I'm starting the last year of my undergrad physics degree in September, so I'm weighing in my options for my graduate studies. I'd like to pursue a physics PhD in the States, but since I come from a different background I need some help and advice on what to do. I'm from Spain, and college is quite different here. First, you decide what you're studying before going to college. In my case, I chose physics, which is a 5 year degree where all you take are physics and math courses, which you don't get to pick except for a few different options in your last year. The whole degree amounts to about 3100 hours of lectures. Most people can't keep up with the courseload, so, on average, the degree actually takes 8 – 9 years instead of 5 (most people don't pass courses on their first try). There is one final exam for each course, which makes up 100% of your grade (except for a few kind proffessors that might give up to 10% extra credit for turning in some assignments, but that's unusual), and grades are also considerably lower than those in the States; in most courses nobody gets an A, and if somebody does, it's usually only 1 or 2 people. There isn't a person in my whole university that has the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA. The concept of applications is nonexistent, the vast majority of universities are public and don't have an admissions committee that you need to impress, so grades aren't usually such a big deal. Also most undergrad students don't get any kind of research experience. Some get a little during their last academic year, but it's mostly just helping out in a lab rather than doing something on their own. It is my understanding that, in the US everyone's very aware of the application process since a very young age and therefore their decissions are oriented towards that goal, but that's absolutely not the case in Spain, and I don't have an impressive résumé at all. Another difference is that once you finish your undergrad degree, if you want to continue studying, you first take a Masters degree (1-2 years), where you take courses in a more specific field of your interest, and then after that you start your PhD, instead of starting your PhD directly like in the US. Now, because of all of the above, I think it may be hard for me to get into a US Phd program given that: I'll end up with a “GPA” of around 7 out of 10, which is not bad at all by Spanish standards but probably crappy if compared to most students profiles. During this coming year I'll probably be able to get a little research experience, but I don't think it will be too noteworthy (and I don't have any other research experience yet). Getting letters of recommendation will be hard, since most of my proffessors only know me from lectures and taking my finals so they won't be able to say much about me. I guess if I join a research group I will get one from the proffessor in charge, but I don't know about the rest. I'd also like to note that I don't have “high ambitions” about wanting to get into one of the top programs at the best colleges or anything of the kind, I just want a nice place where I'll get a good learning experience, regardless of name and popularity. I'd also be open to going to Canada instead of the US, although I don't know if the admission process is similar there (I wouldn't have a problem with studying in French either). I'm not completely set about what field I want to go into, but, at this point my main interests would be either quantum information or condensed matter (and I wouldn't mind going the experimental route). As I said these aren't set in stone and I may end up doing something different. Anyway, the way I see it I have several options: 1. Sending my applications this fall/winter to try to get into a PhD in the US to start in the fall of 2013. This would be my ideal option but I think it would hurt my chances for several reasons: my schedule this year will be the lightest and easiest of my whole degree, so I'm expecting to get good grades which will help my average (and these wouldn't show in my application). Also I'd have less time to prepare for the GRE, which I've read is quite important, and finally I wouldn't be able to have much research time before sending applications (applying is quite expensive and I wouldn't want to spend that much money and get rejected everywhere). 2. Waiting another year or two before trying to apply. This would give me time to finish my degree, take the GRE, and in the meantime I could either try to continue doing research at my university (which would probably be hard, since the crisis in Spain is pretty devastating and funding at this point is virtually non-existent) or getting a Masters degree (I don't know if having a Masters is seen as desirable by admission committees). 3. Just forget about it and pursue my Masters/PhD in Spain or somewhere else in Europe where it might be easier for me to get into a program (although I hope I don't have to take this option). If you've read this far, thanks a lot for your time and interest (I know it was long), and please comment with your thoughts because any input or advice will be truly appreciated. If you think I've left out some relevant information, please let me know.