Standing Out When Applying to a Graduate Program

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Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career

Standing Out When Applying to a Graduate Program


Brad Conrad, Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, and Matthew Wright, Associate Professor and Department Chair, Adelphi University

The application process for graduate physics programs can be intimidating, so in this article we’d like to offer some suggestions and guidance. Note that our experience is primarily with physics and astronomy programs in the United States and Canada, but the application processes for other fields and programs in other countries are often similar. Keep in mind that our suggestions are just that—suggestions. The more people you hear from, the better.

Graduate programs generally examine lots of documents and consider many factors during the application process: letters of recommendation, personal statement(s), course performance, quality of undergraduate preparation, research experience, areas of applicant interest, and personal characteristics. Ultimately, admissions committees are looking for students who will excel, be excellent researchers for their faculty, raise the profile of the university, and contribute to the department. Departments want students that interact well within the department, have resolve, can teach undergraduate courses, and can pass their exams into candidacy. Each component of an application can help you stand out to the admissions committee as they evaluate these criteria. The following list is roughly ordered in terms of importance, but you should ask other professors and colleagues their opinions.

Pick the right schools for you
Apply to the best schools for you, not just the ones you’ve heard of. Many schools have areas they excel in. Focus on individual professors and groups to work with, not the school’s rank. Spend some time thinking about what your goals are, what you hope to get from a PhD, what you would like to do when you finish, and your ideal work environment. This can be tricky, but you can learn a lot by going to (for comparable data), reading university websites (to get a sense of who they are), looking at research group papers (to see if these research topics interest you), and talking to your undergraduate advisers. Get LOTS of opinions, and ask the hard questions.

The people side of the equation is important too. Spend time networking and engaging in social media where available. Your PhD adviser could be one of the most influential people in your adult life, setting the tone for your graduate experience and serving as a primary contributor to your professional network while you establish your career. Be sure to communicate with likely advisers. Discuss work styles, expectations, group graduation times, funding, and research interests.

Undergraduate Degree and GPA
You don’t necessarily need a degree in physics to be admitted into a physics or astronomy PhD program, but it can be challenging to succeed without one, as the pace is fast and expectations are high. Most schools have a minimum GPA requirement to receive financial support, with a 3.0 or higher being a common cutoff. Pragmatically, you should aim for a higher GPA to be competitive. Admissions committees will look at what courses you’ve taken (physics, mathematics, etc.) and your grades in those courses. These factors matter a lot more than your undergraduate institution.They want to know if you are prepared and what you need to work on.

Personal statement and application
Admissions committees often spend a good deal of time reading your personal statement, as it can be a clear window into many of the factors they are looking for. Rather than use a generic statement, directly answer any prompts they provide and avoid providing a laundry list of research areas. Instead, highlight why you’re a good fit for the program and why it’s a good fit for you. Customize your application to the specific program, faculty, and research areas you’re focusing on. Keep in mind that your personal statement will most likely be read first and could impact how your other materials are viewed.

Letters of recommendation
Many schools ask for multiple letters of recommendation, and for good reason. Some consider these to be the most important part of the application. Request letters from people who can provide a well-rounded picture of who you are and why you would succeed in graduate school. You need someone to speak to your coursework performance and your research skills. Make sure they can speak to how you would work in a research environment. Faculty who have taught you in multiple courses and those you’ve done research under are ideal. Always provide letter writers with a copy of your C.V. to help them write about your accomplishments.

Research, outreach, and leadership
One of the most important factors committees look for is your ability to conduct guided and independent research. Highlight the skills and experiences that show the committee you are prepared to do these activities as a graduate student. Providing examples of your research and leadership is typically better than listing them. Students often think that the more things you do as an undergrad the better chance you have to succeed. However, for the personal statement, it can be advantageous to pick a single project and dive into it. It doesn’t matter if your undergraduate research project or internship doesn’t align with what you ultimately want to study in graduate school. The project depth and skills acquired are what matters. Additionally, highlight when your work has been featured in publications, presented at conferences, or received awards. (The Society of Physics Students and other Member Societies provide funding to help students attend professional conferences such as the American Association of Physics Teachers, which always has an undergraduate-friendly setup.1 Going to these conferences can also be an excellent way to network.)

Start the process early
Some programs accept applications as early as one year before admission. Becoming familiar with due dates and required materials for each department is vital, but also keep in mind that it usually costs money to apply to a program. Also note that you can sometimes get it waived by contacting the graduate department and asking. Apply only to those programs that fit you, your interests, and your needs. Students who are serious about the process often apply to multiple programs—five to ten programs is not uncommon.

General GRE and Subject Test
Graduate programs usually require the standardized GRE general test and sometimes require the physics subject test as well. A poor performance on one or both does not mean you won’t do well in a graduate program, but it may limit your options. Check the requirements of the programs you’re interested in, the dates and locations where the GREs are offered, and begin studying as early as possible. A good strategy is to mimic the testing atmosphere with practice tests. For more on the GRE, see page 25.

Other things to consider
While preparing your graduate school admissions material it can be beneficial to also apply for fellowships, such as the NSF graduate fellowship.2 If you are awarded one, it can be a powerful tool, giving you resources to focus
on research and coursework.

Many qualified students decide not to apply to graduate school because of a wide variety of barriers:

  • Application costs
  • Perception that GRE scores aren’t good enough
  • Unclear GPA requirements or expectations for the application process
  • Lack of research or course experience
  • Imposter syndrome (feeling of self-doubt or inadequacy)

Before you make that decision, consider that while admissions committees consider a variety of metrics, they are ultimately looking for people who will succeed in their program and connect well with their faculty. If you have extenuating circumstances that describe less-than-stellar grades, poor test scores, gaps in your education, or another potentially problematic aspect of your application, consider addressing that in your personal statement or ask your mentors whether it makes sense to mention it in your letters of recommendation. Grit and the ability to overcome challenges matters to lots of admissions committees.

Many of the people applying to a given school could academically succeed in their program, thus graduate programs want to offer admissions to students who truly want to be there and will accept if offered. To truly stand out in your application, let your passion and personality shine through. 

Remember, talk to faculty and other professionals about their experiences and recommendations, as subfields and departments will vary. When in doubt, ask the Graduate Program Coordinator of the program you are interested in. Do keep in mind that if you’re looking at schools and programs in Europe, the process and expectations may differ, so be sure to do your homework before applying.3 While most programs have a similar set of expectations for graduate study, admissions committees will vary considerably by institution and sometimes by subfield, as faculty rotate on and off the committee. Additionally, while many programs make the recommendation on whom to admit, graduate schools often make the final offer for admittance. When writing, focus on communicating to faculty within the department you are applying to. Keep in mind that what makes you stand out to one program might not be as noteworthy to another. Your best course of action is to personalize each application to showcase who you are and what makes you a good fit for that specific program.


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