Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in Physics

If you are considering going on to graduate school in physics or astronomy, you should know that almost every graduate program in the country requires applicants to take the advanced physics Graduate Record Examination (GRE), as well as the general GRE. While it is debatable as to whether you can study for the general GRE, you certainly can and should study for the advanced physics exam. Although different graduate programs weigh the physics GRE differently, it is generally true that a high score on this exam can help your application, while a low score can hinder it.

What You Can Do

1. Familiarize yourself with the format of the test.

It is a three-hour exam consisting of approximately 100 multiple choice questions covering a wide range of physics topics. You get one point for each correct answer given, and you lose 1/4 point for each incorrect answer given (this is designed so that random guessing will result in a score of zero). 

2. Review!

The material on the GRE covers topics ranging from introductory mechanics to quantum mechanics. Over half of the material on the physics GRE is covered in courses taken in the first two years at Vassar (General Physics I & II and Modern Physics). You may not be as familiar with the material from classes you took several semesters ago. Reviewing the material in all of your courses will also help give you a broader picture of each topic, and you may learn some things you missed the last time you went through that material.

3. Learn some strategy.

Manage your time well. Most people do not finish all 100 questions. Read the entire test first (or at least a lot of it) and classify questions for later. Then come back and answer them. You only have three hours, and if you spend a lot of time on a hard question you may not have time to do later questions that would have been easy.

One way to do this is to quickly read each question and give it a rating—#1 for easy, #2 for medium, #3 for hard. Then go through and do all the #1 questions first. If you find one harder than you thought, change it to #2 or #3 and move on. When you finish the #1’s, go back and do all the #2’s, and so on.

Alternatively, do the #1 questions when you first get to them but don’t start on the #2 or #3 questions until you have finished all of the #1 questions.

You may find another scheme works best for you in sorting out which questions to focus on. If so, use that instead. The point is that each question is only worth 1 point out of 100, so it is not worthwhile to spend too much time on any one question when there may be many others you can easily get right.

Don’t guess unless you can eliminate at least 1 of the 5 answers, and maybe more. You lose 1/4 point for each wrong answer, so that pure guessing would give you a score of zero. But if you can eliminate several answers and want to guess from among the rest, the odds are in your favor. Given this you should also…

Learn dimensional analysis and scaling. On many questions on the physics GRE, you can eliminate several possible answers because they do not have the right units, or because they don’t have the right order of magnitude. Other answers can be eliminated based on simple scaling arguments. For example, if you double the size of one thing and know that something else should double, but it doesn’t for one or more of the answers offered, then you know that they are wrong.

4. Study all summer!

Students who have done this have done well on the GRE. It’s not as hard as it sounds if you do a little bit every day, and in fact, if you do it that way, you will learn more than if you “cram.”

Don’t Forget

You can get more information about the GRE from the Educational Testing Service including free descriptive booklets for all subject tests. You can also order a practice test book.

The following sites also provide useful information while preparing for the GRE:

Good luck!