Plan your application process (timeline)

Succeeding in a graduate program in sciences requires commitment, responsibility, and hard work. Much of it starts with your application. Schools want to accept students who show they have what it takes to succeed throughout their often rigorous programs, whether it’s a master’s in physics, Ph.D. in astronomy, or anything in between.

Graduate schools expect good planning from their applicants. They want to see passion, commitment and drive. Don’t delay taking the necessary steps to build the best application package and improve your chances for success.

Planning is everything

Creating a timeline for your application process is a useful first step. But bear in mind that some schools have unique requirements. Be sure to do your diligent research in advance.

This proposed timeline is designed to help reduce anxiety associated with the application process and improve your chances of getting into a graduate program that best suits you.

Freshman / Sophomore year (1st to 2nd year)

  • Plan for research
    An undergraduate research experience increases your likelihood of getting accepted to graduate school. Start by mapping out some ideas for a good research project, and search for professors you wish to work with. Research for REUs, independent study, and research credits are perfect methods of developing this research experience.

Junior year (3rd Year)


  • Start researching graduate programs.
    Think about the specialties you would like to focus on, and the type of degree you wish to earn. Look for the schools that offer programs you may be interested in. Be sure to check each school’s application process and know your deadlines, required GRE scores, and pre-requisite courses.
  • Prepare for the GRE and Physics Subject GRE
  • While it might not be the most important element of your application, most physics and astronomy departments use the GRE as an indicator to assess your potential for success in their programs.
  • Do not underestimate the GRE. It requires significant commitment and studying.
  • Make sure to plan your exam date! Be advised that while the General GRE exam is offered relatively often, the Physics Subject GRE is only offered three times a year. Taking the exam in April is a good plan because it leaves you enough time to take it again in October or November should you wish to improve your grade.
  • Plan your finances
    Most PhD programs in physics and astronomy have financial aid options that cover most, if not all, tuition costs. You can see what the department you are interested in offers in financial aid, teaching assistant, and research assistant positions on the profile page of the GradschoolShopper database.

    • If you’re seeking a master’s degree, you should have a plan on how to finance your way through the program. Check your desired schools for the availability of financial aid, scholarships, and fellowships. Some fellowships require an early application submission and personal statement.


  • Start working on your personal statement
    This is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants in your program. Take the time to craft a well-written and creative personal statement that showcases your experience and interests in your chosen field.

Senior year (4th year)


  • Apply to take the Subject GRE and General GRE
  • Work on your personal statement
    Tweak, edit and continue working on your personal statement. Notice that you might want to write separate statements, each slightly different, in case you apply to different programs.
  • Contact your desired programs
    Ask for information about the program, its setting, financial aid, and culture. Ask for an application packet.
  • Request your undergraduate transcript
    Most departments require a transcript from your undergraduate institution. This process can take weeks or months to obtain. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
  • Ask for recommendations
    Some programs ask for written recommendations in a sealed envelope, whereas others require that the applications be filled out online. Start asking professors or employers for their recommendation letters early. Many of these professionals are busy, and usually have a lot of requests for recommendations at this time. Be sure to give them ample time to write and submit your recommendation letter by the deadline.


  • Take the Subject GRE and General GRE
    This is the time to take your exams if you didn’t do so already, or if you wish to improve your grade. Remember, October and November are usually the last dates the Subject GRE is offered before grad school applications are due. The General GRE is offered more often but is still a requirement for most graduate programs.
  • If you can, visit the campus
    If possible, try to visit your selected schools. Some of them may even invite you for a tour before you make your decision of whether or not to apply. Take advantage of these offers. You can learn a lot by visiting each campus and meeting students or faculty in the program.
  • Create an application schedule
    Compile a final list of programs you wish to apply to, and make sure you know the deadlines and requirements for each application.
  • Prepare to pay the application fees
    Don’t ignore the fees. Applying to each program costs an average of $60-$80, so do your best to plan accordingly.


  • Proofread your personal statement
  • Send professors/employers a reminder about recommendation letters
  • Get your transcripts
    Make sure they are sent directly to the departments you’re applying to. You may also want to order an extra copy for yourself. Your school should be able to give you one in a sealed envelope.
  • Prepare your resume


  • Organize your application packets
    From grammar to mailing addresses, this is your last chance to verify the data before you submit your applications.
  • Send your applications
    Don’t wait until the last minute. Many graduate programs go through applications as they come, which means that the sooner you send your application, the sooner your application is processed.


  • Verify receipt of application
    Call the program administrators to verify that your application was received. Make sure none of them arrived late or was lost in the mail.
  • Verify that the letters of recommendation have been sent.
  • Prepare for your interviews
    Some departments have pre-selection interviews. Start preparing for these by reading about the department, offered programs, professors, and research specialties.
  • Focus on financial aid or options for financing
    If you are a U.S. citizen, you are eligible for FAFSA and should fill out the forms as early as possible ( Alternatively, there are many scholarships and fellowships you may be eligible for, even as an international student.


  • Wait
    There’s nothing more to do at this stage than keep your fingers crossed!


  • Go over the results
    Odds are there will be some rejections. Don’t fret. Celebrate the acceptances and prioritize them.
    If you have not received any acceptance letters, don’t panic. Take time off to plan again and try next year.
  • Thank your professors/employers
    Send thank you notes to the people who took the time to write recommendation letters for you. Update any advisors or people who helped you along the process.
  • Prepare for graduate school!


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Advice to Students

The first year of grad school is really hard. Instead of spending time thinking about whether or not you should be in Grad School, spend that time doing your homework. Then after your first year you can think about whether you really want to be there. — Kendra Redmond, Program Coordinator and Assistant Editor, Society of Physics Students, Podcast Episode #1

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