Application Procedures & FAQ
APPLYING TO THE PROGRAM
Our suggested application deadline for initial Fall semester 2021 enrollment is December 15, 2020. In practice, this means we begin reviewing all completed applications in late December, or as soon thereafter as they are complete. For more information, please see our frequently asked questions below.
Applications are handled by UNC’s Graduate School.
Detailed instructions for all domestic and international student applicants can be found here. We also require a statement of purpose. Your required statement of purpose should be an essay of at least one page explaining past experiences, reasons for personal interest in graduate study in Physics and/or Astronomy, and any extra information you would like us to take into account to properly evaluate your application. We would particularly like to hear about your research experience and other interests and endeavors, especially insofar as they illustrate your independence, determination, and other qualities that lead to success in graduate school. Your specific fit with UNC Chapel Hill is also of interest.
Email questions about the application process or our graduate program may be directed to:
What undergraduate background is expected of applicants to the graduate program?
Our graduate program invites applications from interested persons who have undergraduate degrees and course backgrounds that emphasize physics. Clearly additional undergraduate course experiences in astronomy, mathematics, computational programming techniques, engineering, and electronics may also provide useful preparation.
For admission to Physics and Astronomy’s graduate program, a B.S. or B.A. degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0 is usually required, ideally with a major in physics or astronomy (or strong physics coursework in a related major). Applicants will be evaluated based on their likelihood of success in our graduate program. As such, students having strong letters of recommendation, a record of research experience and productivity, good grades, and good test scores will generally be competitive for admission; however, we place no minimum threshold upon test scores and will consider all aspects of each applicant’s file for admission.
Is ‘provisional acceptance’ ever offered for graduate study to students of promise whose prior physics training is weak?
Provisional acceptance is not possible. It may be possible for such students to gain sufficient physics training to allow them to be successful in our graduate program by further enrollment in pre-graduate level physics courses. This can, for example, be arranged through UNC’s Continuing Studies program. Information about registering as a part-time student in selected pre-graduate courses prior to graduate work can be found at the Friday Center website.
Occasionally a student may lack just one or two advanced undergraduate courses that are prerequisites to our graduate courses. If such a student is otherwise very well prepared academically, we may consider admission with the expectation that the student will take the missing courses in the first year as part of a custom study plan. This option is only possible for 400+ level prerequisites.
How long will it take me to obtain a graduate degree in the program?
The typical duration of studies for well-prepared, conscientious students to achieve a doctoral degree is about 5-6 years. Students entering with a master’s degree from another physics program may require less time if they can pass our doctoral written exams quickly. Students may optionally choose to receive a Master’s degree en route to the PhD, which typically takes two years. All students proceed most quickly toward a degree when they affiliate themselves early with one of the departmental research programs to begin to learn about research. Toward that end, some admitted students may be able to arrange an opportunity for research with us in the summer prior to their initial fall enrollment.
Can I obtain just a Master’s degree?
We do not offer a terminal master’s program, and only consider applications from students intent upon a Ph.D. However, we do offer a Master’s degree en route to the Ph.D. that is purely optional; students may wish to do the extra work to obtain an M.S. typically within the first 2 years of their studies.
How many offers of admission to the Physics and Astronomy graduate program are made each year?
In recent years Physics & Astronomy has sought to enroll 12 to 16 incoming graduate students in each fall semester. Because of the fluctuating number of admitted students enrolling in our program each year, the number of students offered admission varies slightly from year to year.
Are your admission offers ever restricted in number by field of specialization?
We strive each fall to recruit an incoming class with a breadth of interests, and we certainly look for and encourage applicants whose interests match those of our faculty. We do not follow strict guidelines about the number of admissions offered in each of the Department’s research fields.
When is the application deadline for your program?
We recommend strongly that all applications be completed by the December deadline for initial fall semester enrollment in that year. In practice, this means we begin reviewing all completed applications in mid-December. For full consideration for admission, applications are required to be completed (including all required application materials) no later than December 15, 2020. The principal loss to strong applicants whose files are incomplete by the December deadline is that they risk not being considered for nomination for lucrative, highly competitive, Graduate School fellowships. Our internal deadlines in this campus-wide competition require that any nominee’s file must be complete and be fully evaluated by our departmental admissions committee by mid-January.
We recognize that official GRE scores are often reported after these deadlines, and applications containing unofficial GRE scores will be considered for admission if they are otherwise complete; however, admission will not be offered until official GRE scores are received. We also recognize that the submission of recommendation letters are outside of the applicants’ control; students are strongly encouraged to verify that the required 3 recommendation letters have been received by the application deadline. Applications that do not contain all required materials will not be considered for admission.
What is your schedule for notifying applicants of acceptance or rejection?
We usually begin to send offers of admission in February, and continue to admit students until we believe sufficient offers have been made to fill our class for the coming year. Most of our offers for fall admission with financial aid are made by early March, although a select number of very favorably reviewed students may be considered for late admission, to be tendered offers if space is available. Rejection notices are usually sent between mid March and April 15.
By when must I tell you if I accept your admission offer?
The deadline for acceptance of our offer of fall semester admission is April 15. We greatly appreciate earlier notification if at all possible. Since the number of places in our program is limited, and since we keep a file of applicants who are deemed worthy of admission if space becomes available, we would like to know as quickly as possible whether admitted students will be able to accept our offer. Declined offers open spaces for others.
Is an acceptance by email sufficient to hold my place in your program?
Notifying us by email of your acceptance is strongly encouraged. Official acceptance through the graduate school is also required.
How do I officially accept the offer of admission with the Graduate School?
Included in your official offer letter from the Graduate School are instructions regarding the formal acceptance of admission as well as the required enrollment deposit and Student Health Forms.
What happens once I have accepted your offer?
A final transcript showing your grades for the current semester and proving that you have completed all requirements for the degree program in which you currently are enrolled is required by the Graduate School before you are eligible to register for classes. This proof of your qualifications to enroll here as a graduate student is mandatory and cannot be waived under any circumstances.
The Graduate School will also request payment of a non-refundable enrollment deposit to hold your place in our program until you actually enroll.
Finally, you will be sent a Student Medical History form which must be completed and returned to the Student Health Services office. All students are urged to complete this form and return it as quickly as possible. You will not be allowed to enroll here until it is completed.
GRE AND TOEFL EXAMS
Is the Physics GRE required?
The Physics GRE subject test is not required. Applicants are required to take the GRE standardized test and submit their official scores to the UNC Graduate School. Institution code: #5816 (no department code).
Can I provide my GRE scores to the Department or must they come to you directly from the Educational Testing Service?
We invite students to send us early ‘unofficial’ copies of their GRE and TOEFL test scores. These can be used for internal departmental evaluation for admission. However, our Graduate School requires that ‘official’ results reach us from the testing agency before any admission offer can be extended.
What minimum GRE and TOEFL scores are usual for students you admit?
We do not employ GRE cutoffs. For reference, recently enrolled students have had GRE scores in the following percentile ranges: Verbal 41%-99% and Quantitative 71%-98%. The TOEFL exam is required for non-native English speakers and the minimum acceptable score is 95 on the internet-based test. Alternatively, a IELTS score of 7 or above may be substituted for the TOEFL.
Although we have no strict minimum test scores, a very low score would require us to appeal to the graduate school on your behalf. Such an appeal will be considered only if every other element of your application is exceptionally strong.
How recently must I have taken the GRE/GMAT or TOEFL exams?
Our Graduate School requires recent, official score reports. GRE/GMAT scores more than 5 years old and TOEFL scores more than 2 years old are not acceptable.
Do you ever waive the requirements that applicants take the GRE exams?
No. Our Graduate School requires that all applicants take the verbal and quantitative GRE exams.
Do you ever waive the requirements that applicants take the TOEFL exam?
The only chance for TOEFL waiver is for applicants claiming exemption from the requirement based upon receipt of a previous degree from an institution in an English speaking country. In these cases, an official transcript or diploma showing the degree award date must be submitted to the Graduate School to receive the waiver.
Why does Physics & Astronomy usually require a higher TOEFL score than the Graduate School?
The principal departmental goal in requiring the higher TOEFL score is assurance that accepted students can communicate well in English and serve effectively as teaching assistants in an undergraduate laboratory or recitation section. The Department requires demonstration of such proficiency as a condition for obtaining an MS or Ph.D. degree. In rare cases, when departmental faculty know applicants personally and can vouch for an applicant’s English language proficiency, a lower TOEFL score may be allowed.
For up-to-date information about taking the GRE, visit ETS’s GRE web site.
Must all my application materials arrive before the application deadline?
Applicants are recommended to submit all application materials by December 15, 2020 for early consideration for graduate school fellowships. The earlier a file is complete, the earlier a formal decision can be made concerning admission. We recognize that official GRE scores are often reported after these deadlines, and applications containing unofficial GRE scores will be considered for admission if they are otherwise complete; however, admission will not be offered until official GRE scores are received. We also recognize that the submission of recommendation letters are outside of the applicants’ control; students are strongly encouraged to verify that the required 3 recommendation letters have been received by the application deadline. Applications that do not contain all required materials will not be considered for admission.
Students who have completed their application, and subsequently receive news of a highly significant event that they believe may affect our admissions decision (such as acceptance of a first-authored manuscript for publication, or receipt of an award) may contact the Director of Graduate Admissions with the supplementary information.
Will my application be accepted if I am unable to pay the application fee?
An applicant’s file is incomplete until the application fee is paid, and no deferred fee payment is allowed. However, applicants may request a fee waiver from the Graduate School if they fall within one of several eligibility categories listed here, including CAP REU alumni who may contact Director Sheila Kannappan regarding the possibility of a fee waiver. Applications that are incomplete because of unpaid or non-waived fees are not evaluated by the Department. Our Graduate School accepts no departmental recommendation for applicant admission until the fee is paid.
The Department is interested in assessing the effect of this fee from the Graduate School in preventing otherwise qualified applicants from applying to our program. If you would otherwise apply but find the fee prohibitive, yet do not formally qualify as having financial need according to UNC’s criteria, please give us your contact information here. We will use this information to ask for a review of our policies for reduced/eliminated fees. This is unlikely to change policies in the current year but may help future students who find the current fee structure prohibitive. Some foreign applicants for whom application fee payment is a financial hardship occasionally find a friend in the US who can pay the fee for them. In these cases, a check or money order made payable to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should be sent with a cover letter to:
The Graduate School
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
200 Bynum Hall
Chapel Hill, NC 27599 USA.
The cover letter must make it very clear for whom this application fee is being paid.
Will my chances of admission or financial aid be reduced if my materials do not arrive before the application deadline?
Generally, yes. The deadline of December 15, 2020 will allow your application to be assessed for all available fellowship opportunities.