Tips for Applying to Grad School

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Before your Senior Year

  • Do research: For course credit, money, or on a completely voluntary basis. Look into the NSF REU Program. Research is important, as it helps you determine if graduate school is what you want to do. The most useful letters of recommendation typically come from research supervisors.
  • Develop relationships with faculty members.
  • Explore a range of physics courses.
  • GRE general test and subject test possibly taken. The Physics subject test is offered at Cornell on October 27, 2018 and April 6, 2019.

September — Senior Year

October — Senior Year

  • Oct 27, 2018: GRE Subject Test

November — Senior Year

  • Request your letters of reference: give your letter writers a copy of your CV, your transcript, and your statement of purpose (if already written). Most faculty members will conduct a short interview with you. You should strive to have letter writers who can say something good about your ability to do physics and physics research. Anyone you do research with should write a letter — unless something disasterous happened. Letters from classroom instructors tend to be less valuable (but there are exceptions). Letters from non-scientists are rarely useful.
  • November: NSF Fellowship applications due: instructions
  • Write your statement of purpose (see below for what should be in it)

December/January — Senior Year

  • Applications Due: includes application form, statement of purpose, transcript, GRE Scores (Subject and General), at least 3 letters of reference, and an application fee. Although it is rarely said, you are free to have more letters of reference. Be aware: filling out the forms and sending these in takes time. Most schools will accept late applications, but late applicants are less likely to be accepted.


What are my options for graduate school?

With a degree in physics you can go into any number of directions for further education. In addition to graduate school in physics, one can persue a higher degree in astronomy, chemistry, biology, engineering, medicine, business, law, or education. Cornell offers a 1 year masters degree in engineering, and a 1 year masters degree in teaching which includes certification. Similar programs can be found at other schools

What school should I go to to study XXX?

Good question. This you should discuss with several faculty members. If you happen to know what you want to study, then who you work with is more important than where they are. If you are more up-in-the-air, then location might be more important.

Some advice for choosing schools: If you have the oportunity, visit the schools you are interested in. If you can, talk to graduate students there. Find out about funding and teaching loads. Find out about average time to graduation, and on the success of their graduates.

What are graduate schools looking for? How do I get into the grad school I want?

The graduate admissions committee tries to figure out how you will perform in graduate school. To do so, they will look at several things:

  1. Letters of recommendation from faculty members
  2. Your record of research
  3. The courses you have taken and your grades in those courses
  4. Your GRE Scores
  5. Your Statement of purpose

Of these, probably the letters of recommendation are most important.

How do I get letters of recommendation?

To get good letters of recommendation, you must form a relationship with physics faculty members. The main (and most important) way of doing this is by performing research with them.

What should be in my statement of purpose?

Before beginning any writing project, you should think about who your audience is, and what you want to tell them. Your goal in the statement of purpose is to show the admissions committee that you have the experience, talent, and knowledge necessary to succeed at graduate school

The best way to convey this message is through facts. For example, you should list all of the research experience you had. If you took any graduate courses or unusual advanced courses, list them. If you have been to a conference, mention it. If you published a paper, make sure to discuss it. [There may be somewhere else in the application where they ask for information about research, but there is nothing wrong with repetition. The statement of purpose is the most visible place to put things which you want seen.] Was there a class project which particularly excited you? Did you do a summer job that involved science?

One should go into a little depth with your research experience — saying exactly what you did. The ability to explain a research project in a couple lines of text is an important skill, and there may be no other way for the committee to learn this information. Be explicit, and avoid jargon. [You will find that different research groups/communities will have their own internal “shorthand” which no other physicists will understand.] A description of research might include something like: “As part of a larger project, I updated the automated data acquisition system. This involved porting 400 lines of C++ into labview, and producing a visual interface. One of the graduate students, Bill Smith, helped me find new drivers for the analog-digital converter, but I did all of the labview programing on my own. The interface is working properly, and it now takes half the time to run an experiment. The science goals of the project was…”

You may wish to include any of the following as well:

  • What area of physics are your interested in
  • Why are you applying to that particular school
  • Who do you want to work with
  • Who you have talked with at that school
  • Who you have talked to about your field of interest

Is the GRE important?

This depends on the school (and sometimes the faculty member evaluating the application). Some schools make an initial cut based on GRE scores. Some use the GRE as their principle metric. Others ignore it altogether. I would take the GRE very seriously. Study for it.

If you bomb the GRE, explain why in your statement of purpose (and tell your letter writers).

Is class ranking important?

Not particularly. In the application process you are being judged on an absolute scale: what are your accomplishments.

I didn’t take the honors courses, can I still get into physics graduate school?

Yes. We have many examples of students going on to graduate school from the non-honors classes. They typically do not go to the top few schools though.

Do physics graduate schools want to see a lot of extracurricular activities?

No. All they care about is physics. Notable exceptions are teaching and outreach.

Will participation in teaching and outreach activities help me get into grad school?

Yes. These are not weighted as heavily as research, but they are indicators that you can succeed in graduate school. They also provide another avenue for building relationships with faculty members (which helps you get good letters). The other things these can help with is getting NSF fellowships.

Can I send in more than 3 letters of recommendation?

Yes. Most students have to work to find 3 good letters, and those students should certainly not send in extra. On the other hand, some students do research in several groups and find they need more than 3 letters to give a full picture of them and their activities. If you fail to send in a letter from a research experience, the committee will probably assume that your research experience went poorly.

My grades are poor. Can I still go to graduate school in physics?

Poor grades will make it more difficult to get into graduate school. Doing poor in your freshman year is generally not a problem, but if you have low grades throughout your career, or if your grades drop over time, that will probably make the admissions committee nervous. Low grades can be compensated by a strong research effort and a good GRE score. You will find that different schools have different thresholds on grades.

Fellowship Opportunities

A comprehensive list of fellowships is maintained by Cornell’s Physics Graduate Society. Another good resource is Cornell Career Services. In particular, you may wish to look into:

Other Resources