How to Apply
Your undergraduate department may have a system in place for helping junior and senior majors with the mechanics of and strategies for applying to graduate and professional schools. If so, many of the topics in this and following sections will be part of such systems. It will be helpful for students to construct a timetable that lists the various steps. An example of such a timetable appears at the end of this booklet.
Graduate information and application addresses for each department are published in Graduate Programs and at GradschoolShopper.com. To obtain the most current information on your target schools, you should request information about the opportunities for graduate study in the department and the procedure for applying for admission and financial support. Your undergraduate department may maintain bulletin boards and a file of announcements, posters, brochures, and catalogs that can help at the information-gathering stage. It is generally unnecessary to request the graduate catalog from institutions, since the essential information is usually routed through the department offering graduate study. With the increase of information on the web, all manner of application materials and graduate catalogs are often online.
The departmental information you receive usually will include bulletins that describe the graduate curriculum in detail, an outline of the system of examinations, applications forms, and faculty-reference forms to be submitted on your behalf. Some institutions require separate applications for admission to the graduate school (or college) and for departmental admission and financial aid. Some departments or universities charge an application fee, but others postpone any fee until an offer of admission or appointment is extended. If the offer is accepted, then the fee must be paid. Those schools that accept online applications sometimes require application fees that can be paid online.
A question that frequently arises in filling out application forms is what degree objective to state (or box to check off). Most students going on in physics will check the Ph.D., or M.S. followed by Ph.D., if applying to one of the 180-odd departments that offer the doctorate. Students who are less certain about their talents or doctoral aspirations may be tempted to list only the M.S., even if the Ph.D. is their goal. Some Ph.D.-granting physics departments give preference for financial aid to students who specify the doctorate as their objective, although many make no distinction for entering graduate students. Thus, state the M.S. or M.A. objective by itself only if that is really the case. This is obviously not an issue for those universities offering only the M.S. or M.A. degree in physics or in the related program of interest.
In completing a graduate school or fellowship application, you are not only providing essential information but also making a case for yourself. Many applications require a personal statement, and this should receive your careful attention. You should ask the faculty member who knows you best and who will be writing one of your letters of recommendation to read your draft statement, and to make suggestions for its improvement.
Applications typically call for letters of recommendation from three people who personally know your aptitudes, work habits, and potential for graduate study. Physics faculty obviously should be represented in your selection, but you may also want to consider a professor in a closely related discipline if that person is in a position to make an informed evaluation. If you have worked closely on research projects or internships with a supervisor who can write an informed description of your work, you should solicit a letter from that individual. If you have done other supervised work that bears directly on your qualities as a potential teaching assistant, be sure that at least one of your recommenders can address those strengths.
In approaching a faculty member to write a letter of support for your application, you should make an appointment that will allow enough time for you to discuss your plans and to ask and answer questions. Both of you should feel comfortable discussing frankly the strength of the recommendations that can be written to different programs. For example, faculty may be able to support strongly a student's application to one university, while having some reservations about endorsing that student's application to a very selective program.
You should provide your recommenders with a summary of your past work and graduate school plans, in much the same form as you plan to submit with your application. Copies of your vita or resume, transcript, and personal statement will go a long way in supplementing conversations. To the maximum extent, you should assist your letter writers by completing as much of the paperwork and envelopes as they request. Lastly, give them plenty of time to work your letters (and often many others) into their schedules. Be explicit about due dates, with attached notes or a checklist. If you are concerned that one of your references may need a reminder about an approaching due date, make a polite follow-up a week or so in advance.