Physics reGREts

The Physics GRE is often a stumbling block for aspiring graduate students. I dare say the most number of forum posts and long blurbs of advice I read on the internet during my own application was about the PGRE, which is unfortunate because from everything I’ve heard it is neither the death knell (with the caveat that you do not do really badly) nor the silver bullet for your application. Once you’re in grad school your research output has no bearing or dependence with how you did on the PGRE and frankly it’ll be a distant memory by the end of your first year. What really matters is your research experience and your references – those are worth their weight in gold.

However, given that you probably got to this post because you were frantically searching for any sliver of advice, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  1. Start your revision process as early as possible. If you’re the usual college based applicant then you need to be working on the PGRE from the summer onward (depending on your background and your perceived strength). If you are an “alternative” applicant (like myself) who may have been out of school for a bit then give yourself a bit more time like ~5 months.
  2. Usually the PGRE is offered twice, about a month apart. Sit the first exam. Two reasons: 1) If you feel you did absolutely terribly – you can try again with the second sitting. And 2) The organization at some test places is terrible. Apparently Trinity College (Dublin) lost a bunch of first-sitting exams (!!! the incompetence there never ceases to amaze me) which forced those students to have to retake it. That isn’t going to be possible if that screw-up happens during the second sitting and while ETS might be really apologetic, your target grad. school isn’t going to give you leeway over missing scores.
  3. DO AS MANY PRACTICE PROBLEMS AS YOU CAN! If you think grad school is for you, then you should probably be aware that physics, unlike certain other subjects, can’t be done by just reading material. The released exams are a great tool. Use them wisely – treat each one like an actual test, saving the latest released one (currently 2008 I think) as a final to take a week before your exam. Keep in mind the older tests are “harder” than the newer ones so design your study accordingly. Harder just means requiring more time / actual calculations.
  4. Following on to the last point, get the book “Conquering the Physics GRE” by Kahn & Anderson and do every problem in there. If it is not in the latest edition of the book THEN IT’S PROBABLY NOT GOING TO BE ON THE TEST AND DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME BY STUDYING THAT MATERIAL ELSEWHERE. The practice exams at the back are harder than what you’ll likely get, but if you can crack those you’re likely to do well.
  5. Time yourself. You want to be able to answer all questions within a minute. There will always be a trick for each question that will speed up getting the answer. Exploit symmetry, conservation laws, trig identities etc. It’s worth it when doing practice questions to sometimes forget about answering the question the first way that comes to mind and instead just focusing on figuring out the shortcut. You’ll soon become pretty good at it and get a feel for the sorts of things ETS puts on.
  6. You will feel that you didn’t do great on the actual test. This is completely normal. The human brain has a way of focusing on things done wrong while forgetting all the things you did right. You may realize that you missed an easy question or made a stupid mistake – understand that this is pretty normal and it’s likely to not make an iota of difference.
  7. You will read a lot about people who scored 990 and how they found it terribly easy. Ignore these stories. The internet tends to both promote selection bias and lying without consequence. If you score 990 you’ll likely want to brag about it online and conversely if you score 550 you’re probably not going to want to talk about it.

Fundamentally you might feel that the PGRE is a waste of time and is an exercise in rote memorization. This is true to a large extent sure, but most of this stuff is the basics. You should know these concepts by heart to have any business going to grad. school. So best of luck, and happy GREing!

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