Does a NSF Fellowship out weight bad GRE scores? - Applications - The GradCafe Forums
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Does a NSF Fellowship out weight bad GRE scores?


coffeecoffeebuzzbuzz

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Take this with a grain of salt, but I doubt almost any program would turn down an NSF fellow.

You're basically no-risk for three years: You come with full funding and some measure of prestige, and have been through a rigorous selection process.

I know people that have been turned down at schools, and then accepted on receipt of an NSF fellowship.

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Ya.... that's what I thought last year, but here I am with a NSF trying still trying to find a grad program. I was initially rejected from all the programs where I applied, a few of the places got my hopes up that they could change things but in the end nothing actually materialized. The entire experience was very disappointing and left me feeling even worse about myself than the initial round of rejection. Two professors told me that I was not competitive enough (even with a NSF!) and that in order to have my application even looked at I needed to be in the top 80th GRE percentile AND have published two papers as first author. I am not sure I just have really odd odds or if I am eternally screwed because I can't seem to wrap my brain around this stupid exam.

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Wow. It blows my mind that scores from a general entrance exam could possibly outweigh proven field-internal results such as an NSF fellowship. Authorship on papers is also a major indication of success in a program, but man! I just can't wrap my head around the answer you got. I guess you could always try and retake the exam, but maybe it's also time to expand your search of schools? Also, maybe you are not doing a good job selling yourself in your SOP even though you actually have great credentials? Maybe you could have a trusted mentor read your SOP to make sure that's not the problem.

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Ok stupid question, does having a NSF Fellowship outweigh having bad GRE scores (550V/600Q) when applying to a PhD program in the sciences?

Can you retake? I'm sure the professor was only talking about the quant score, not the verbal one (which actually might be approaching 80th percentile). I'm sure you could approach 80th for the math with some rigorous studying and practicing. But I do think a prestigious fellowship would (should!) be more important than your GRE score!

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Here are some of the reasons given to me for the initial rejections...

1. I never made it past the initial "gate keepers" of the grad application process. I was told that it is pretty common to toss a third of the applications if they are below a certain GRE or GPA score before the essays or letters of recommendation are read.

2. I have a non-traditional degree, meaning I do not have an easily categorized major or classes that can be compared to other students.

3. Bureaucracy, concerns of funding even with a fellowship, politics within the department, etc...

Here are the reasons I was given after rejection, then in-person interviews, followed by rejection yet again...

1. I came across as "too focused" or "too independent" or "too ambitious" because I actually wanted to do what I proposed in my NSF essay. I was told that having such a clear idea of what I wanted to study was extremely unusual compared to most applicants.

2. The common response was that I had good ideas, extremely knowledgeable about the subjects in my field of study, but didn't think I was "a good fit" (what does that mean exactly?)

3. I was told that I was hard to read, that they felt a lack of social connection, and appeared aloof (ie. I am bad at small talk and I have to consciously remember to mirror facial expressions/gestures/tone). Sometimes I would try to explain the medical history for why I appear that way but generally that would create more issues than solutions.

4. The idea that I should have no problem finding a different grad program (ya, but it is a problem when everyone assumes that)...

This year I am trying again, and the pattern seems to be initial excitement followed by asking what my GRE scores are (which leads to awkward response). So here I am terrified that I will be rejected from everywhere yet again. I have taken the GRE five times and I still can't seem to get past the 1200 score. Ugh... This year I am trying to improve my SOP, I have requested five letters of recommendation rather than three, and I just submitted two papers for peer review (not sure how long that will take however). The application process and the counter-intuitive messages that I am receiving just does not make sense to me.

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Two professors told me that I was not competitive enough (even with a NSF!) and that in order to have my application even looked at I needed to be in the top 80th GRE percentile AND have published two papers as first author. I am not sure I just have really odd odds or if I am eternally screwed because I can't seem to wrap my brain around this stupid exam.

Wow, this is mind-boggling. That's a terrible situation to have to go through, but I'll be rooting for ya!

Can you broaden your choice of schools? Assuming you're in a field in which there are umbrella programs (e.g. biology), could you broaden the discussion of your proposed focus in your SOP? I'm assuming most applicants would have the opposite problem; could you state your specific interest, but also mention that you'd be willing to do work on other similar topics (even if you're not)?

What you mentioned makes me very apprehensive about my applications. How can they require publishing TWO papers, both as FIRST AUTHOR? :o (My PI publishes two papers every five years!)

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That must be exceptionally field specific.

No one in chemistry is expected to have any papers published prior to grad school, and the papers you have published are a bonus.

Perhaps they meant papers as a way to counterbalance low GRE scores? Those actually sound like higher GRE scores than I'd expect as a minimum too- 80th percentile is around a 1200.

Maybe you're just applying to too high tier of schools?

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What is your field specifically? I know for some of my programs they will definitely throw out a gre score under 80th so I don't know what to say about that, but I will also say for science programs generally the way the PI or students perceive you as a good fit for the lab is SUPER important. I assume you should get interviews because of the fellowship, so when you interview try to stay open in your ideas and very calm. You want to seem as though you already belong in the lab.

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The "good fit" thing...I got that too. And I don't even have a specific project (but I do have fairly strong opinions about where my field is going and what will be useful ten years from now).

Remember, they want minions to work on whatever project is heating up right now. They want to know you have the ability to focus and drill down to the details of a specific projects (see: NSF proposal)...they just don't want you to have actually done that yet. For practice is OK. "No really, X is my thesis topic" is not. Seems like a kabuki dance, but there's rational behavior under there...they want good minions to build their research empire and get *their* NSF grants done.

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The "good fit" thing...I got that too. And I don't even have a specific project (but I do have fairly strong opinions about where my field is going and what will be useful ten years from now).

Remember, they want minions to work on whatever project is heating up right now. They want to know you have the ability to focus and drill down to the details of a specific projects (see: NSF proposal)...they just don't want you to have actually done that yet. For practice is OK. "No really, X is my thesis topic" is not. Seems like a kabuki dance, but there's rational behavior under there...they want good minions to build their research empire and get *their* NSF grants done.

That's kind of cynical and certainly not true of all advisors.

How about: they want you to acknowledge that you're only at the start of your academic training, you don't know everything and you should keep your mind open to the (very probable) possibility that you will change or refine your current interests during the course of your studies? I can see why advisors will not want to work with someone who thinks they already know everything. What's more, I think anybody who does not gain any new insight that causes them to rethink some of their current ideas about their research should ask for their money back. They are definitely not getting what they came for out of graduate school.

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This year I am applying to nearly twice the number of schools (seven or so) which will hopefully increase my odds a little bit. Thus far I have actually contacted over three dozen profs over the past year trying to figure out who to work with. Having a fellowship helps, but then sometimes there is a bit of awkwardness as to why I am not in a program yet (it really is unheard of). I am not sure if I am in a competitive field or if I have just been contacting some of the most competitive profs out there. One of the more discouraging rejects happened when I met a potential prof at a conference and he pretty much told me that having an NSF really mean nothing special and I was not "ivy league caliber" enough for him. In his case he was pretty clear I had to have published AND have high GRE scores. Ouch. In the past few months I have been having some pretty bad nightmares all having to do with being rejected from every school again.

I really hope that I am not coming off as having a "know everything" attitude, if anything I feel like a total academic misfit that needs another two years of regular classes to feel like I am even close to knowing as much as my peers enter other PhD programs. My so-so GRE scores have definitely made me feel worse about myself. I just have a very high level of curiosity about obscure subjects, when I am interested in something I tend to fully immerse myself in what ever that is. I have however been told (by my friends who I love dearly) that I have a rather strong and slightly eccentric personality and I just need to find my odd birds of a feather, sort of like that Blind Melon video with the bee girl.

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Fit really is important in many fields. You shouldn't just apply to the top 5 schools in your field if there's no one at them doing anything related to your stated interests. It is fine to have a specific project in mind if it fits well within a lab's objectives. It isn't fine to have a specific project in mind if it isn't related enough to get the PI interested. If not being a good fit was a common theme, you should reevaluate where you're applying and make sure your interests and the interests of a PI or two at each program are good matches. It also wouldn't hurt to apply to more than 7 schools, although I think that depends on the field too (7-10 is normal for my field, but I think is overkill for others).

You also didn't say anything about your record in courses. By non-traditional, do you mean you did a for-profit online bachelor degree or what? Do you mean you did a "choose your own major" type thing, where you may not have hit the common prerequisites for study in your field? Fit is something you can improve now, by applying to certain programs, but you may have a hard time overcoming these other issues (if you have them) in the short-term.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I would be extremely skeptical of some of those reasons you were given for rejection, namely:

- Needing two first-authored papers: no way. In bio, at least, almost no one has this. I had just one first-authored paper submitted for review, that got accepted late into the decision process (January-ish?), and I got in to several very very top-tier schools.

- Being too specific: this is not impossible, but it seems weird. My experience was that people found it encouraging that I had specific ideas, and I suspect I got into so many places partly because I stated very specifically what sort of project I would do if I were accepted. I wonder if, in your case, they feel that you are too committed to your initial project? Perhaps you should try saying you want to do your NSF project but will be open to changing it once you try it out and see if it works, if it illuminates new avenues, etc.?

Are your recommendation letters likely to be good? Recommendations can matter a lot; so can mere social chemistry. If you have trouble with social interactions, you may have to look a little harder for an advisor who will understand that. And they definitely exist - there are a lot of successful academics who aren't particularly interested in social subtleties! The trick to getting admitted is having a professor who really wants you.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well... I am definitely trying harder this year to find a good program/mentor. I feel like I should get a gold star for effort at the very least.

Here's my rough tally of effort this time around...

Number of prof's emailed: 60+

Potential Prof Phone interviews: 25+

Grad student phone/in person interviews: 14

In person interviews (casual visits): 6

Applications:7 (this year)

Acceptances...???

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