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How can an undergraduate student self-assess his/her PhD application prior to actually applying for PhD programs?

As prospective PhD students, we can generally compare ourselves to other students at our own school using our grades. We may also apply to internships or awards and, by acceptance rates of such programs, we may begin to understand how "good" we are as a possible Phd student candidate. In addition, we might try discussing our potential application with a professor, but even though we might be really good, the professor might be too busy or otherwise not give great feedback. In such a case, how can one self-assess himself/herself on how good is his s/he perceived as a prospective Phd student, determine his/her weaknesses, and figure out what to do next ?

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    Apply and find out. We can't guess for you. You may find this Q & A helpful : academia.stackexchange.com/q/68487/72855 – Solar Mike Feb 24 at 13:58
  • @SolarMike Thanks for the comment, but I never asked whether you could or not; I just asked how can I determine this, what are things that I can look for; I'm just looking for a guideline. – onurcanbektas Feb 24 at 13:59
  • @SolarMike By the way, the linked question is also asked by me. – onurcanbektas Feb 24 at 14:00
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    Perhaps re-reading the answers would help you.... – Solar Mike Feb 24 at 14:01
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    Adding a bounty because I think this could be a useful canonical question. – Dawn Mar 3 at 16:38
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Since students are admitted to such programs by people, and not by algorithms, you probably can't do it with any assurance. But note that the number of programs you target is very small and the number of potential applicants is very large. Thus, the competition is fierce. So, it doesn't depend on just you, but on the perceived quality of the others you compete with.

As Solar Mike suggests, the only way to know is to apply.

But one good way to get a fairly valid assessment without applying is to put together the materials needed for an application and ask one or two of your current professors to give you feedback on it. Do they see any missing parts? Can they suggest better ways to present yourself to a committee of their peers? ...

Some students with perfect GPAs get rejected from some programs because there just isn't room for everyone or they have other things in their record that makes them less of a "sure bet" for the committee.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other schools, not in your "top" category at which you can get a fine education and a firm foundation for a great academic career. Some schools have "niche" programs in certain sub fields that may be better suited to you and provide a better education that the top ten you suggest. You might also have a clearer path to completion at such schools.

  • Thanks for the answer Buffy; as I've stated also in my question, I have intention to go to that top-tier universities. As you've mentioned, some univerties have much better than those top-tier ones in some subfield, which is the case in my situation. – onurcanbektas Feb 24 at 14:34
  • For what it's worth, I've always had trouble getting my supervisors to read my stuff as though they were on a review committee or as a journal reviewer. Maybe I've just been working with people who were too much of a cheerleader though. – twoblackboxes Mar 6 at 21:00
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+50

Other users have offered great advice, and I would recommend you re-read the comments of Buffy, Noah, and Elizabeth. I will provide you with my input as someone who spent the past year as (nervous) applicant and then (elated) offer-holder. I address the different parts of your question under each bolded italicized section below. Note this was somewhat stream-of-consciousness, so feel free to edit responses/structure.

The TLDR before essay:

From everything I have gathered across StackExchange, Friends, Colleagues, and Others, the application process is a holistic assessment of your being as both a student AND a person (more on this in conclusion). If you take the time to read application requirements, assess current students in your programs of interest, and connect with professors, you can accurately guesstimate your success in each application.

How can an undergraduate student self-assess his/her PhD application prior to actually applying for PhD programs?

There are a couple of tangible ways for an undergraduate to compare themselves. Firstly, look at the CVs of current PhD students in your programs of interest. Current PhD students will often have a website or LinkedIn. Because these often have time components (e.g. Research Assistant from X to Y), you can determine what a successful PhD student was doing when they were in undergrad. While a CV builds over time and is no way a comprehensive measure of a student's accomplishments, you can quickly do a side-by-side comparison with your CV and ask yourself, "have I done X, Y, or Z as it appears on this PhD student's CV?" Additionally, reach out to peers for their application essays. At the time they wrote those essays, they were in undergrad! Thus you can directly compare your own application statements/proposals/why-i-should-be-let-in-arguments.

As prospective PhD students, we can generally compare ourselves to other students at our own school using our grades.

This is absolutely correct and you should heed Elizabeth Henning's input that GPA/GRE/merit-based indices are important. Why? Because grades are a general indicator of a student's ability to learn and apply new material. Thus, while decent to high grades are a bit of a wash, low grades may be indicative of a problem to learn and apply new material. NB: GPA is not everything. In my own example, my GPA was much higher than the requirements for nearly all my application programs, although my GRE was actually a bit low. In this way, I was able to guesstimate that I would satiate the minimum requirements (as it is a balancing act). I was also able to guesstimate that I was not a top tier/first round pick in this area of my application, as there were certainly students who had perfect GPA and perfect GRE.

We may also apply to internships or awards and, by acceptance rates of such programs, we may begin to understand how "good" we are as a possible Phd student candidate.

Correct, this is another general 'area' of your application package. To what extent are you carrying out or accomplishing the hallmarks of academia? That is participating in research (either publishing or gaining research assistant ships of high notoriety) and earning money/awards. As PhD students and academics must continue these feats, the extent to which you do them compared to your peers in another direct way to guesstimate if you are a stronger or weaker applicant. NB: an applicant with several publications and awards is much more 'attractive' than an applicant with none. NB2: they are not necessarily 'required' or 'dealbreakers'.

In addition, we might try discussing our potential application with a professor, but even though we might be really good, the professor might be too busy or otherwise not give great feedback.

This is a two part sub-section (and then I promise to wrap it up).

1) In regards to 'discussing our potential application with a professor', I thoroughly believe professors are assessing an applicant as a person and 3-5 year collaborator. This does not mean they are just trying to figure out how smart you are, they seeing how they feel around you. Can you hold a conversation? Can you act politely at the right times? Are you open to new ideas? How much will you push back if I prod at your idea? In several official and unofficial skype/in-person interviews I could often sense that this was the whole point of talking live - they want to know if they spend large quantities of time with you.

2) In regards to 'the professor might be too busy or otherwise not give great feedback', this is because they have very difficult and demanding jobs. In my experience (so YMMV), only one professor I was interested in working with gave 'above and beyond feedback' (i.e. helped with the minute details of my application). After reaching out to a given professor, the average response was either 'Your application looks good! Looking forward to seeing it in the formal application process' or 'Thanks for reaching out and introducing yourself! Do you have time for a quick skype call?'. Do not be discouraged if a professor does not give in-depth feedback, they are just very busy. This is what GOOD friends and colleagues are for. Be sure to compensate them accordingly (thank you notes, snacks, etc).

Other stack exchange questions that you may be interested in reading/relevant to your question:

How does the admissions process work for Ph.D. programs in the US, particularly for weak or borderline students?

How important are the grades compared to the cover letter when applying for a Ph.D?

PhD Admissions Importance: Research vs. Grades

Is getting a good grade enough to ask for a letter of recommendation for a grad school application?

Emailing professor: Is my profile good enough for this position?

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    Thanks for the answer; it is one of the types of such that we would like to see. – onurcanbektas Mar 8 at 4:40
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The problem with this question is that it assumes that (1) there is a well-defined totally ordered way to rank applicants and (2) the first n applicants in this ranking are the ones who get offers. Thresholds for GPA, GREs (if applicable), coursework, and research experience only indicate whether your application is going to be seriously considered. Anyone asking this question probably already knows where they stand for any particular applicant pool, or they can easily find out by consulting with the program. The program doesn't want to waste time on non-competitive applications either.

Beyond that, whether you actually get an offer depends on whether the people making the decisions want what you have. And there's no way to predict that in advance.

  • Well, if I were to apply to a program in my country, yes, more or less I know where I am, but no I'm going to apply to PhD program in US, or in Europe, which I have almost no idea which pool I'm in; – onurcanbektas Mar 6 at 19:53
  • Note that, I'm asking a precise way of measuring; I mean of course the acceptance criteria differ from program to program, but, for example, I have no idea whether I would seriously be considered for, Harvard Physics, or any even to a university having a seriors Physics PhD program. – onurcanbektas Mar 6 at 19:55
  • @onurcanbektas Then ask them what the median GPA etc is for their entering classes. Some of this information might even turn up with a Google search. Did you look? – Elizabeth Henning Mar 6 at 19:58
  • Yes I did indeed, but do you really think GPA has that much of importance for a PhdD application ? – onurcanbektas Mar 6 at 20:01
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    @onurcanbektas If your situation is really too complex for you to determine whether you are competitive using the standard metrics, then it's certainly too complex for anyone but the admissions committee to assess. – Elizabeth Henning Mar 6 at 20:22
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Look at how similar students from your school have done in previous years. Is it common for students in your major with similar classes and GPA to go on to PhD? If so, where do they typically go?

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Visit some programs and talk to the students. Figure out how strong they are versus how strong you are.

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