Official information on the physics GRE, including registration information can be found here.
Many graduate schools require taking the physics GRE. The physics GRE is a 170-minute test with 100 multiple-choice questions that cover a wide breadth of subjects. Although most schools do not explicitly state how GRE scores factor into the admissions process, it is generally believed that many schools have a “cut-off score” below which an applicant will not be considered. While it’s not essential to score highly on the physics GRE, a low score can hurt your application so it is important to study for this exam.
The material on the test is approximately 20% Classical Mechanics, 18% Electromagnetism, 9% Optics and Wave Phenomena, 10% Themodynamics and Statistical Mechanics, 12% Quantum Mechanics, 10% Atomic Physics, 6% Special Relativity, 6% Laboratory Methods, and 9% specialized topics. It is extremely unlikely that you will be familiar with the subject matter of every question. It is important to think of the subjects you have studied in class and review what you already know so that you are able to answer the majority of questions quickly and accurately. Many people find they benefit more from reviewing classical mechanics than from teaching themselves particle physics.
There are only five previous physics GREs available as practice tests. Four of them are available at the Ohio State website (solutions here), and the last one will be mailed to you when you register for the test. It is a good idea to take all the available practice tests before taking the actual test as many of the questions follow a similar pattern and learning the structure of the test can make you a calmer and better-informed test taker.
There is a new physics GRE prep book available (as of spring 2013) here that has the potential to be a helpful resource (let us know if you have a personal review!). Older books, however, have the reputation of being notoriously unhelpful.
If you’re on campus for the summer, you can get together a physics GRE study group. In the past, students have met regularly, preparing review lessons for each other covering the topics on the test.
How to Study
There are many different ways to study for the physics GRE. One possible approach is outlined below:
- Take a practice exam before you begin studying in earnest. Grade the exam while the questions are still fresh in your mind. Solutions can be found at this website. This will probably motivate you to study and force you to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
- Identify your problem areas (maybe you forgot all of E&M) and look over old class notes. Maybe take out an introductory physics textbook and skim the chapter on that subject. Write down important equations and formulas you forgot. Do practice problems on those subjects (the Ohio State website groups problems from the released exams by subject, and gives corresponding solutions).
- Order the FREE physics GRE flashcards from Case Western and quiz yourself every day (maybe with a partner). You will need to memorize formulas for the test, so get started early!
- When you feel that you have studied and improved, start taking the other practice tests. Try to avoid bathroom breaks and do them in one sitting. Get used to how it feels to concentrate for three hours. Always try to correct the test while the problems are fresh in your mind. Ask yourself if you can see any shortcuts to solving the problem (dimensional analysis?) and revisit the questions you got wrong. Some students find it helpful to discuss the answers with each other to learn different methods of approaching the problem.
- DON’T GET DISCOURAGED! Many students have done poorly on the physics GRE and have attended amazing graduate schools and become very successful. Not doing well on this particular test does not mean you are bad at physics!