Applying for Graduate School in Physics

So you think you want to go to graduate school in physics? Great! This is meant to be a guide to help you think through the process and outline the steps you will need to take as you begin this path.

Reflection: Before You Begin

Why do you want to go to graduate school? What should you expect in physics graduate school? These are some questions you should begin asking yourself, though you don’t need to have all the answers yet. Below are some resources to help you with the reflection process.


Okay, so you’ve thought about it and think that graduate school is right for you. What should you do to prepare yourself? Here is a rough timeline of some general tasks required for applying to graduate school.

Sophomore Year

    • Excel in your classes. You will need to be successful in your upper-level physics classes if you want to succeed in graduate school, so take the time now to learn as much as you can!
    • Explore Options. Talk with faculty about their graduate school experiences. What did they enjoy about it? What did they struggle with? Learn about different research fields in physics, and different career options. Remember, most undergraduate physics students take a job in the workforce when they graduate, so this might be an option for you!
  • Engage in Research. You should gain as much exposure and experience as you can. Seek out research opportunities for undergraduates at PLU and talk with faculty about their research interests. Apply for Physics Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs and internships. Don’t worry about getting research experience in your preferred area. That would be great, but at this point you’re just trying to get experience in scientific research and working as part of a scientific collaboration, so the details of the research won’t matter too much.

Junior Year (Spring)

  • Research Graduate Programs. Identify programs that you find interesting. The goal is to make a list of potential programs to consider applying to. You should only apply to programs you actually want to attend! See the resources below to think about the various factors that will influence your decision. It’s perfectly fine if you are unsure about what subfield within physics you want.
  • Prepare for the GRE and Physics Subject Test. All graduate schools in the United States require students to take the GRE. While this is likely not the most important part of your application, you should spend some time preparing for it. Many schools also require the Physics GRE Subject Test. This is a challenging test, and often asks questions on topics you may not have learned yet. You might want to look into whether the schools you are applying to require the Physics Subject Test – schools are increasingly abandoning this requirement.

Junior Year (Summer)

  • Craft your Personal Statement. Your personal statement is one of the most important parts of your application. A personal statement should be tailored to the prompt asked by the institution, but generally you will be asked why you want to attend that specific institution. Take the time to personalize it and receive critical feedback from those you trust: professors, advisors, and trusted friends. Making a grammatical error in your personal statement is catastrophic.
  • Take the General GRE. It is best to take the General GRE over the summer, so you can get it done and out of the way. Don’t forget to study!

Senior Year


  • Work on your Personal Statement. Continue to work on your personal statement, polishing and tailoring it for each specific institution.
  • Review the Application Requirements for Each School. Create a spreadsheet to track deadlines, requirements (transcripts, GREs, recommendations, etc.) and other information.
  • Ask for Recommendation Letters. Most programs require written recommendations, usually from professors, research advisors, and/or employers. See our Recommendation Letter FAQ for more information. Be sure to give your letter writers plenty of lead time!
  • Take the Physics Subject GRE. Only if you need to.


  • Take the Physics Subject GRE. This is your last chance to take it for your scores to be ready for your application!
  • Prepare to pay the application fees. Unfortunately, applications to graduate school have a fee, usually around $100. Many schools offer application fee waivers for students with financial need; be sure to ask about this option.
  • Finalize your list of schools. You should have a nearly-final list of schools you plan to apply to by this point.


  • Update your CV. Consult the SPS Career Toolbox for a detailed guide on crafting your CV.
  • Get your transcripts. Make sure your transcripts are sent directly to the departments you’re applying to.
  • Recommendation Letter Reminders. Send professors/employers a friendly reminder about recommendation letters. It is best to confirm with letter writers that letters and recommendations are completed on time.


  • Finalize your Application Packets. Use your tracking spreadsheet to keep track of application components and make sure deadlines are met.
  • Send your Applications!


  • Verify receipt of application. After submitting, if you haven’t received an electronic confirmation, contact the program administrator to verify that your application and letters of recommendation were received.


  • Prepare for visits. Some departments have visits, where accepted students are invited to visit the school and learn more about graduate school. Your job is to decide if this is the right school for you! Talk to graduate students, learn about faculty and research at the institution, and learn about what it would be like to live there.
  • Reflect. It can be difficult to get into physics graduate school. If you have not received any acceptance letters, don’t be discouraged; you can always try again in the future.


  • Acceptance. Once you’ve accepted a program, notify other institutions of your decision. Oftentimes these institutions have a waiting list, so you may be opening up a slot for someone else!
  • Thank your professors/employers. Update anyone who helped you along the way and send thank you notes to the people who took the time to write recommendations for you!
  • Start preparing for graduate school. Start learning about where you will live and when your program starts. Congratulations!