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How Ambitious is Too Ambitious?


jesbevo
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I'm curious to know how everyone decided what schools were worth their time to apply to, and which ones were just not gonna happen. I'm beginning to think about potential grad schools, and as nice as it is to be confident in myself, I don't know how helpful it will be if I reach a little too far haha

 

What was your process for narrowing down your "reaches" and "safeties"? And how did you compare your application to the schools you were looking at to see if it was a good match?

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It's good to be pragmatic. Personally, I decided to "reach for the stars" so I applied to a lot of top programs, but I also applied to way too many programs. Part of this is due to the fact that I didn't really recognize what I wanted to do until later in the application process, but I also wanted a bit of cushion, because I really didn't expect much from the top programs. While ratings aren't everything, you can expect a higher rated program to be more competitive. It helps to look at the GRE/GPA/etc of past years' acceptances and see which ones you're in the range of. These scores aren't everything, but I think there tends to be a "cutoff" for each, and some schools may not even look at an applicant with a score/GPA below a certain number. For the most part, what I considered my "safeties" were some of the lower ranked schools (top 50ish, plus my home institution), though there was one that was pretty well ranked; I considered it a safety because I had done my REU there and had a great relationship with my PI, so I felt I had a good chance of getting in. 

 

I don't think it's bad to apply to some schools you think you don't have a shot at. I applied to a lot of top programs because I thought, "what have I got to lose?" (aside from time and money  :P ). While I didn't get into most of the top tens I applied to, I ended up getting into my first choice, which was pleasantly surprising. It's most important that you're a good fit with the program. Meaning, if a uni has multiple professors doing the exact research you're interested in, or many who are in the same ballpark, then that's a good match. Look through the website and professors; who has research that excites you? If you apply to a top program just because it's a top program, but no one there (or even just one professor) is doing research related to your interests or your experience, then you aren't going to get in. The same goes for lower ranked programs. I did not apply to any programs that didn't have at least 2 professors I would be excited to work with.

 

I also took things like location into account. Partially because my SO needs to find a job when we move, but also because environment and overall happiness is important to me. Some people aren't as interested in these factors as they are with the program in itself. You just need to figure out what's important to you, where you stand in relation to past accepted students, and where your interests lie. For me, it was a very stressful process, and the earlier you start, the better. 

 

It may help to look through this forum and the results page for past/current acceptances/rejections/etc. and see how you compare. It would also be useful to talk to others who are familiar with the process, you, or both: current graduate students, professors, etc. 

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There's no such thing as "reach" and "safety" at this level. It's all about where you fit best! Just apply where you want to go and don't be intimidated if they happen to be very highly ranked programs. FWIW, I was rejected from the 2 lowest ranked programs I applied to.

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Yeah, I realize that fit is the #1 thing, but I was under the impression that there was still a sort of GPA/GRE "cut-off" that places with a large number of applicants use to whittle the group down a bit?

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If you felt strongly connected towards a program you'll end up spending a tremendous amount of time polishing your application towards that particular program. I am particularly guilty of this, I put different kind of priority in my first choice program, things like personal statement was tailored toward that program, whereas my personal statement for other applications is simply a modified form of it.

 

According to my general observation, you would have pretty similar chance to be accepted into any of those top 20 programs if you have those GPA 3.8+, GRE 80%+, 1-2 years of research experience and those not-so-generic recommendation letters. Other positive factors could only boost your application even more.

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Yeah, I realize that fit is the #1 thing, but I was under the impression that there was still a sort of GPA/GRE "cut-off" that places with a large number of applicants use to whittle the group down a bit?

Yeah, but as long as you get past those initial cutoffs no one will ever look at your GPA/GRE again. I mean, I'd say go and look at the average GPA/GRE scores of admitted students at the programs you're applying to (some will post these on their websites, if not then just use the results search here), and if you really feel like you need to apply to some lower-ranked programs, then do so. But don't not apply to a department because you're worried about cutoffs! At worst you don't get into that particular program, but that's not the end of the world.

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Yeah, but as long as you get past those initial cutoffs no one will ever look at your GPA/GRE again. I mean, I'd say go and look at the average GPA/GRE scores of admitted students at the programs you're applying to (some will post these on their websites, if not then just use the results search here), and if you really feel like you need to apply to some lower-ranked programs, then do so. But don't not apply to a department because you're worried about cutoffs! At worst you don't get into that particular program, but that's not the end of the world.

Although I agree with the rest of your post, the first sentence is not true for all programs. Some programs give out funding based on a departmental ranking, and these rankings might very well be based on "objective" measures such as GPA, GRE, class rank, etc.

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Although I agree with the rest of your post, the first sentence is not true for all programs. Some programs give out funding based on a departmental ranking, and these rankings might very well be based on "objective" measures such as GPA, GRE, class rank, etc.

Good point, I forgot about that. It probably also plays a role in whether the department nominates you for university-wide fellowships. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm curious to know how everyone decided what schools were worth their time to apply to, and which ones were just not gonna happen. I'm beginning to think about potential grad schools, and as nice as it is to be confident in myself, I don't know how helpful it will be if I reach a little too far haha

 

What was your process for narrowing down your "reaches" and "safeties"? And how did you compare your application to the schools you were looking at to see if it was a good match?

 

So, when I applied, I paid no attention to the "reach school" and "safety school" idea that plagued undergraduate admissions. I guess I could say that I applied to Johns Hopkins and seven "safety" schools. I applied to only top 25 (mostly top 10) biomedical engineering schools based on fit and whether I liked their research. I was only accepted to my #1 (JHU) and my #8 UT Austin and schools I was sure I would get accepted to only offered me an unfunded Masters. It's all based on fit really. Apply to places that interest you and don't sell yourself short! That's the worst thing you can do. I almost didn't apply to JHU, because I was worried they'd reject me.

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For me it was simple:  my GPA and GRE scores effectively kept out of anything "top"; I am interested in coastal ecology, so that eliminated everything away from coastline (read: pretty much most of the Country);  I cannot stand humidity, so then I was limited to the West Coat and New England.  

 

 

There's no such thing as "reach" and "safety" at this level. It's all about where you fit best! Just apply where you want to go and don't be intimidated if they happen to be very highly ranked programs. FWIW, I was rejected from the 2 lowest ranked programs I applied to.

Well, if your application can be described as competitive in general, then yes, you are correct.  If you have Fs, Ds, perhaps even Cs, mediocre GRE scores, no research experience, and so on, then there most certainly are reaches. 

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Where to apply really depends on your specific interests, strengths, and what you are looking for in a program. In my case, my subfield is small, so there were a limited number of programs that even had a POI I could apply to work with (without switching subfields). I targeted about 8 potential programs after doing some initial research and getting advice from several people in my field. I then talked to my mentors about where they thought would be a good fit for me and what was realistic for me; their advice swayed me into applying to some places I hadn't initially considered and not applying to others. Then I emailed all my potential POIs to see whether they were even accepting students, and learned that 2 of the potential advisors I had targeted were going to be on leave.

 

All those factors limited the pool of potential schools, so I ended up applying to 5 places, 4 of which were in the top 10. I knew that getting into these programs is extremely competitive even in the best of circumstances, and I wasn't sure what to expect, but I did take a look at websites like Magoosh that list average GRE scores for various schools, and I made sure that my test scores and grades were in line with the kind of applicant that these programs normally accept. If I hadn't been in the same ballpark as those stats, I would have applied more broadly and looked at lower ranked programs. Honestly I was a little nervous that I didn't apply to more places, but my mentors made a good point: do you really want to spend the money and effort applying to someplace you wouldn't actually want to go?

 

All this to say, I think selecting schools is very personal and really depends on your fit with professors and the department at each program, as well as some random factors like who is taking on new students. If you're not sure what kind of program would be a good fit and that you are qualified for, ask your mentors and professors for guidance. They are a great resource - they should know the expectations of someone applying in your field and be able to tell you how you might compare with other applicants. 

 

FWIW, out of the 5 places I applied, I got into 1 top-ranked PhD program and 2 very good MA programs, so it worked out for me.

Edited by brown_eyed_girl
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  • 4 weeks later...

I basically applied to the top schools in my field and subfield that were also a good fit for me, with really no so called safety schools.  I applied to 10 schools.  Go big or go home; that was my strategy, and it paid off.  With the state of academia, if that's the route you want to take, ranking and prestige matter.  Good luck!

Edited by Chiqui74
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Apply to schools you feel you would honestly attend. Now while there is really such thing as a 'safety' school, there are schools on your list that you may not want to attend as much as the others. One piece of advice - be open during the process (and apply to a good spread - geographically and by ranking), you never know which schools may accept you or have super cool research going on there. The school I will be attending is very highly ranked (top 10) and I originally wasn't going to apply. Also limit yourself to about 10 schools (too many schools makes it seem as though you don't have a research focus). If you have a decent application/interview season, you will quickly get exhausted from traveling for 8-10 weekends straight.

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