The Physics GRE

What does it mean?

The GRE Physics Test is required in order to apply for most U.S. graduate programs. Official information can be found at the ETS GRE site.

When should you take it?

The GRE Subject Testing is given three times each year in November and April. Check the official site of ETS for details. ETS takes around a month for scores to be processed and most applications for graduate school are due in December and January. November therefore is the de facto "last opportunity" to take Physics. The December exam is usually in conflict with Stanford''s final exams. If you are able to prepare adequately, the April exam would be ideal . It allows you to not only study for the GRE but also helps you prepare for your grad apps.

Test Logistics

GRE subject exams are paper-based multiple-choice exams that can be taken at accredited testing centers on Saturday mornings. The closest Stanford testing centers were Santa Clara, and San Jose as of 2005. To get there, you'll likely need to take a ride. The 100 question exam and 3 hours are both available. The exam is $130to pass and you can list as many scholarships/schools as you like to receive your scores. Additional score reports cost $15 each plus $6 per call.

Tips for Studying

GRE Physics is unlike any other physics test you've taken while at Stanford. You are not allowed notes or references. The GRE Physics test is only about the same length as an in-class final. Many people mistakenly believe that this means you must memorize every formula possible. You will need to quickly find the correct answer, using whatever method you have available.

It is a good idea to spend at least a quarter of the quarter studying with fellow physics students. It is important to focus on the official practice exam, since there aren't many other problems with similar types of questions. You will find the study group a framework to help you with problems, scheduling (and keeping a strict schedule), and encouraging others.

Official Practice Exams

ETS offers the 2001 exam online via their website. ETS also offers an out-of print book that contains the 1996, 1992, and 1993 exams. Although it's being sold online for a high price, the book is still available on reserve at the physics library. You can also check it out from the main office. One can do more than this. All four exams are available online by the Brandeis department of physics.

These exams contain questions that most closely match the test. The conventional wisdom is that the 2001 exam (GR0177) is the most similar to current tests, while the remaining exams (GR9677, GR9277, GR8677) decrease with difficulty in reverse-chronological order. The ',96 exam tends more to use order of magnitude estimation. The '?86 exam tends more to be able to eliminate by dimensional analysis.

It is important to ensure that you take these exams in sufficient time so that you can review them thoroughly before the test date.

What you need to know

(…"How to learn it. After organizing your study team, it is important to review the ETS website test questions breakdown and first page of the practice exams. You should be familiar with sub-topics within each branch of physics. Although you won't be an expert in every "specialized topic", it's possible that you will be fairly fluent in the topics that comprise 10% or more questions. Here's an overview of the different levels at which topics must be understood:

  1. Traditional Mechanics

(20%): Most questions are at the 40 Series level. You should however be familiar with basic Hamiltonian formsalisms and Lagrangian formalisms. There may be Physics 110-level questions about central potentials. Reviewing out of a book such as Marion & Thornton on advanced topics or your favorite freshman mechanics book should not be a problem.

  • E&M (18%). This series covers all the background information. While most calculations are for freshman-physics, you will need to be able to understand quantitative relations in order to deal with more complex topics (e.g. How does the total power of a pointsource affect its charge? Griffiths should be able to answer all your questions, but many of them are beyond the scope of the 40-series book.
  • Optics (9%) – You should be able to read the 20- and 40-series text for these topics.
  • Thermodynamics (10): Exams will focus more on freshman-level thermodynamics than Physics 170-level statistics mechanics. However, it's a good idea for students to learn about the partition function and its functions. The 40-series text alone should suffice.
  • Quantum Mechanics (1%): You'll be amazed at the simplicity of many quantum questions if you have taken Physics 130. Most questions are similar to Physics 70.
  • Atomic Physics (10%) These questions are not to be taken too seriously if you have not taken "atomic physics" classes.
  • Special Relativity (6%): You must be able to do calculations at Physics 70 level.
  • Laboratory Methods (6%): You can now see how much you have learned from Physics 105 or 107. A few questions will be asked about circuit diagrams. There may also be questions on oscilloscopes, lasers, statistics, and other topics. Circuit diagrams are basic E40.
  • Specialized topics (9%): There is a lot to do here. You may have done some research or started to think about what you would like to study at graduate school. It is not worth your time to purchase a book about another topic (say, Astrophysics if condensed matter is your interest or vice versa). Instead, check out the practice exams to find out what questions you get and then start reading up on specific topics. You will have more time.

It is useful to have an extended version of a popular freshman physics textbook handy when you are working on problems. (The extended sections contain the most current physics information you will ever need.

Here are some tips

Additional (misleading) advice:

  • Do not waste your time studying for the GRE Physics exam prep material. The REA GRE Physics textbook can be a nightmare for exam preparation. It's notorious for having a large number of irrelevant questions and is often full of errors. To ensure that you are fully understanding each question, there are four practice tests.
  • Create a study schedule for your group and follow it. Make the GRE Physics study a priority. For a short time, meet up once a week. Decide whether you will spend your time together reviewing questions or checking strategies. It is important to agree on the date and time that each practice exam should have been completed by everyone in your group. Ask others to help you solve the questions you can't.
  • Solve questions quickly. These questions don't require you to create elegant proofs. Each question should take no more than one minute to answer. Exploit process-of-elimination, dimensional analysis, order-of-magnitude estimation, and any other clever tricks you can pull off. You're not looking at the problem in the right way if you have to do a nontrivial equation or any other work that takes more than a few minutes.
  • Learn to remember equations, but only as much. The physics you are able to understand will make it easier for you to remember meaning equations. Except for well-known results, you won't be tested on factors of 1/2. So it is more important to learn how one quantity affects another.
  • Positronium is essential. Positronium is a common element in all forms of life. To understand it, you need to be able to comprehend Physics 70 (i.e. Reduced mass, energy spectrum, and differences from hydrogen. ).
  • Think intelligently. Every wrong answer will result in a penalty of 25%. You can increase your score by playing intelligent-guessing (which you also used on the SATs but more recently for solving ODEs).
  • Use what you have . The table below contains information, as well as formulae for common intertia moments and fundamental constants. These formulae can be used to make order-of magnitude estimates.


  • camdynelliott

    Camdyn Elliott is a 35-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. She has been writing about education for nearly a decade, and her work has been featured on sites like The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Camdyn is the founder of the education blog Education Week, and she is also the author of the book "How to Teach Like a Pro: A Guide to Effective Teaching Methods for College and Career Students."

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