I have no choice but to take courses I've already learnt in college. So is it a good idea to overlearn? Would overlearning help me to get into graduate school?

There are many ways for me to spend time: research, gpa, heavy courseload, or studying stuff beyond my current syllabus

According to my course plan, I'm supposed to start learning Multivariable Calculus in about 5 months and Linear algebra in about 11 months from now. In between now and then is just some humanities courses and a bunch of Physics/Math courses I've already learnt.

How important is a high GPA and to get into a good graduate school? And why is it important to get into a good graduate school? note: I'm a Physics major...

  • questions on undergraduate study are off-topic for this site.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 16:22
  • 8
    @EnergyNumbers: Like most "questions on undergraduate study", this question is also relevant to graduate students who are still taking classes. In particular, MS students also worry about the balance between mastery and good grades in PhD applications. I strongly oppose closing.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:38
  • 2
    I agree with @JeffE. Questions about getting into graduate school have been considered on-topic, and your behavior as an undergraduate is very important for getting into graduate school. If this question could be edited to focus more on the impacts of these decisions on the grad school application process, then it would be much better.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 21:20
  • maybe you could ask this question on this site proposal: undergraduates. Follow it if you find it interesting!
    – Daniele B
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 17:25

4 Answers 4


Having a good GPA is important; having a great GPA is not. Assuming your GPA stays above a certain threshold (about 3.5), other factors like research experience are significantly more important, at least for admission to the best departments.

In particular, if you get a C in a distribution class because you spent "too much" time on that experiment you later published, nobody will even notice the C on your transcript.

  • Thanks! This means I won't have to spend incredible amounts of time on humanities trying to get A+
    – user3992
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 20:37
  • In the US, how does 3.5 GPA map to the % of your cohort that you've beaten (approximately)?
    – Jase
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 3:27
  • @Jase: Yeah, I too would be interested to know where in the bell curve you are, to get a CGPA on 3.5? In India, we are given a CGPA out of 10, and though grading may vary, a CGPA of 8 is average, and a 9 is avg. + std deviation. Do US universities follow such rule?
    – user2734
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 1:30

The thing about GPA, is that if you want to get into a good Grad School, is one of the few things that basically distinguishes you from your peers (which percentage are you in)

If you're in a known American School, having a good GPA is extremely important then.

Don't you have the possibility to take those courses before, I'm not sure about the American System, in countries like Japan, you can actually take the courses in whatever order you think fits you the most (given certain serialization)

I've also can recommend you studying those topics ahead of time, so when you take those courses, you can ace them, and devote your time to other extracurricular stuff that might pump up your application to a grad school.

Many grad schools love it when you have published work before, so having a couple of papers might help you, and you can get this papers from your extra time.

  • Thanks! Look like I'll study now and enter research in my sophomore. Now, I plan to 'overlearn' so that I can spend time on research later. I also plan to focus on getting into a good grad school instead of simply learning all the courses as fast as possible or trying to graduate fast. Note: I'm a freshman.
    – user3992
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 20:33

Research is an awesome way to exploit your knowledge. Just join the undergraduate research program in your college: if you know significantly more than your peers in college, you can do much more advanced research which would boost your grad school application.

Of course, as a Physics major, you'd need some basic knowledge. Knowing introductory Physics and single variable calculus isn't enough: try to learn some computer language (C++), Multivariable calculus, linear algebra, differential equations and some upper division Physics courses. Having more knowledge would help broaden your choice of what research project you want to join.

If you've overlearned so much that you're learning graduate courses while you're still a sophomore, you can join the Theoretical Physics research projects: these tend to need lots of knowledge.


(I'm not familiar with what overlearning exactly is, so I go by what Wiki says it is)

Depending on the field of science there are things where overlearning (as in vocabulary) is beneficial or even needed. E.g. I'm chemist. Unfortunately, there are priciples behind chemistry that cannot be explained like you explain how to derive a formula. But knowing lots of these things allows you to extrapolate to new situations. During undergrad studies we all complained that if we had wanted this style of studies, we had chosen medicine and started learning the phone directory by hard. It is a bit like learning a language like children do: without being told, structures will emerge.

These structures of the knowledge that form by experience are also important for topics/techniques that can be explained in a logical way. They allow you to become fast and efficient. They allow to "automate" certain tasks, and that leaves conscious capacity to think about less well-known things. In physics, it will certainly be beneficial if you have your intellectual capacity free for thinking about physics because you mastered the relevant maths to a level where you see possible ways of solving instead of digging through your brain and notes for that. Ultimately, this level of mastering subjects is also what is needed to arrive at truly new connections ("Good mathematicians see analogies. Great mathematicians see analogies between analogies." - true for physicists and chemists and whole lots of other researchers as well).

This means you need to exercise the stuff you learned. Doing textbook excercises is a boring (but possibly efficient) way of doing that at intermediate levels. But of course, you can try to do this with research projects as well. The important thing also with undergrad research is that you train your research/physics skills and not only do what you are told to do, but also take the time to understand why things are done this way. What alternatives would exist, what would be the disadvantage of that etc.

About studying ahead of schedule: in my university (Germany) it was no problem to participate e.g. in written exams ahead of the "regular" time. If you passed, noone asked you to go to the course. In some subjects, it even gave you the benefit that if you wanted to try again when your year was doing the exam, you could redo it and pick the better mark. Also, noone would have kept you from attending advanced lectures/seminars. Or if you went for subjects that were not strictly on the plan, like another language. I also heard some philosophy, took some computer science and some economics and an introduction to general and patent law - you get the idea. We did not do much research that way, but that was probably because we had research projects on schedule, so the research groups had rather more research students than they could handle (I don't count fetching stuff from the library as research job).

  • Sorry, by overlearning I meant studying stuff beyond my syllabus, for example according to my course schedule. For example, I'm supposed to study Modern Physics in something like Fall 2014 but I'm studying it now. My use of the word 'overlearning' was not according to the right definition.
    – user3992
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 19:01
  • 1
    "...Experts suggest that after you can say, “I know this material,” that you should continue to study that material for an additional one-fourth of the original study time... In an experimental study, students who overlearned material retained four times as much after a month than students who didn’t overlearn." quoted from csc.edu/learningcenter/study/studymethods.csc
    – user3992
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 2:32

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