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Hurdling the Physics GRE

Hey everyone! I’m new here – my name’s Stevie. I graduated in 2009 with a physics major and astrophysics minor, and have since taken the last four years doing other things that will be the subject of future posts. I’m now in the process of applying to graduate schools and have some knowledge to share. This first post will be about the physics GRE, obviously.


Basic Facts:

1. The test is out of 990. Anything over ~650 makes you competitive for a well regarded school and anything over ~750 or 800 makes you competitive for the top schools, though that will depend on whether that score comes with a good GPA and research experiences. (Example: Columbia has posted that they take physics GREs in the range of 630 to 990.)

2. The test is scaled. Generally, anyone who is above the 85th percentile will get a 990. 50th percentile get’s you about a 650 or so (depending on the test). It’s a hard test.

3. 100 questions, 170 minutes. Speed is key.

4. Given three times a year. It used to be: one test in mid-October, one in early-November, and one in April. Just now (in 2013) they’ve changed it to: late-September and mid-October. People were not pleased about the sudden change, this author included, but as you will learn in your studying, ETS is king.

5. It’s multiple choice and a right answer is worth +1, no matter the problem. A wrong answer means you lose 1/4 of a point, no matter the problem.



At the beginning of last Summer, before I began applying to grad schools, I visited Princeton. Because of my schedule later in the year, I knew it was my only chance to visit. So I emailed professors who’s work I was interested in and manage to schedule all the meetings on the same day. In my last meeting of the day I found myself sitting across from Professor Lyman Page, an observational cosmologist who I’d heard incredible things about and who I’d sincerely love to work with. He told me a little about his research, but mostly he asked me about me. He wanted to know what I’d been up to. I told him. He paused for a moment and said, “you seem like a great candidate…but just remember that your competing with people who get 990 on their GRE.” I nodded, told him I have a lot of studying to do, but that I will do my best (and then I curled up in to the fetal position on his office floor — joking).

But despair is not needed! First of all, a full 990 is generally not necessary. Schools consider the physics GRE *in addition* to the rest of your application. From a solid search of the internets, you can get in to a well regarded school with anything better than a 650. But, of course, you need a good GPA, research, maybe a published paper, and good recommendations to go with that. Do your best, ladies!


The run-down:

1. Don’t get angry at the test, of course unless that helps you. The best explanation I’ve heard for “why do I have to do this? and why do schools even look at this?” is that just about everyone has to study for this test, generally for months on end. So, doing well on the physics GRE proves you are diligent and can keep at a goal. It also shows you really do want to go to grad school, rather than it just being the next thing.

Think of this as your undergraduate final exam, and your chance to wrap all of your physics knowledge together — and learn some new stuff to boot. Consider it your epic challenge. Your Herculean test.

2. Get over the fact that your going to have to memorize. Just get over it. As someone with a great interest in physics education, this is my least favorite part of this test — but it’s necessary.

3. How do you best memorize? For me, it’s flash cards (writing, rather than reciting, the answers) and problems. I bought a pack of 600 flash cards and a white board to prepare. What works for you?

4. You have five practice tests, and that’s it. And the only worked solutions you’ve got are those online that a crew of dedicated individuals have been gracious enough to put up. These are, by far, your most valuable study tool and the key to a good score.

5. You don’t have a guidebook – there’s no Princeton Review Cracking the Physics GRE – do not waste your money and time on any of the ones sold on Amazon. I’ve never heard anything at all good about any of them.

6. SPEED. Going fast is key. Every extra moment is absolute gold. Memorization helps here, as do limits and dimensional analysis. Anything to cut down on the time it takes to choose the right answer.

7. Every right answer is worth one, and questions vary in difficulty and time it takes to get the answer, so absolutely never ever get stuck on a problem. It’s taking too long or you really don’t know? Just move on, put that question behind you, and pick up time.

8. Every wrong answer, you lose 1/4 of a point. Guess carefully and only if you can eliminate at least two possible solutions.



They say that this test isn’t as much about how much physics you know, but whether or not you know how to take this test. I’d say that’s mostly true. A good combination of physics knowledge and test taking skills will enable you to smash this thing.

When approaching a problem:

  1. Read it carefully, but quickly, and underline important/tricky words
  2. Can you answer it immediately? if yes, great.
  3. If no, try limits first (for example: should the answer approach g as M goes to zero?)
  4. Second, dimensional analysis? (fancy phrase for checking units)
  5. None of those work? (a) Do you know how to solve it? No? skip it and use the time for a different problem. (b) You know how to solve it? Can you solve it quickly? Yes? Then do that. (c) You know how to solve it but can’t in under about a minute? Circle it for if there’s time later to come back to it.

After using those steps again and again, it’ll end up taking you only a few seconds to get to number 5. And if you get the time and can come back to that problem, you’ll solve it. Otherwise, you’ll have saved the 4 minutes you’d take on that problem to solve 2-3 other problems.


Useful Websites:

1. Ohio State Website for 1986, 1992, 1996, and 2001 exams (should get the 2008 exam in the mail from ETS when you sign up for the physics GRE)

(!!) I do not recommend you do the problem sites on the Ohio State website. The questions are from practice tests and the solutions on the site aren’t always very good. I wasted some time on this that would have been far better spent on practice tests or memorization.

2. grephysics.net – this site will be your best friend once you start taking the practice tests (be sure to read the comments as sometimes those solutions are better than, or help better explain, the solutions posted by the person who made the site

3.  Now there’s another website for solutions to the 2008 test, but it’s new so it’s developing. Still pretty good though.

4. There seem to be more solutions here, but these have not been fully vetted by the author (me).


Need Review?

I took the physics GRE about four years after I graduated from Smith. So, you can bet that my answer to that questions was a big “heck yes.” My tactic was to go through all of Halliday and Resnick before I took a practice test. Then I made flash cards for the important topics. This sort of took forever, but the more review you need, the more time you’ve got to take.

Generally, your best review tools are:

1. The Fundamentals of Physics, by Halliday and Resnick. If you’re still at Smith, or any other institution with books, they’ll have it in the library.

2. Griffith’s Electromagnetism, Quantum Mechanics, and Modern Physics Text books (Griffiths actually helped write some of the physics GRE problems!)

3. The internet! LOOK UP ANYTHING YOU DON’T KNOW! Wikipedia and youtube are godsends.


Study Plan:

I can only really tell you mine – but keep in mind that my situation was, of course, unique to me. It was unique to me, so change this as necessary for you. I took the October 19th, 2013 exam.

June and July: Note taking on all of Halliday and Resnick (if I didn’t understand something, I asked the internet)

August: Flash cards from my notes on Halliday and Resnick

Late August, with 7 weeks remaining: Practice Tests!

As recommended by some websites, I took the 1996 test first. Then I scored it, and went over each problem using grephysics.net (again — be sure to look at the comments!!). If I got the problem wrong, skipped it, or got it right but maybe wasn’t completely certain why — I went over it thoroughly, wrote it in my notebook, and searched more for better explanations if the one on the website wasn’t good enough.

I wrote down and highlighted anything I thought I should memorize, then when I was finished going through the problems, I made more flashcards from those highlights. If time permitted, I took a day or two to study those flash cards before moving on to the next test.

Your last two practice exams should be the 2001 and 2008. Take the 2001 as if it were your last practice test, then use the results from that test to learn the areas you still need to shore up. Do your best to fill those holes and memorize as much as possible, then:

Take the most recent practice test last (2008), about a week before your actual test. This should give you the best idea of how you will do on test day, and an idea of what you still need to master and memorize.


Other good things to do:

1. Read the first two chapters of Griffiths’ Introduction to Elementary Particles textbook. It’s a fun read! And there’s guaranteed to be a problem or two from there.

2. A few days before test day, do some practice test problems to keep your mind sharp, memorize memorize memorize! and get good nights of sleep.


On test day:

1. Don’t eat anything weird for breakfast.

2. Know that you can’t keep a water bottle with you at your desk (but you can go take a drink, it’ll just take a little time). And it will take a solid amount of time – at least a couple problem’s worth of time – to go through the security and out of the test room to go to the bathroom. So do whatever you need to do to avoid those things.

3. Break out those number two pencils.

4. Bring valid ID and your test ticket (generally mailed to you).

5. Most places let you have a watch — just make sure all alarms are off and it doesn’t beep. Or people will kill you and ETS may even cancel your test. For real.


And finally, CHILL OUT! This test is hard for everyone. Really. So just do your best.

Work with Female Physics Undergrads? Opportunity for Them Below

APS is holding several regional conferences for undergraduate women in physics. If you are an undergraduate women in physics or work with undergraduate women in physics, this may be a good chance to find out more about opportunities for women in physics and meet other women who are interested in physics. Please click here for more information.

Why choose Smith Physics?

I’m thinking about applying to Smith and I want to be a physicist, but I don’t know if it’s the right place for me. Would you please tell me more about why this is a good physics department?

Below are the answers from several alums regarding why one should choose Smith College physics.

Alexis (Class of 2006): The department is incredibly supportive. One of the things I loved while there (and grew to appreciate even more so afterwards) is the professors genuinely care that you’re learning the material; they went above and beyond what they needed to do to ensure we understood the material. I enjoyed working on my research with Professor Pfabe. Also, my classmates while I was there were phenomenal: incredibly intelligent, multi-interested, fun, and generous people who were always willing to help.

Emily (Class of 2006): The enthusiasm the department radiates is contagious! The faculty is dedicated to creating a learning environment that is both challenging and fun. All the majors supported one another both in their pursuits whether inside or outside the classroom, this support continues after graduation. My research experiences with Nalini Easwar was truly unique because I was completely immersed in what it meant to do scientific research as an undergraduate. A highlight was presenting my research at national conferences. My education and research experiences prepared me very well for graduate school.

What Can You Do With a Physics Degree?

I’m interested in physics but not sure what you can do with a BA in physics other than become a professor. What can you do with a physics degree?

Below are the answers from several alums regarding what they did with their degrees.

Alexis (Class of 2006): I thought for awhile that I wanted to go into physics research but decided I wanted to work in education. Currently, I’m working on a doctorate in education and doing research on women in graduate physics. There are a lot of avenues to take in education where having a physics background is definitely an asset.

Emily (Class of 2006): I’m currently at graduate school in an applied physics program and while I would love to be a professor one day, I continue to learn about all the opportunities available to students with a physics background because of the critical thinking skills that an education in physics develops. Within the sciences, people with a physics background are highly valued in all disciplines because of their new and different ideas they can bring to a subject. I’ve spoken with physics majors who have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, policy makers, consultants, business women, and activists.