Admission to Grad School

Admission to Graduate School

It is useful to know the factors that graduate departments consider in making admission and financial aid decisions. The principal factors are:

  • the quality of the undergraduate preparation,
  • faculty evaluations in letters of recommendation,
  • performance on the Graduate Record Examination, and
  • experience in undergraduate research and projects.

Of course, a distinguished undergraduate record in a department known to maintain high standards and to prepare students well for graduate degree work is of the utmost value in being admitted to a graduate school and in winning financial support. Greatest weight usually is given to the quality of course work in physics and mathematics; however, evidence that you are literate and can express yourself well is also important. Letters of recommendation from people well acquainted with your work may be as important as your scholastic record. This is particularly so if you have an unimpressive transcript or GPA but you proved to be qualified for graduate work during your undergraduate career. Especially valuable are specific examples cited in letters of recommendation from professors or supervisors describing your experience in and aptitude for research work, e.g., on an undergraduate research problem, senior or honors thesis, special project, or summer employment.

Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores are required for admission to many graduate schools and recommended for many others. The GRE General Test is the minimum such requirement, independent of the field of study. Approximately half of the graduate physics departments require test scores on the GRE Subject Test for Physics. Making a good showing on the GRE Subject Test for Physics is often a prerequisite for consideration at the most selective physics departments. A high score on the Subject Test is also essential for winning a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF), particularly in physics. Doing well on the Subject Test may strengthen an application to graduate departments other than physics, but it is not required. In general, undergraduate physics majors will not have sufficient preparation for the other GRE Subject Tests unless they have taken extensive course work in the subjects of that exam. (Such Subject Tests were discontinued for engineering, geology, economics, and music in 2001.) For foreign students, an English-language test is often required, particularly for teaching assistantships. Each graduate school will furnish details on its requirements and recommendations regarding the GRE exams.

All of the standardized exams are now administered electronically, and there have been parallel changes to the applications and reporting process. Students should become familiar with the GRE website and the deadlines, applications procedures, forwarding of scores, and practice materials available.

A Word About Deadlines

Since the deadline for receipt of test scores by many graduate schools often falls in February, it is usually necessary to take the GRE during the previous fall term. The deadlines for national fellowships, such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, require similar advance planning.

Many students find it less stressful and more productive to take the General Test in the summer or early fall, and the Subject Tests in December. Some undergraduate physics departments offer practice sessions or review courses to help students prepare for the Subject Test for Physics. Application forms, sample test questions, and time and location of examinations can often be obtained from your school's registrar or placement office, or directly from GRE-ETS, P.O. Box 6000, Princeton, NJ 08541-6000. Students planning on taking any of the GRE tests should make up a checklist of deadlines for applications early in the summer of the senior year.

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