ace that test. Good luck.

    Physics GPA = 3.7, GRE scores = 159/166 (quant).

    Math: 3.7, 161, 168

  • collegemom3717collegemom3717 Registered User Posts: 5,736 Senior Member
    In the US, most math/physics students go straight from undergrad to PhD programs, and the first year or so is Masters coursework. As @Mandalorian pointed out there are almost always some form of qualifying exam (and frequently 2 rounds) before moving into dissertation research. These are not 'standardized' tests, but they are tests.

    Your GRE scores will matter. Your undergrad GPA will matter. Your ability to pass the qualifying exams will matter. That's what @inparent means by 'you have a lot of issues'. You are not the only student with test anxiety. You are not the only student whose professors see potential.

    Moreover, grad schools do not consider how you have overcome childhood challenges when considering which grad students to take on. As a mum, I am truly sorry for 11-year-old you (and for young adult you in losing your brother), but as a grad school admissions person your ability to overcome that trauma is not relevant.

    The letter of recommendation is important, and can be a decisive factor at the end of the process, but it would be pretty rare for it outweigh marks that are below the university's cut-off, and would most likely a reflect a bigger obstacle than test anxiety and/or a true giftedness for the subject area.

    Your 'honour year' option looks like a good option, but I agree with @intparent: doing your masters first then applying to a PhD is most likely to help you get into a grad school in the US- and first you have to decide if you want math or physics.

    One last thing: you are going to find getting into any grad school hard enough: if you want a 'prestigious' Physics program you need to spend the Master's year practicing for both the GRE and the Physics GRE test: the scores required for the 'prestigious' programs are very high.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 35,729 Senior Member
    In my kid's PhD program (Physics), many of the foreign students with master's still
    end up retaking the master's level courses after they arrive. In her program they start with the first qual exam as soon as they get to campus. If they don't meet a certain cutoff, they have to take the master's classes. They don't lose funding, but it adds time to their program. She said almost all the first year's with master's this year (domestic and international, in fact) ended up in this category. I don't know if all programs do it that way, but it is something else to consider even if you get a master's in your home country.
  • mathematicingmathematicing Registered User Posts: 3 New Member
    edited January 2018
    Thank you @collegemom3717 , @intpat

    Taking up honours program after a year of break is a good choice and I will do that.
    Unfortunately, 3 semesters of very heavy and advanced work load coupled with test anxieties resulted in my GPA going south.
    These are the courses I have taken: MODERATOR'S NOTE: Link deleted - not allowed.

    Getting a first class honours for my honours program is key and I have decided on pursuing math.

    Post edited by skieurope on
This discussion has been closed.