What is the GRE?
There are two parts of the GRE that are relevant to you: the general GRE and the Physics GRE subject exam (pGRE). The general GRE is a standardized test that graduate schools use to test your ability in reading comprehension, analytical and math skills, and argumentative writing skills (AKA the SAT for grad school). For most students applying for PhD programs, the general GRE isn’t much of an issue (mainly the math section), so not a lot of effort is spent providing tips on how to study for this exam. However, in the SPS Library, there are several test prep books you can check out that will help you increase your score on this portion of the test. The general GRE (unless you absolutely bomb it) also isn’t heavily emphasized in physics PhD program admissions, so the general advice is: do well, but don’t stress too much over it. (there are other perspectives on this though)
When should I take the exam?
The general GRE can be taken any time throughout the year at one of several designated testing locations in Virginia. Unfortunately, there are no GRE testing sites in Charlottesville, and you will have to travel to Richmond or DC in order to take the exam. You should take it 2 - 3 months before you apply for graduate schools. Many people wait until later, but it’s a stressful time so do it as soon as possible. Even though you can take the exam any time, you need to actually reserve your seat for the exam, which must be done well in advance of the exam. If you wait too long, then at best you’ll find that you have to take the exam at an inconvenient time on a weekday during the school year, which is frustrating, but at worst you’ll find yourself unable to reserve a seat for any exam and won’t be able to apply to graduate schools.
The Physics GRE
The Physics GRE is completely different from the general exam, and it’s where you’ll spend most of your studying efforts. It is a 100 question 170 minute exam of pure physics questions (to do the math for you, that’s 1 minute 42 seconds per question - not a lot of time). Questions cover the entirety of your undergraduate education: classical mechanics, optics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical and thermal physics, modern physics topics, and experimental methods.
The generally accepted book for studying for the exam is Conquering the Physics GRE by Yoni Kahn and Adam Anderson. There are several of these books available in the SPS Library for you to check out and use.
The physics GRE is dumb and no one likes it, and there’s a lot of people who question what it even tests fundamentally as an exam. Is it physics knowledge? Maybe. Maybe not. But that doesn’t really matter, because a lot of physics grad schools care a lot about this test and your score on it. For astronomy, many grad schools are doing away with the requirement to submit physics GRE scores because of high costs, bias, and more. But not all of them are, so don’t count on the place you want to go to not caring about the physics GRE. It’s an important exam and it will influence what graduate program you end up getting into.
When should I take the exam?
The exam is currently offered three times a year: April, September, and October (see this schedule for relevant registration dates). You will probably take the exam only once or twice, so you should be strategic about when you take the exam. Most take the exam in September or October during the Fall semester of their 4th year before they apply for graduate school. In this case, it is recommended that you take the exam in September, as you will be able to review your performance on this exam before the registration deadline for the October exam, allowing you to make an informed decision about taking the exam a second time. If you wait until October to take the exam, you won’t have your scores available to you to make an informed decision about which graduate programs to apply for. Some choose to take the exam in April during the Spring semester of their third year to get a baseline for what their score is on the exam while providing them with time during the summer of their third year to prepare for the exam with knowledge in mind of how well they have already performed on the exam. There is also some speculation that students prepare less for the April exam, which can artificially boost your percentile score.
In any case, you should consider the September exam to be your 2nd chance after taking it in April, and the October exam to be your 2nd chance after taking it in September and go from there when deciding when you will take the exam.
Scores to shoot for
Raw (between 0 and 100) and scaled scores (between 0 and 990) on the exam don’t matter as much as your percentile score (between 0th and 100th percentile), so focus on that as your metric for success on the exam. From talking with professors on admissions committees, consider “passing” the exam to be 50th percentile, a “good” score to be 70th percentile, and a “great” score (read: you have at least a shot to get in anywhere) to be above 80th percentile. The scales change dramatically if you’re an international student (from China) in which case you’re expected to get close to perfect on the exam since in China, many students take a year off after college to exclusively study for this exam. This also has the effect that international students saturate the top percentiles, which is why “good” is only 70th percentile for domestic students. The scale also changes if you’d like to do physics theory, in which case, you’re expected to get a score in the high 90th percentile wherever you apply.
The impact on your application
Physics GRE scores are only 1 part of your application, and getting a perfect score doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be admitted everywhere (or even anywhere). But doing poorly can only hurt your application, so take it seriously. If you do do poorly but your track record in undergraduate research and your course grades are both great you might be okay. Make sure to highlight that in your personal statement, and try to explain away your poor performance on the GRE. Your score on the general GRE and physics GRE doesn’t define your application and it doesn’t define you.
The content of the exam itself isn’t very hard, but doing well requires that you know the content perfectly. They can only ask so many questions about so many topics in so many different ways, so the best way to practice is to take practice exams. After each one, review your performance in depth. Identify areas that you need to review and areas that you already understand. Tailor your study plan according to that review, focusing on areas you need to brush up on instead of going for a broad review. It’s best to understand instead of memorize, so if you find yourself struggling with box problems, take out Giancolli, read the chapter on box problems and do some practice problems! Take each practice exam seriously, as (from personal experience) performance on those mapped well onto performance on the real exam.
Tips for the actual exam
Try to answer every question, as now there is no penalty for guessing on the exam. Write down the start time on your test packet so you know how much time you have left. The test proctors (at UVA) are incompetent (from personal experience) and won’t provide you with updates on how much time you have left. The testing areas at UVA, either the Clark or Mechanical Engineering lecture rooms don’t have good clocks for you to check the time either. Apparently watches aren’t allowed, but bring one just in case.
The exam is really early in the morning on a weekend, so to prepare yourself for this, adjust your sleeping schedule in the months and weeks leading up to the exam so that you can rise early and still do your best.
Our SPS chapter has assembled an excellent Google Drive folder that contains all published practice exams with solutions along with links to other resources.
There are also several resources available to you online to help you study, including an excellent detailed study plan and timeline and extra problem sets and more informaiton from the Ohio State.
For more tips see these following links:
physicsgre.net is an online forum for people study for the physics GRE and is also a general community for those applying to physics graduate school. It’s a bit like College Confidential for physics graduate admissions.
SPS Study Sessions
Every semester, SPS hosts study sessions to help prepare students for the physics GRE exam. Every weekend we hold a study session to go over practice problems, test strategies, and we have free pizza! We also have copies of the Conquering the Physics GRE book if you are interested in borrowing one, free of charge of course. If you are interested in coming to the GRE Study Sessions, contact us using either this site’s contact form or email us!