Applying to Graduate School II
by Fran Bagenal
Fran Bagenal is
Professor of Astrophysical
and Planetary Sciences
at the University
of Colorado, Boulder.
In the last issue of STATUS I presented a list
of advice from the community (solicited via
the AASWOMEN e-newsletter) for students
applying to graduate school in astrophysics. One
issue that was not addressed in the previous article
is advice on writing the personal statement or
essay in the graduate application. I have been asking
around and while there is a range in opinions
about the importance of the personal statement,
there was more or less consensus on what the
application readers are looking for. Another perennial
thorny issue is the value of the physics GRE exam as a
predictor of success in grad school. At the Women In
Astronomy II conference (June 2003) I presented a
poster showing the statistics from that year’s applicant
pool to the University of Colorado. I have now added
statistics for the 2004 and 2005 application pools and
present the results.
Most graduate applications ask the applicant to
write a statement of their objectives in going to grad
school or an essay about themselves. There are books
and websites that provide suggestions on how to
write such essays. I asked various colleagues who had
just finished reading hundreds of applications what
were the important criteria for judging a student
statement. Here are a list of their comments:
- By far most important objective of the
essay is to show that the student can write
coherent intelligent sentences that communicate
- Show genuine motivation and enthusiasm
(for grad school and for astronomy).
- Readers are looking for expression of a
past that reflects motivation and enthusiasm,
i.e. a path that has not been blindly meandering.
- The essay should show some general idea
of where the student wants to go in the
future (in research topic, career, etc.) It is
understood that on entering grad school
students often have varied interests and
their ambitions can change during grad
school. But the application should indicate
some thought on the issue.
- Have your advisor proofread the statement.
As most faculty have served on an admissions
committee, they will offer critical and
- Be concise. Admissions committees have to
read hundreds of applications, and ignore
most fluff anyhow. One to two pages are
- Discuss a topic of research you have done
in some depth. Showing that you understand
the research, from motivation to results,
implies a great potential for future research
- Spell check, and grammar check. It sounds
silly, but in the modern age of technology
the misuse of homophones goes widely
- Avoid clichés such as: I have always wanted
to be an astronomer, I have been fascinated
by the stars since my father/aunt/neighbor
gave me a telescope, I grew up in wonder
of the Universe, etc.
- Don’t litter your essay with exclamations!!
Physics GRE Scores
I turn now to the issue of the physics GRE exam.
Serving on the graduate admissions committee for
the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado I have read
many, many applications and wondered whether
some gender tendencies were real, figments of my
imagination or urban myths. Specifically, I had an
impression that women tend to have lower scores in
the physics GRE, even when they have good course
grades. So, I took the applicant pools for springs of
2003, 2004 and 2005 (approximately 100–150
students per year) and plotted their grade point
average in all physics and math course (Physics/Math
GPA) against the percentile ranking in the physics
GRE (Figure 1).
The first thing that struck me when I looked at
the plot was the lack of correlation. Why are some
people with excellent physics GPAs ranked so low in
the physics GRE? When separated by gender, the
average GPA scores are similar for men (3.53 ± 0.34)
and women (3.48 ± 0.40) but the women have a
lower average GRE position (28 ± 21%) compared
to the men (45 ± 23%). But look at the huge scatter.
Most puzzling are the cluster of women towards
the top left and the cluster of men towards the
bottom right. Some women with really good
physics/math GPAs are performing poorly on the
physics GRE. At the same time, there is a cluster of
men who have mediocre GPAs but get strong GRE
scores. Are the men better at taking this type of exam
with time pressure? Are women doing well in the
physics courses that they take but are perhaps not
taking the courses that prepare them for the GRE?
Or is the gender difference related to who is applying
to grad school? One could imagine different
pressures from peers, teachers, advisers, parents that
might be factors.
One hypothesis might be that the GRE is doing
its job of distinguishing the rigor of physics programs.
The better physics programs should produce higher
GRE scores. I asked the chair of the admissions
committee for 2005 to sort the applicant pool
(excluding non-US applicants) by ranking of the
school. This was entirely subjective—but this is
exactly what admissions committees are doing when
looking at applications. The top-ranked schools
included both public and private schools.
Figure 2 shows that there is little difference in
performance between applicants from the top- and
middle-ranked schools but the 3rd-ranked physics
programs are not preparing students as well for the
physics GRE. My advice to students wanting to go to
graduate school in the physical sciences is to recognize
that your undergraduate training does matter— not
all physics programs are equal. This does not mean
that only people from ivy league schools get to grad
school. Far from it (some of those “top left” applicants
are from the “big name” schools). But if you are
acing all the physics courses in your local state college,
then perhaps you need to consider transferring to a
research university—most states have at least one
good physics program at a public university.
Wondering why some women from good
schools and with good GPAs are bombing the GRE, I
developed another hypothesis. I wondered if women
undergraduates are spending time on research projects
rather than studying for GREs. To test this idea I took
the top 25-GPA-scorers (for 2003 only) and sorted
them by the number of REUs (Research Experience
for Undergraduates) mentioned in their application. I
found no correlation—so much for that theory.
What can we conclude about the value of the
physics GRE in applying to grad school? I am afraid
to say the answer is “Not very much.” It is actually
very hard to get faculty to talk honestly about their
own admissions process and even less about their
graduation rate. It seems that each department thinks
it has a secret recipe. There are rumors (reaching
almost mythic proportions) that the high-GREscorers
do indeed tend to do well in grad school, the
very-low-GRE-scorers tend not to survive, and the
ones in the middle are unpredictable. Some faculty
have a “magic minimum” GRE score. Others prefer
to look at verbal GRE scores.
All very surprising, eh? And not very helpful, I
am afraid to say. The most important thing remains,
of course, to be accepted by the program of your
choice. All I can say to applicants is:
- The physics GRE continues to be an
important factor in graduate admissions to
most astronomy PhD programs.
- Are you taking the physics courses that
prepare you for the physics GRE? Upper
division physics courses(1) may not seem
necessarily for the topic of your intended
research but they usually build on (hence
provide further experience in) basic material
and expose you to more concepts that will
be tested in the GRE.
- You can do well in the physics GRE—it is
an exam in which it really pays to learn the
test-taking strategies from those who have
done well before you (preferably just a few
years before). You may be philosophically
opposed to such exams but consider it a
necessary hurdle, swallow the pill and log
the study hours.
- You might consider taking the GRE a year
At the University of Colorado we have started a
short preparation course for the physics GRE taught
mostly by graduate students, who have recent
experience of taking the exam. But such courses do
not help the applicants from schools without a
(1) Upper division physics courses
recommended that provide a strong
basis for the physics GRE include
classical/analytical mechanics, electricity
and magnetism (I and II), quantum
mechanics (I and II), thermal/statistical
physics, and a modern physics course
that includes atomic, nuclear, particle,
or solid state physics.
Of course, what we really need to know is how
well does the physics GRE actually predict success.
What is the correlation of GRE with PhD
graduation? With career “success”? Has anyone
researched this issue? If you have some statistics send
them my way, please.
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