Graduate school application tips

Although most Mines students will end their academic career with a full-time job, some will chose instead to continue their education at graduate school. For these students, physics senior Levi Miller, along with Dr. Frederic Sarazin, Dr. Reuben Collins, and fellow senior Matthew Stilwell offered a short presentation and panel discussion of the graduate school application process, especially for physics students.

Miller began the presentation by speaking about the timeline for applying to graduate school. He explained students should begin to accrue research experience and develop relationships for letters of recommendation during their sophomore and junior years. Miller said, “The big thing here is research experience because that is one of the big things that will set your application apart… If you’re a sophomore, [I] highly recommend you start talking to professors and just saying, ‘Hey, you know, what do you do? Are you looking for anyone to help you this summer?'” During the summer after junior year, it was recommended that students should work on finding research opportunities and begin studying for the Graduate Record Examinations test (GRE), as well as deciding which schools they want to apply to.

“It’s really important to get to know a few professors here, or a professor you’re researching with outside of school… because you’re going to need three letters of recommendation,” Miller said. The panel advised students to obtain one letter of recommendation from a professor who can speak to the student’s performance in class and two from professors who can speak to the student’s research abilities. Additionally, having at least one letter not from a CSM faculty member is preferable.

Collins said, “You have to use everything you have. If you’re interested in the field Fred [Sarazin] is in, and you impress Fred as somebody who he can recommend… then Fred can actually get on the phone and call up the people at [the school you’re applying to] and say ‘Have I got a deal for you! I have this student who walks on water. I watched him, just right now.'”

Another important area of discussion was the GRE. The general GRE costs about $160 and consists of quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. The panel recommended taking it in September of senior year. Miller also noted that the first four score reports are free and therefore it is good to have four possible schools before taking the test.

For physics students, the panel had advice about the physics GRE as well. This exam costs about $140 and measures ability in physics material. Courses covered by the physics GRE include physics I and II, modern physics, intermediate mechanics, quantum mechanics, thermal physics, and intermediate electricity and magnetism. The panel strongly recommended taking the physics GRE in October rather than November so as to have scores before turning in applications. “If you are going to physics grad school, the October GRE is the way to go,” said Stilwell.

The panel also discussed statements of purpose. Miller suggested statements should be “organic” and should be an honest description of one’s journey to the application. The statement ought to explain how the applicant is different than other applicants and why he or she is a good fit for a specific school. Collins descried the purpose of personal statement as showing “signs of life.”

On the subject of where to apply, the panel had words of caution. They advised applying to at least five different schools, remembering that a Ph.D. takes on average five years to complete. Sarazin reminded potential applicants that good programs can be found at less prominent schools and cautioned students not to “apply too high” and miss out on graduate school entirely.

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