Graduate School: General Guidelines

"Education is... hanging around until you've caught on." -Robert Frost

To help ensure admission to graduate school, it is suggested that students:

  • Have at least a 3.0 grade point average, with a minimum 3.5 needed for acceptance by the more prestigious graduate schools.
    • Both the physics average and the overall average are important, and a transcript that shows steady improvement is beneficial.
    • While grade point average is important, it is not the sole indicator of suitability for post-graduate work. Some students with an overall average as low as 2.5 have gone on to graduate schools and done well, their success attributable to a high degree of interest and the willingness to work hard.


About the GRE

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE), given by Education Testing Services (ETS) is a timed, multiple choice exam, similar to the SAT; scores are typically submitted with graduate school applications. All graduate schools require the aptitude section of the GRE, and most will also require the completion of the physics section.

  • Dates and locations for these tests may be obtained from the Center for Career Development. The GRE registration deadline falls more than a month before the test date. Typically, the exams are given in April, October, and December. Exact dates are posted on the Educational Testing Service Network (ETS) web page.
  • Graduate schools require test scores before their application deadlines, which are usually in February or March.
  • Scholarship programs and some graduate departments require that applicants take both parts of the GRE on or before the October testing date.
  • Many students take the general test in April of their junior year, followed by the physics test in October of their senior year (it is not recommended to take both exams on the same day).

For more information, contact GRE directly or the Gettysburg College Center for Career Development. And don't hesitate to talk over your ideas and goals with physics faculty! 


Preparing for the GRE

Some of the more competitive graduate schools are placing increased reliance on GRE scores. Although it's hard to improve aptitude scores by advanced preparation, there are books available with sample GRE questions.

  • Some sample questions are available in the free GRE General Test Descriptive Booklet and some will be mailed to registrants for the physics test.
  • It may also be helpful to study the ETS booklet Practicing to Take the GRE Physics Test. This booklet contains two GRE physics exams that were actually administered in previous years. It is useful to take - and time -- these trial exams individually, and discuss the answers with others. Mock GREs from other publishers are available, but may not accurately reflect the actual GRE.
  • Preparation for the physics section of the GRE can be undertaken by reviewing the material covered by the seven core physics courses.
    • If time is limited, focus on texts used in Physics 111,112, 213, 310 and 312. Ninety percent of the questions on the exam can be answered at a level compatible with those texts.
    • Most of the questions concerning classical physics (mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, waves, etc.) are at the level of the Halliday & Resnick text, and it makes good sense to review this book, paying special attention to the chapter summaries.
    • Most of the questions concerning quantum physics are at the 100-level courses. There are many questions concerning the facts of atomic physics, and a thorough review of the first year physics text or another text on modern physics (Serway, Moses, and Moyer's Modern Physics or Eisberg and Resnick's Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei, and Particles, etc. )is recommended.


Applying to Graduate School

Graduate school literature, posters and information-request postcards can be found in the Masters Hall Student Lounge (Room 206) and online from those schools of interest. Physics faculty members/advisors can provide additional information. In addition, Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy and Related Fields, published by the American Institute of Physics. lists graduate programs by specific field of interest.

  • Representatives from various graduate schools come to the campus, usually during the fall semester, and hold brief, informal sessions for seniors interested in attending their schools. These sessions are also excellent sources of general information.
    • Notices of these sessions are normally advertised in the Gettysburgian and online; any physics senior who is contemplating graduate school should attend them.
  • After initial research, the faculty suggests narrowing one's choices down to five or six universities. Some students prefer to apply to at least one institution where the competition is strong, and to one where acceptance is believed to be more certain. Advisors can offer information as to the competitiveness of an institution; The American Institute of Physics (AIP) also provides information about graduate requirements.
  • Most schools request at least three references; faculty members who know a student's work can write recommendations. The Center for Career Development can help applicants prepare an information sheet or résumé.
  • Requests for information about financial aid, assistantship programs and scholarships should be made at the time of application.
  • International students should include this information in their applications; it may also be beneficial to request information on financial aid for continuing education from pertinent consular officials in the U.S.

Notices of acceptance to graduate school usually arrive in mid to late April. If you receive more than one acceptance, the department suggests that you write promptly to those schools not chosen, so that the offer of admission can be extended to someone else.

To learn more about careers for physics majors, visit the American Institute of Physics.