Make Your Applications Count

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Make Your Applications Count


Brad R. Conrad, Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, and Matthew J. Wright,
Associate Physics Professor and Chair, Adelphi University

When admissions committees review your grad school applications, they’ll consider many factors: your letters of recommendation, personal statement, academic record, research experience, accomplishments, desired research area, and personal characteristics. Together they’ll decide, based on that picture, whether you’re likely to be a good fit and succeed in their program. We’ve helped many students get into research-based physics and astronomy graduate programs in the United States and Canada—here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

Target schools that fit you

Before applying anywhere, think about your goals, what you want from a graduate degree, what you’d like to do after you finish, and your ideal work and living environments. What do you want your life to look like in 10 years? Apply to programs that are a good fit for you, not just those ranked highly by some website.

Make a list of programs that spark your interest as you explore and program websites, and talk to peers, mentors, and professors. Get lots of opinions. Once you have a list, here are some ways to decide whether a program should stay on your shortlist:

  • Revisit your goals. Would this program help you reach them?
  • Revisit your preferences. Are you really okay with living there?
  • Find out about the department and grad student community. Could you see yourself being happy there?
  • Email professors you’re interested in working with and get to know them. Could you see yourself working with any of them?
  • If you have many interests, consider whether the program has a sufficient breadth of research fields and opportunities for you.

Students often apply to multiple programs—6 to 12 is not uncommon—but apply only to those that truly fit you, your interests, and your needs.

Personalize each application

A personalized application is much more likely to impress an admissions committee than a generic one. As you work on your applications, consider what you can bring to each program. Then tailor your application, including your personal statement (aka statement of purpose), to each program.

  • If there are any prompts in the application, answer them directly.
  • In your personal statement, highlight why you’re a good match for that program. Name-drop research projects and potential advisors that interest you and otherwise demonstrate that you’re familiar with that program.
  • If you’ve visited the department or met with any of its faculty members, say so.
  • Double-check your files before uploading them. Since you’ll have different versions of your personal statement, make sure you send the correct one to each program!

Let your passion, personality, grit, and perseverance shine through. Graduate programs want to admit students who truly wish to be there and are likely to attend if admitted.

Make your recommendation letters count

Programs typically ask for three letters of recommendation. Request letters from those who can speak to who you are and your likelihood to succeed in grad school. Ideally, ask research mentors and faculty members in the field who know you well.

Give your letter writers plenty of advanced notice and a copy of your résumé or CV. Remind them about projects you worked on together, your contributions to their classes, and the skills they’ve seen you develop. The more personal information letter writers have and remember about you, the stronger your letter will be.

Don’t let perceived barriers stand in your way

Many qualified students don’t apply to graduate school because of lower grades or GRE scores, lack of research experience, feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy, financial barriers, or other factors. If you’re on the fence, share your concerns with trusted professors and mentors who know you well. They can offer honest assessments of your readiness, suggestions for strengthening your skills or preparation, and recommendations for programs.

If your academic track record or lack of research experience has you worried, talk to the graduate school coordinator at programs that interest you. They may be more flexible than you think. In addition, briefly address any extenuating circumstances that account for problematic aspects of your application in your personal statement.

If application costs are a barrier, request fee waivers for financial hardship. Many programs will grant them. Ask around on campus too; sometimes research groups, departments, and student organizations will help with graduate school–related expenses.

Start early and be organized

Some programs accept applications as much as one year in advance. Carefully track the due dates of required materials for each program so that you don’t miss anything. And if you have any questions about a program or application, don’t hesitate to ask the program’s graduate coordinator for guidance.

This piece is adapted from an article published in the Fall 2019 issue of the SPS Observer.

 Commonly Required Application Materials

  • Application form
  • Résumé or CV
  • Written essays (e.g., personal statement or research statement)
  • College transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • GRE and English proficiency test scores (if applicable)



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