A roadmap to study for the physics GRE

Sometimes I regret having studied for the test with the wrong materials at the onset. By this I mean: I used the REA book at the beginning of the semester I took the dual combination of QFT I and standard model courses (even though these two courses are listed as concomitant, since standard model makes extensive use of QFT, just taking QFT I makes this combo a nightmare by itself) which made me wonder whether the book really was representative of what’s on a real PGRE, even though my score on practice tests went up 150 points in the two weeks I studied with it. For this reason, I recommend sticking with old tests that were already used in an official capacity. A good place with a compendium of such material is provided by CU-Boulder online containing five editions of the test (8677, 9277, 9677, 0177 and 0877). It goes without saying that you should schedule the physics GRE at a different date than the general GRE. And, since the scores are released approximately 30 days after a sitting, if you wish to have a second shot, you have to register for the second date before you even take the first test. Therefore, what I recommend you to do is to take it once in April of the calendar year prior to the actual applications being filed, and, if these scores are unsatisfactory, take it in the fall. The deadlines to sign up for a test are approximately 45 days before its date.

However, if you go forward with this plan, pay attention to the availability of testing centers and, if necessary, use the option of applying for a supplemental center, because not all testing centers offering the physics GRE are available on all dates. I personally took the PGRE at a location about three hours from home because my local testing center that could accommodate GRE subject tests could only accommodate one date, the September one, and that particular testing center is one of the most season-sensitive in the world; luckily I nabbed a 87th percentile (910) out of it. So, without further ado, here’s the plan I personally used:



Compilation phase (recommended time: around the day you actually sign up for the test):

The purpose of this phase is to get all the ducks in a row. You don’t want to be chasing around references if you get stuck at any time in your preparation.

  1. Start with collecting all your physics course textbooks and course notes in one place. Please put these in the order of the subject matter tested in the PGRE, per ETS’ website, so you’ll know what to pull out if you have at least an idea of what you’re stuck on.
  2. Get all five copies of the GRE practice tests. (If you’re in a summer internship, please do so before the internship ends) Also get the answer keys but store them in a separate location.
  3. Put together a notebook which contains the scratch work and solutions for later review.

Phase one (to be done soon after you compiled all your reference material and organize them)

This phase is intended as a diagnosis to know what to focus on in your study. It is primarily intended to detect holes in your preparation, such as questions you just can’t answer because you haven’t covered the material.

  1. Find a GRE study partner. If none are available, please check out PhysicsGRE.com.
  2. Take one exam under timed conditions (any one other than 0877 will do but 8677 is my personal recommendation). After you’ve done this, then you can take out the answer key for the practice test you took for review. Also, please write down the raw score and the scaled score; this is the score you’ll be working with.
  3. Most of the time, after review, you will find out that there are questions that trouble you. In this situation, you may ask for your classmates about these questions, or look for help on the Web.
  4. If you find that you’re missing, or you cannot answer to, an entire category of questions for which you had the course, you should review the physics behind these questions as soon as possible, and don’t hesitate to ask an instructor that taught the relevant course recently.

Phase two (recommended time: one to two months prior to the test date)

  1. Now go through the questions on three more exams (9277, 9677, 0177) working them in order of least difficult to most difficult, WITHOUT the answer key. I recommend answering a block of 20 questions at a time. After each block, review the questions, especially those you got wrong, and then proceed on to the next block. You may, if you wish afterward, to take another practice test under timed conditions.
  2. Again, check with your classmates (labmates if you’re in a summer internship) or instructors if you’re in trouble.

Phase three (recommended time: one to two weeks prior to the test date)

  1. Set aside a morning or an afternoon the weekend before the scheduled test date and do the 0877 exam under timed conditions. Remember that, not only test stamina is half the battle, the other half is about trying to identify the questions you can easily answer FIRST, and bank those points. Don’t get distracted by questions you perceive as difficult (with or without reason).
  2. Also, make sure you check for units or order of magnitude consistency. This can help you eliminate answers or otherwise save time.


Beyond the roadmap, here are a few things you should keep in mind as you study:

  • At US public schools, especially UCs (University of California campuses, Berkeley included),  PGRE standards are usually much higher for international students than for domestic students (even out-of-state ones). This is because many undergraduate institutions abroad are unknown quantities to the eyes of most admissions committees and, as flawed a yardstick it is to measure the physical competence of applicants from a wide variety of institutions, it is one of the more cost-effective.
  • It will take a bit of adjustment at first, especially if your undergrad is filled with courses whose tests never contain multiple-choice questions.

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