I'm applying to 15-20 top heavy programs. Five of those programs are ranked 20+
Physics GPA: 3.65
Physics GRE: Took today. Thought I performed on par with practice exams, maybe a bit better. Averaging ~870 on timed tests. So for now, a mystery.
General GRE: Taking soon. Expect a strong quantitative, mediocre verbal, and strong analytical writing.
Supplementary info about academic record: A few bumps. I have an F on my transcript due to medical circumstances one semester. Retook later, earned an A. Also took a semester that was physics/math heavy, while teaching as a supplemental instructor and doing research. During that semester, took 7 courses (high level math and physics). Ended up with a ~3.4 GPA that semester. Regrettably, some of those courses are the important ones that graduates schools look at for improvement, i.e. upper level Classical Mechanics, Quantum, and Particle Physics. Steadily improved on higher level physics courses, pushing up to 3.6-3.9 each semester that followed. Every physics lab course I took, I earned an A. Strong interdisciplinary course marks (A's) (physical chemistry, organic chemistry, and biology courses)
Research Experience: This is where I believe my application stands out.
1) Wrote a program that simulates the lifetime of atmospheric muons in a spark chamber. Program was an addition to one based on a simulation of the determining the muon mass. Did some work putting together a prototype. Apparatus itself was machined, but worked on a pressure gauge installation (figuring out how to hold pressure inside the chamber for a few days), figuring out how to use PMTs and scintillators, and figuring out how to basically run the entire apparatus.
Result: Program and apparatus will be used in physics intermediate lab at my university.
2) Did some original work on a project involving charged granular media.
Result: Earned two A's on my transcript as honors thesis. Received an academic award. Publication in the works as first author. Problem is, publication is in the process of approval = not enough time for deadlines.
3) Currently work at a national lab doing research.
Result: Two publications in the works, one as first author. Again, not in time for deadlines. Both in the process of approval. Currently working on a project that looks very promising for an additional publication (well after deadline).
Summary: Three pending publications, two as first author.
Letters of Recommendation: As far as I can tell, very strong. Formed strong friendships with each recommender. Two recommenders have known me for at least 2 years. One recommender for 1 year. Two recommenders are well-established in their field to which I am applying to.
I'm worried about GPA, particularly bumps in academic record. I expect 800s for PGRE. But if in the 700s, worried about applying top heavy. Of course I could throw some more safety schools in there, but I wonder if strong research experience will outweigh a lower than average PGRE or GRE score.
I'm applying mostly to applied physics and biophysics programs, some of which don't even require PGRE.