Physics GRE

If you think you might be bound for graduate school in physics in the next 5 years, you should definitely prepare for — and take — the physics Graduate Records Examination as a senior. This test is largely based on the first two years of a physics education, with a little statistical mechanics/thermodynamics and theoretical mechanics thrown in, as well. Graduate programs use GRE scores to compare students from different schools on an approximately uniform scale. An excellent score on this exam will help any application; a poor score may call into question an otherwise strong application.

Just like the SAT, the physics GRE is far from perfect and may have subtle biases that favor certain kinds of students. It is doubtful that GRE scores correlate very well, if at all, with performance in graduate school. However, it is a necessary hurdle you will have to leap and it is very much to your advantage to prepare. To arrive at the exam in September or October ready to go, you should

  • Acquaint yourself with the format and topics of the exam
  • Review the basic physics that will be tested on the exam
  • Practice on previous physics GRE tests

Case Western Reserve University has developed a deck of flashcards to help students review for the physics subject test. Some students have found them quite helpful in their review. See https://physics.case.edu/flashcards/.

GRE Review Sessions

To assist in this, Prof. Saeta will hold weekly review sessions on Tuesdays after colloquium. I have reserved the Mudd PDR in Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons for these meetings. All are welcome. The first meeting will be on the first day of classes. Prior to that first session, please download the 2017 physics test, and take the test under proper exam conditions of a single sitting of 170 minutes. For each question keep track of your answer, your confidence, and (if you can't figure out the problem), your guess at the right answer and any answers you feel you can rule out. Score the exam using the key at the end, and bring your answer sheet (and copy of the questions, if you printed them out) to the review sessions.

Up-to-date Information

Please see the ETS website for up-to-date information on the exam, to find out when the test is offered, and to register to take the exam. For the 2019–2019 academic year, the ETS test dates are:

Test Date Sat 14 Sept 2019 Sat 26 Oct 2019 Sat 4 April 2020
Regular registration Fri 9 August 2019 Fri 20 September 2019 Fri 28 February 2020
Late Registration Fri 16 August 2019 Fri 27 September 2019 Fri 6 March 2020
Scores Available Online Mon 14 October 2019 Mon 25 November 2019 Mon 4 May 2020

The general examination, which covers basic math, English, and logic, is available throughout the year. The topics covered on the physics GRE are

Topic Percentage of questions
Classical mechanics 20
Electromagnetism 18
Optics and wave phenomena 9
Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics 10
Quantum mechanics 12
Atomic physics 10
Special relativity 6
Laboratory methods 6
Specialized topics (nuclear, particle, condensed matter, astrophysics, math methods, etc.) 9

References for Review

Halliday, Resnick, and Krane (Vols. I and II) are quite comprehensive and may be useful resources for review, although you may find them too detailed and lengthy for efficient study. For some people, it is more useful to review the chapter summaries and then to pick some problems to check your understanding. Pay particular attention to topics that are unfamiliar, either because you have forgotten them — special relativity, perhaps? — or because they are not covered (much) in our program — for example, basic fluid mechanics. Schaum’s outlines can be extremely helpful and have a wealth of problems, some with solutions. Townsend’s sophomore-level book is useful for modern, quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics review.

The summer before your senior year is an excellent time to review. Usually, summers are less hectic than fall semesters. Make sure to keep handy any books or notes that you think will be helpful for this review before you pack things up for the summer.

In addition, there are resources available on the web:
  • practice GRE quiz — this is a mini exam containing 31 problems, to give you a flavor of the questions on the real exam

Practice Exams