How to Tackle Physics GRE Questions
How to Tackle Physics GRE Questions
Kendra Redmond, Editor (as the interviewer)
Q&A with Robert Brown from Case Western Reserve University
Robert “Doc” Brown is a professor in the Department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a physics GRE seminar and developed a series of physics GRE flashcards used by thousands of students to prepare for the exam.
About the GREs
Grad programs sometimes require applicants to submit their scores on the standardized Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, which covers verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. In addition, some require the subject-based physics GRE. The number of programs requiring the physics GREs has been declining, and many departments dropped all GRE requirements with the onset of COVID-19. Check carefully with programs before you apply—right now there is a mixture of programs that require GREs, will not accept scores, and that accept scores but don’t require them.
Question: Since many graduate programs don’t require the physics GRE right now, is it even worth taking?
If you have good grades, great letters of recommendation, lots of research, and a publication, and you’re not applying to any programs that require the physics GRE, you probably don’t need to take it. Although a good GRE score could strengthen your application at places where it’s optional.
Now suppose you want an extra edge or you're a little worried that your record won't set you apart. Take the physics GRE. You don't have to report your score, and you can take the exam multiple times if you can afford it.
Question: How hard are the physics GRE questions?
However we might criticize the GRE, it has beautiful little problems. Sometimes I’ll give students questions from the physics GRE (which are multiple choice) along with typical free-form problems. They’ll do amazingly well on the free-form problems but just bomb the GRE questions. There are a bunch of reasons why I think that’s the case. First, in physics we don’t require students to remember anything. Second, many students don’t read carefully. Third, students can get partial credit on free-form questions. And fourth, students have a hard time getting the numbers right without a calculator. Students right now are as smart as ever, as capable as ever, but our field has put them in a situation where memorizing and arithmetic are lost skills.
Question: What’s the best way to study?
There are seven past tests out there, so go over them to build up your muscles. The older tests have much longer problems, so do them without worrying about time. That really helps.
A lot of students like the book Conquering the Physics GRE. The questions sometimes have a little different feel than the GRE questions, but they're very good. And taking sample exams gives you practice doing problems quickly and reading questions carefully.
Also, you need to memorize some things for the exam. Most people can remember something better if they understand where it comes from: You can understand all the interference phenomena in waves just by knowing that light can travel in different paths and when the waves come back together, they can be in phase or out of phase. Such a fundamental story can help you remember the formulas, and that’s where flashcards come in. Several years ago, we developed a set of physics GRE flashcards that cover all 14 topics on the physics GRE. A few minutes of practice each day makes a big difference. All of the cards are in an online app now. To request free access, go to physics.case.edu/flashcards and complete the form.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
General GRE: ets.org/gre/score-users/about/general-test
Physics GRE: ets.org/gre/score-users/about/subject-tests
Physics GRE flashcards: physics.case.edu/flashcards
Physics GRE Changes
Beginning in fall 2023, the physics GRE will move from paper to computer format. Check the GRE website for registration information and testing dates as early as one year before you plan to take the test.
Conquering the Physics GRE was written by Yoni Kahn and Adam Anderson. Read an interview with them on physics GRE questions and how to study at GradSchoolShopper.com.
As of spring 2023, registering for the general GRE is $220 and the subject test is $150. There is an additional fee for sending your scores to more than four programs. Partial fee waivers are available—visit the GRE website for details.