I'm sorry in advance if this is the wrong forum, but it didn't seem to fit in any of the subforums.
I made a rash decision recently to try to apply for grad school this season. I have been out of school for a year and a half, and I had thought for a while that my application would simply be far too weak for it to be worth the effort. But I haven't enjoyed waiting, so I thought I might give it a shot. In the spirit of this forum, here are some stats in the standard format:
GPA in major: 3.88/4.0
Overall GPA: 3.86/4.0
Length of Degree: 5
Position in class: Academically speaking, I was one of the stronger physics students in my class, wouldn't quite say I was at the top. I took a lot of grad courses in both physics and math (some of our major courses are taken by grad students as well, so there are some blurred lines here), and got some A+s in them. I took a full year of QFT, though that was probably a waste of my time, and it didn't issue grades except for "pass." I also did a lot of independent study, but that doesn't count for anything, right?
I took the pGRE a week ago and will take the GRE in 10 days or so. Given simulated practice test performance, I think I will be in the 330+ range for the GRE R+Q and in the 960+ range for the pGRE (taking into account how I felt on test day). No reference point for the writing section, but I expect to do well enough that no one will really care.
I didn't do any research as a undergrad, which may be the single biggest regret of my life so far. What?! Why not?! At an institute of technology?! Well, the reason my degree took 5 years is that I almost completed the math major before deciding to bail to physics, and I had no interest in math research. Additionally, I was pathologically shy, and was convinced that nobody would want to do research with me, so I never bothered to ask (yes, I know how dumb this sounds; I grew up a lot in college). I have been working at a national lab doing computational soft matter research (essentially chemistry) for the past 9 months, but I don't really like this research and I won't do soft matter ever again after I'm done with it. I haven't switched jobs mostly for continuity's sake, because I have the opportunity to get my name on some submitted papers, and because it pays pretty decently, though I'd rather work for free or part time at the local university sooner or later.
My LoRs, if they come in time, will come from a professor I had in a graduate orbital mechanics class, who I was somewhat well acquainted with personally and who thinks very highly of me due to a project (essentially a math problem) I did for the class. He's somewhat famous, and I think probably at least one person on a given committee would know his name. My other two recommenders are people I've worked with somewhat closely in my time at the national lab, who think very highly of me (although I haven't put in my best effort here, I have done a lot of work for them and come up with a few good ideas, and they think I'm smart for whatever reason). These are literally the only people I could think of who could possibly write me a good letter, so at least I didn't have to hem and haw about it.
But I'm way behind the curve, since I basically started contemplating actually applying to grad school halfway through studying for the pGRE. I figure that I have just enough time to get a functional application together for most deadlines, assuming my recommenders get their letters written in time. I have no idea if I am a good enough applicant to get in anywhere at all, since I think it seems really odd that I'm basically ancient and have so little research experience to show for it. And I'm not sure what I want to specialize in, mostly because I don't have a lot of research exposure. Probably geophysics, atmospheric physics, condensed matter, or astro. Probably not HEP, particles, or any basically-math theory stuff. Anything else (biophysics? aph?) I could see myself loving, but haven't had much exposure to.
The bottom line is, I am really excited about doing research I actually care about. But since I wasn't planning to apply in the first place, I am willing to only apply to schools I am unlikely to get into. I don't want to settle since I think I can do some good research I actually like between now and the next cycle and just apply then. Is this a reasonable strategy or am I completely insane? If I take this approach am I just going to get rejected from everywhere, so that I might as well wait another year and not waste a bunch of money in fees? Am I crazy person for other reasons? I don't really have anyone to talk to about these things, so I'd appreciate some outside perspective.
PS: I know this is off topic, but are letters of recommendation typically the "form-to-fill-out-after-I-submit" type or the "an actual letter with 3-4 paragraphs" type? I can't find this information anywhere and I don't have anyone I can ask in real life.