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How to determine 'safety' schools?



I'm a US-Korean dual citizenship holder currently in my last year of undergrad at a top 3 university in Korea.

If all goes well, I'll graduate with a dual major in linguistics and CS - which are both areas that I am considering applying to for grad school, because I'm mostly interested in speech processing.

I have a decent (in my opinion) GRE score of V: 160 / Q: 168 / W: 4.5. I also took the TOEFL just in case and received 116 (30/30/30/26). I've worked as a lab intern for a close CS professor for a little over a year now and have co-authored about two papers (that are CS topics but not particularly in my area of interest).

However, my GPA is very poor. On a 4.5 scale, I'm currently at  3.47, which is roughly 3.1 on the 4.0 scale. I'm planning to retake six classes this semester which will hopefully bring my total up to 3.68 (or 3.3 on the 4.0 scale). I had very poor grades my first freshman semester, but I managed to keep my grades around 3.4~3.7 on the 4.0 scale for the next three semesters. The next two semesters were difficult for me because I started having panic attacks that greatly hurt my attendance, and unfortunately my GPA, which hit an all time low. I pulled out of the dip a little bit last semester but two semesters of very bad grades have permanently hurt my total GPA.

I'm searching for potential schools currently but I'm worried about my low GPA and would like to know what would be considered as a 'safety school' in my situation? It seems like all of the schools I've looked at have only accepted applicants with nearly perfect GPAs and I'm not sure how to determine whether a certain school is a match or safety school for me. I'm starting to worry about whether I even have a shot at getting into any decent program.

Edited by fiendfyre
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Honestly, don't think of schools as safe, within reach, and reach or however you call it. That's more for undergrad schools. Grad school is largely about one thing: how closely your research interests line up with the faculty's interests. 

This isn't to say that GRE/GPA isn't important, but letters of rec generally hold much more weight alongside, once again, what you want to do with your time in grad school. As evidence, you'll find in the sub 3.0 (generally considered the cut off on a 4.0 scale) acceptance thread plenty of people who made it to grad school despite what would be considered less-than-ideal grades. In addition, if I can say modestly, I had a 3.9/4.0 cGPA and 4.0 mGPA and you'll see from my signature that GPA, even at non-prestigious institutions, is not a guarantee that you'll get in. 

The lesson I learned from my first round is that I was bad at matching and framing my research interests. If you're planning applying for fall 2019, you have plenty of time to find out what you want to do (with relative depth, but you don't need to settle on a singular research topic yet) and then find out who is doing what in your field. It's more work, but there's tremendous payoff when you get those acceptances because you know you'll be doing something your passionate about with someone who shares that same passion and has the expertise that you want to gain and use to start your career. 

Also, it's never too early to start drafting your statement and mulling about your experiences and interests. Good luck!

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I made a huge mistake in my first application cycle because I kinda solely focus on school's ranking, and it did not get me anywhere. I focused more on the reputation while didn't develop a deep research interest at that time. Last year, I re-applied. I knew my research interest and applied almost all the schools matching my research interest. That being said, lots of prestigious schools do not have professors doing the research I want to do. The fitness is really really important for a doctoral program. I will spend 6 years on one topic and I would like doing something I love to do! My advice is knowing what you really want to do and then search the program matches your interest. Reputation is important too but not the first factor to be considered. 

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There aren't "safety schools"  but places where your probability is higher but not necessarily high.  In statistics (which is possibly remotely similar to CS) a safety school for an international applicant may only have a probability of you being accepted with funding in the 20%-30% range while that might be classified as a reach school for undergraduate admissions.  You can ask in the CS forum, but international applicants in STEM get "shut out"  (rejected everywhere) pretty commonly.   See where past international applicants with similar profiles have gotten in.  Start with this thread here.   Also be sure to check for research fit since an amazing applicant can be rejected at the worst program in a field because their interests don't align with the department.  

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In all honesty, there are no such thing as “safety schools.” The application process is very competitive and there might be a chance that your credentials can increase your probability of getting in but even that’s not a garuntee. 

Instead look for universities and programs that are a good fit with your particular research interests. Credentials are very important but when it comes to final decisions it’s all about which student best matches the grad committees interest.

To put it in perspective, I applied to 10 schools. 3 ma programs & 2 phd were state schools that I thought were “safe” . I was rejected from each one of my safe programs and accepted into my number one MA program with full funding and was put on the waitlist for a another really good program. That’s because those programs fit with my research interest and experience rather than pure statistics. 

My advisor told me a similar funny story. He had amazing credentials. He was rejected from his nearby state school and accepted into Princeton.

 When I was rejected from my safe schools, I felt horrible. If I couldn’t get into my safeties how in the world was I ever going to make it any other programs?! But I learned it’s not always about that. So try to hone in on what schools fit the best and apply widely in that range. Of course some universities are more prestigious than others but once you get through the doors, academic integrity becomes much more about the work done than it does the name attached to it. Look at the faculty, the campus and the post grad employment rate and mention that in your statement of purpose. 

I had a low GPA too. I applied to mostly MA programs b/c of this but I put a lot of work into my statement of purpose. Sell yourself as much as you can in this part of the application. Read the research of faculty, talk to current grad students and try your best to show that you are a match for each particular university.

good luck!

Edited by Oklash
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