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Applying to Graduate School II


by Fran Bagenal

Fran Bagenal is Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

June 2005

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.


Personal Essay


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 relevant thoughts.
  • 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 helpful advice.
  • Be concise. Admissions committees have to read hundreds of applications, and ignore
    most fluff anyhow. One to two pages are ideal.
  • 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
    abilities.
  • Spell check, and grammar check. It sounds silly, but in the modern age of technology
    the misuse of homophones goes widely unnoticed.
  • 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 early—for practice. 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
    graduate program.

(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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