At about this time in 2013, I was spending a lot of time worrying about the physics GRE. I’ve always done well in vocabulary and reading tests, and I’d done more math courses than the average college student, so I wasn’t too worried about the regular GRE. I still studied, of course, but I knew the physics GRE was more likely to be a serious point in my favor (or, more likely, against me) in my grad school applications.
I started studying a little bit each week during my physics REU that summer, in which there was a once-per-week GRE prep class. It was vaguely helpful; we basically just went over different types of problems that tend to appear on the test (Fermi problems and so on). I did more and more intensive studying as October 19th (the date of my test) approached, even as I tried to balance it with fellowship applications, classes, and getting research done for my thesis.
In the end, I did…okay. Not as well as I would have liked, but well enough that I surpassed all the minimum physics GRE scores required for application by some universities, and I got into some of the top physics graduate programs in the country, so I can’t complain how it all worked out in the end. I definitely could have done better, but I feel that I’ve at least learned from the experience some things that worked and some things not to do.
Before you do anything else, if you are interested in applying to physics graduate school, I would recommend visiting Damian Sowinski’s “Graduate School in Physics…Where the Hell do I Start?!,” which not only includes 5 practice tests (more on them later), but also some good advice on picking places to apply and the application process. I’ve put more links with practice tests, testing tips, formula/study sheets, and general physics GRE info on the new “Links” page.
Here are the categories of the “Content Specifications,” directly from the ETS website:
- CLASSICAL MECHANICS — 20%
(such as kinematics, Newton’s laws, work and energy, oscillatory motion, rotational motion about a fixed axis, dynamics of systems of particles, central forces and celestial mechanics, three-dimensional particle dynamics, Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalism, noninertial reference frames, elementary topics in fluid dynamics)
- ELECTROMAGNETISM — 18%
(such as electrostatics, currents and DC circuits, magnetic fields in free space, Lorentz force, induction, Maxwell’s equations and their applications, electromagnetic waves, AC circuits, magnetic and electric fields in matter)
- OPTICS AND WAVE PHENOMENA — 9%
(such as wave properties, superposition, interference, diffraction, geometrical optics, polarization, Doppler effect)
- THERMODYNAMICS AND STATISTICAL MECHANICS — 10%
(such as the laws of thermodynamics, thermodynamic processes, equations of state, ideal gases, kinetic theory, ensembles, statistical concepts and calculation of thermodynamic quantities, thermal expansion and heat transfer)
- QUANTUM MECHANICS — 12%
(such as fundamental concepts, solutions of the Schrödinger equation (including square wells, harmonic oscillators, and hydrogenic atoms), spin, angular momentum, wave function symmetry, elementary perturbation theory)
- ATOMIC PHYSICS — 10%
(such as properties of electrons, Bohr model, energy quantization, atomic structure, atomic spectra, selection rules, black-body radiation, x-rays, atoms in electric and magnetic fields)
- SPECIAL RELATIVITY — 6%
(such as introductory concepts, time dilation, length contraction, simultaneity, energy and momentum, four-vectors and Lorentz transformation, velocity addition)
- LABORATORY METHODS — 6%
(such as data and error analysis, electronics, instrumentation, radiation detection, counting statistics, interaction of charged particles with matter, lasers and optical interferometers, dimensional analysis, fundamental applications of probability and statistics)
- SPECIALIZED TOPICS — 9%
Nuclear and Particle physics (e.g., nuclear properties, radioactive decay, fission and fusion, reactions, fundamental properties of elementary particles), Condensed Matter (e.g., crystal structure, x-ray diffraction, thermal properties, electron theory of metals, semiconductors, superconductors), Miscellaneous (e.g., astrophysics, mathematical methods, computer applications)
This should help you decide how much time to spend studying different sub-fields of physics.
If you’re a junior (or senior, but not taking the physics GRE until next spring/fall):
- Comb through your course notes and find example problems, old problem sets with solutions, formula sheets…basically, condensed information that you can actually study.
- Go through your previous course material, working problems as much as time permits. The key question here is: What old material did I not really understand the first time around? Then go study that in more depth (read the book on that concept, then work more problems, ask the professor, etc). You want to minimize your “unknown unknowns” as you study.
- Look ahead to see what core courses you will not have taken before you take the test, and try to learn at least a few central concepts. If you can, ask a professor who has taught the class for a syllabus or for suggestions of which concepts you should study before you take the test (they’ll probably be really impressed with you, which will help when you take their class in the future!).
- 9% of the test is on “Special Topics,” which is miscellaneous stuff that you will have learned either in advanced/special topics classes (like a solid-state physics or astrophysics class) or probably not at all. Read Physics Today articles, Science Letters, or other non-specialist material from a wide range of sub-fields of physics.
If you’re a senior (or post-senior) taking the test in the next few weeks/months:
- Do whatever works for you to synthesize information in a condensed format. I like to essentially write formula sheets with short usage notes next to important equations.
- On memorizing equations: the relationships between quantities (e.g. “gravitational force between two objects is linearly proportional to the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them”) is more important than knowing the exact equation. I made three lists of equations in each category:
- Absolutely vital/basic equations (F = ma, the Schrodinger equation, Hooke’s Law)
- Pretty important (time-independent perturbation theory 1st order corrections to energy and wavefunction)
- Specialized (Schwarzschild radius formula)
- Armed with a huge list of equations, I aimed to memorize all of the basic equations, as many as possible of the pretty important equations, and some of the specialized equations (for those trickier quantum questions, or the “special topics” questions).
- Work as many problems as possible, focusing on your known problem areas.
- On a related note, try to take at least one practice test in real test conditions: no stopping the clock, no sneaking a peek at your notes, no distractions. This will help you find things you can work on in your test-taking strategy and you’ll be less nervous when you take the exam.
- Mix up studying alone and with other students. Everyone will have slightly different strengths and weaknesses, so you can solidify your knowledge by helping others learn it and they can help you (and themselves) by explaining something you don’t quite get in a new way. Provided your study partners are friends/normal human beings and not jerks, they can also provide you with moral support.
The day before the test:
- Review any lingering trouble spots, go over test-taking strategies, and work a few problems in each category.
- Take care of yourself physically and mentally: get some exercise, take a shower, eat a nutritious dinner, go to bed at a reasonable hour, make sure you get plenty of sleep, and do some things that make you feel calm and happy, like talking to a good friend or writing in a journal.
The day of the test:
- Get up with plenty of time to eat breakfast, do your normal morning routine (to the extent that is reasonable), grab your ticket, pencils, eraser, and anything you might want at the test center (like a water bottle or a pack of gum), and get there early, so as to minimize stress.
- Go to the bathroom before the test starts. Duh.
- While you’re waiting around for the test materials to be passed out, think (or write, if possible) positive thoughts. Not stuff like, “I’m so smart, this will be a breeze!” because it probably won’t, and then you’ll just get discouraged. Instead, think about why you got into physics, what excites you about the subject, why you want to go to graduate school. If you can’t do that, think about other things, people, and places you value. Why? Well, positive thoughts are generally calming. Also, science! (If you’re a woman or other stereotype-threatened person, anyway.)
- The Physics GRE is hard, and you may look at your score (or what is considered a “good” score) and think, “This is one of the worst test performances I’ve ever had! How will I ever get into grad school?” But you have to keep in mind that this test is comparing you against every single person in the world in your year (more or less) who wants to go to physics grad school. It’s bound to be a pretty elite group, and grad school admissions people know this. You shouldn’t feel bad about not acing the Physics GRE by your normal standards.
- This test is definitely not the most important part of your grad school application. Asking different professors at several universities, I heard that letters of recommendation, your statement of purpose, your undergrad grades, and undergrad research are all significantly more important than any GRE score.
- I also heard multiple times that the Physics GRE is more important for people who want to go into theory than for experimentalists.
- Bottom line: this test is important, but it’s only one part of your application. If you’re a good student and you’re passionate about physics, and you’ve shown that by applying yourself to your classes, getting involved in undergraduate research, and engaging with professors, an average or bad GRE score won’t keep you out of grad school.