App Info

This article is intended to summarize some information and collective wisdom about the application process for undergraduate students (from IIT Madras) intending to do graduate study in the Physics, at universities abroad (primarily in the US). Anecdotal stats and details might be found in the appfiles. Note that the times mentioned are "reasonable" estimates in the authors'12 opinion. It is always great if you can get things done earlier, and should be possible to do them a little later (as we invariably ended up doing). Still, we feel that sticking to a schedule like the one given below will help a lot.

Pre-final year

Odd Sem

  1. Get your passport. If you don't already have one, then you should probably apply under the tatkal scheme. For those with no clear cut proof of residence, it's convenient to state your hostel address as your residence.

Even Sem

  1. GRE. Usually, people take the General GRE anytime between December and June. Make sure that you have a relatively free period of at least a couple of weeks to prepare for the GRE (essentially mugging wordlists from Barrons). A score of around 1400 or higher, with a score of 4 or higher in the writing section should probably be good enough for most purposes. (NOTE: This in the "old" GRE format offered till the summer of 2011)

In the summer

  1. CV. Create drafts of your Curriculum Vitae and elicit feedback from your friends, colleagues and professors. Keep iterating and try to create a document which highlights your best points and presents yourself as a unique individual.
  2. SOP. Start early. The most important part of a SOP is that you iterate over it often enough; reading it while you're in different moods is bound to make you perceive it differently. Once you're done with a couple of drafts, circulate it among a few people (who know you well) and get feedback. It's not advisable to ask too many people, for you'll probably be drowned in the noise of suggestions. Most importantly, try not to read any old SOPs before you write at least a draft of your own. Otherwise, you will find that it will invariably influence your style, which might not be a good thing. Lastly, make sure that someone other than yourself reads and approves your final draft (Errors have a way of creeping in under your nose, especially when you're reading your SOP for the hundredth time and unconsciously skip over parts).
  3. AGRE registration. Registration for the Physics subject GRE usually begins around July. Keep tracking the ETS website through the summer, from June onwards, and register soon as there is a chance of seats getting booked out.

Final Year

Odd Sem

  1. TOEFL. Toefl is offerred 2-4 times a month from August onwards. Pick a date that's convenient to you. This requires almost no preparation. When you're on the speaking section, just think through what you're going to say and speak slowly and enunciate clearly. You will score better and also have to effectively speak lesser. And try to schedule for the Prometric center in Nungambakkam, which is much better than some of the other centers.
  2. IELTS. Check if any of the department you are applying to requires IELTS. Most of them don't, some accept both TOEFL and IELTS. But some, like Physics department at MIT, considers only IELTS and not TOEFL and you may not want to miss out on that.
  3. Initializing applications. Carefully read what each college application requires of you.
  4. Resolve clashes. Very very important. Every university likes diversity in it's incoming batch. So it's highly unlikely that two or more people apping from the same batch will get admits to the same university (this varies by branch; we're talking about the specific case of physics, in almost all the "good" universities). It's also tough for your professors if they have to recommend multiple people to the same univ. (Univs almost always ask profs to compare applicants against each other). So avoid clashes as much as possible, and make sure that each person has at least a couple of "safes" to which they are apping alone without any competition.
  5. Apply for transcripts. (If you feel that you have an excellent performance in the 7th sem and it might help your application, then you might decide to apply for another set of grade cards around mid-December and use those for the late deadlines. Some colleges might accept these even if you've already submitted a copy previously. It's always okay to mail and ask.)
  6. Reco requests. When requesting anyone to give you a recommendation, give them a copy of your CV, SOP and transcripts. Give them as much time as possible to write recos. Remember that profs will be quite busy in November and Early December, and you might have your earliest deadlines in December So give them an opportunity to start on your recos before November if possible. Don't worry if profs take some time with your recos. Colleges understand and usually the deadline for recos and supporting documents is around 1 month after the online submission deadline.
  7. Physics GRE. Use common sense, and score as high as possible. Shouldn't be tough.
  8. Proffing?

Even Sem

Beware of Gradcafe. With great power comes great responsibility.

  1. Responses from/to univs
  2. I-20

Following summer

  1. Visa application
  2. Planning travel
  3. Fixing accomodation
  4. Immunizations & medications
  5. The pre-departure shopping guide for sane people.

Applying to Master programs in Europe:

  1. The Ph.D programs in Europe last around 3 years and they expect you to be at the level of a master student.
  2. You can also apply to masters programs in Europe, which would last around 1~2 years. Even if your CG is 7.5 + something and you’re very passionate about your subjects, you can apply to these places.
  3. Most of the application procedures, in this case, are the same as that of the US universities i.e. you need to keep your SOP, CV, TOEFL score,… ready. But if you wish to apply for a Master’s program, you would also need to apply for scholarship.
  4. Germany has many great universities and the information about the various ENGLISH programs as well as the scholarship details for each program can be found out on the website DAAD
  5. Please note that in most of the cases you’ll need to apply for the scholarship separately from the application forms.
  6. And the application for scholarship closes soon. So, you cannot wait until you’re admitted and then apply for a scholarship. Even though the application deadlines for many places closes as late as May, the scholarship applications usually close well before that (November - March).
  7. Details about programs being offered in French universities and the scholarship details can be found on CAMPUS FRANCE
  8. If you are not able to apply a scholarship before the deadline, just go ahead with the application because many universities have a funding of their own, even for Masters programs.
  9. There’s also the ERASMUS MUNDUS program which provides you an excellent opportunity to study in two European Universities. You can check it at ERASMUS MUNDUS
  10. Please note that you need to be looking for ENGLISH programs primarily because many of the programs in the European countries tend to be in their language.
  11. If you’re interested in the above, then some of the universities that you should be considering are Weismann Institute, HEP Program organized by ETH Zurich and Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Polytechnique, LMU, TUM etc..


References and online links:

  1. So you want to be a physicist, by ZapperZ
  2. Howto: Get a great letter of recommendation by Matt Might
  3. Howto: Apply to grad school... by Matt Might
  4. Tips on emailing profs by Vishvesha Guttal. (This one focuses on short-term projects)

Disclaimer & General wisdom:

Work in progress. The current state reflects a summary and certain parts might be expanded into full sections, with more details. All this advice has been written down with the best intentions. Still, we take no responsibility and insist that you base your decisions and plans on authentic information. Generically, authentic information regarding the procedure and deadlines is what you find on the university/ETS's websites.
Remember, ultimately, you're only going to one univ. Having 5 admits is not really of much use. So apart from a couple of safes, don't be afraid to apply aggressively, and for a moonshot or two. At the same time, be realistic with your aims. Put in your best effort so that you don't have any regrets later.

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