What does a graduate application look like?

Most applications look nearly the same, so we could use any one of them to give you a general idea. However, nobody seems to publish pdf’s of these online! So, without further ado, here’s a sketch of Stanford’s physics application from 2017-18 (we’ve tried to get it as close as possible, but some things may not be retyped properly), for those of you contemplating applying to graduate school.

As you’ll see, most of the information on an application is just one big list: biographical information, your educational history, raw numbers of GPA and GRE. This is why your personal statement and recommendation letters are so important! They are the only place that really tells your story, showcases your personality, and advocates for all the other non-quantifiable reasons you deserve admission at a particular school.

Some schools will also ask you to upload a CV. So have one at the ready! Tailor the CV to discuss what you haven’t in the application already. It’s okay if your CV becomes very long.


General SPS advice: ABSOLUTELY DO NOT LIE ON THESE FORMS. There’s nothing worse you could do, and you will be caught.

Also: you’re your own best advocate. If there is a question allowing you to explain an aspect of your background that needs explaining, answer it and try to frame it in as positive a light as possible. They’re trying to help you, so take the help.

Biographical information

Full legal name
Full name:
Preferred first name:
Any other name you have used on academic records:

Biographical information (part 2)

Marital status:
Gender (“if you wish, you may share additional information about your gender/gender identity – 125 characters”):
US Social Security Number (if any):
Date of birth:
Birth city:
Birth country:

Citizenship information

Country of citizenship:
Other country of citizenship:
US citizenship status:
Type of visa (if you already have one):
Alien registration number:

Ethnicity information

Are you Hispanic or Latino? (yes, no or decline to state. Option to describe background further)

“Regardless of your answer to the prior question, please check one or more of the following groups in which you consider yourself to be a member” (each ethnicity has a dropdown box and place for typing below allowing you to describe your background further):

  • Decline to state
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (Original Peoples)
  • White (including Middle Eastern)

At some universities, alumni have donated (or the university has allocated) funding for special fellowships and/or advising programs for students underrepresented in physics. It often behooves you to report these statuses on the application forms. Use Google or speak with a dean in WashU’s College Office if you have questions, comments, or concerns.

Military status

  • US Military Active
  • US Military Veteran
  • US Military Reserve
  • US Military Dependent
  • Other (please explain)
  • Decline to state

Contact Information

Current mailing address:
Permanent address:
Telephone numbers (home, fax, work, cell, preferred):
Email address:

Program selection

Term applying for:

Academic interests

Dropdown lists allowing you to choose your top 3, plus space to type in additional interests.

Fill out this section carefully! Some physics PhD programs have one big admissions committee that handles all applications. Others have multiple separate committees, one for each “area” of physics — in this case, what you mark on your form determines who will be reading your application. Be strategic! (but you won’t know ahead of time which school has what type of admissions process)

When they say additional interests, generally they don’t mean type in a more specific subfield than listed above. For example, if they have an option of “high energy theory” or “particle physics,” you don’t need to use the extra space to type in “lattice gauge theory.” Only do that if they ask you to type in a specific subfield.

Those extra spots are generally for physics-related research done outside the department you’re applying to or a niche field that the department only has one or two professors in; for example, if your top interests are biophysics, condensed matter, and optics, but the optics research is all done in the school’s electrical engineering department, then you choose “biophysics” and “condensed matter” on the dropdown lists and type in “optics” if there’s a space for it somewhere else. 

Educational History

Dates attended:
Uploaded your transcript:

Additional educational history

List anywhere else attended. Upload transcripts.

Always include summer and study abroad courses if they don’t appear on your WashU transcript. 

“Have you ever been placed on probation, suspended, expelled, or disciplined by post-secondary institution or program?” If yes, please explain.

“Please list honors, fellowships, non-academic distinctions or publications. For publications, please provide the complete citation.” (character limit)

Sometimes applications don’t provide enough space for you to type all your honors. In that case, prioritize publications first, academic awards next (with priority for national awards), and nonacademic things last. You’ll be mentioning all of these later in your personal statement anyway. 

“Stanford University regards the diversity of its graduate student body as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the university. We encourage you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as work and life experiences, special interests, culture, socioeconomic status, the quality of your early educational environment, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Please discuss how such factors would contribute to the diversity of the entering class, and hence to the experience of your Stanford classmates. “(700? character limit)

Statements like these are optional. However, if there is some aspect of your background that is diverse OR if you have contributed significantly to diversity, inclusion, or outreach efforts during college, you should definitely mention it.  

“Please provide an explanation of any gaps on your transcript indicating time away from your post-secondary institution(s) or program(s). Include name of institution. (280 characters).”

Parent or guardian occupation and level of education

For each–
Job Title:
Highest level of post-secondary education completed:

Test information

Have you taken the General GRE? (If not, when will you?) Have you taken any subject GRE? (If not, when will you?)

For each exam taken —

Did you take the TOEFL? If you need to, when will you?
Test date:
Test type:
Total score:

Do you wish to report any other test scores?

Application information

Faculty members

“Optional: List Stanford faculty members (if any) with whom you have consulted or corresponded regarding your application. Include contact date.” (spaces for up to 3 faculty)

If you’ve contacted faculty, fantastic. If not, first see if your research advisors have anyone with whom they can connect you at each campus. It’s fine to also cold-email professors. It’s also perfectly okay if you haven’t contacted professors at all at this point in the game. Ask your advisors for advice if you don’t know what to do.

Other graduate schools

List other places to which you are applying.

Other options and referrals

“If you apply to the PhD program and are not admitted, would you want to be considered for the Master’s Program? This is not an option for all departments; please check the department website.”

“If the department to which you are applying determines its program is not well suited to your stated interests in graduate study, may your file be referred to another department deemed more appropriate? Referrals are made at the department’s discretion.”

Prior convictions

“Have you ever been convicted of (or is any charge now pending against you for) any crime other than a traffic violation?” If yes, please explain.

Previous application

Have you applied to Stanford previously? If yes, when and which program? How have your qualifications changed?

Previous enrollment at Stanford

Have you previously attended Stanford? When? What program?

Financial aid

What fellowships have you applied for? Was your application accepted, was it declined, or is it still pending as of application time?

Employment history

Up to 3 employers or research experiences.
Employer name:
Type of industry (or research or graduate student):
Job title:


First Language:

Additional languages? (up to 3 for Stanford; other places ask for up to 10)
Language name:
Writing fluency: [fluent (high), intermediate (moderate), or beginner (low)]
Reading fluency:
Speaking fluency:

Supplemental information

None required for their physics department. Other programs might require things like writing samples, etc.

Recommender information

3 references required; up to 6 allowed.
Place of employment and title:
Contact information:

Document uploads

Statement of purpose

“The Statement of Purpose should describe succinctly your reasons for applying to the proposed program at Stanford, your preparation for this field of study, research interests, future career plans, and other aspects of your background and interests which may aid the admissions committee in evaluating your aptitude and motivation for graduate study. The Statement of Purpose should not exceed two pages.” (upload file)

Read each statement of purpose prompt carefully and make sure you write what they ask for. We have more pages on this website that will give you more detailed advice on how to write a personal statement!

Additional information

“Please use this section to provide additional information that was not covered by the questions in the application. If uploading more than one document type combine all documents to a single file.”

“What type of information are you uploading?” Attach file.

You generally don’t need to submit any additional information, and you generally will know ahead of time if you are in a situation where you do.

Application fee waiver

“Applicants who are U.S. citizens or Registered U.S. Permanent Residents may be eligible for a waiver of the application fee.

If your fee waiver has been approved by Graduate Admissions, Office of the University Registrar, we will notify you through an email.”

Don’t be shy to ask for a fee waiver if you need it. 

Form confirmation and submission

Confirm that all the information is correct. Sign that the application is true and your own work. Disclaimer that the university can withdraw an offer of admission if you do something wrong (like failing a course, lying on your application, cheating in a course, committing a crime, etc.), and more.

Also, have a credit card on hand to pay the application fee right after you hit submit.