Physics GRE: The content

Long ago, I covered the tips to study for the physics GRE, but leaving out the actual content. You shouldn’t spend too much time ‘studying’ for the GRE in the conventional sense of opening up books and reading. However, it does help to have a map of what you’ll be studying for. (If there are any Quebecer undergraduates reading this out there, I can confidently say that you can take the test in April of your second undergraduate year and still score quite high, provided the roadmap I laid out is in use) Your best bet is to look at the general breakdown of questions, available in the practice booklet and on ETS’s informational webpage. I encourage you to actually read the detailed breakdown of each topic and make sure you are familiar with them. Below are my rough interpretations of the level at which the Physics GRE exam will require facility in each general topic. As a convenient scale I’ll use some textbooks, most of which I actually used.

  1. Classical mechanics (20%) Most questions are CEGEP-level (i.e. introductory undergraduate physics) so I would recommend using a textbook of that level (e.g. Benson, Halliday and Resnick) although questions about Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics, as well as central-potential questions, are at the level of the Taylor.
  2. Electromagnetism (18%) Even though the calculations are, again, at the level of Benson (or Halliday and Resnick), for the conceptual content, other than circuits, Griffiths’ Introduction to Electrodynamics will suffice. You are expected to know qualitative relations for the more advanced content, but, for the material pertaining to AC/DC circuit, you can always refer to the material in an undergraduate lab course. Even introductory electronics textbooks may seem like overkill here.
  3. Optics and wave phenomena (9%) Once again, most questions can be found in an introductory-level textbook.
  4. Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics (10%) You need not have taken a complete course in thermodynamics or statistical physics, although some partition functions and basic stat mech can show up. Schroeder is definite overkill.
  5. Quantum mechanics (12%) Here Griffiths’ Introduction to Quantum Mechanics covers your bases and then some. For anyone that took courses at that level or above, the questions are quite easy.
  6. Atomic physics (10%) What atomic physics is covered in Griffiths’ QM textbook as applications of QM will have covered everything you need.
  7. Special relativity (6%) I’d say that Benson’s chapter 8 in tome 3 is sufficient; Griffiths EM chapter 12 is overkill. No 4-vectors.
  8. Lab methods (6%) No single textbook will be of any help to you here but the material is covered in an undergraduate-level lab course.
  9. Specialized topics (9%) Too often students will make the mistake to overfocus on that component of the test. This segment will primarily cover condensed matter, astrophysics, nuclear and particle physics; I neglected condensed matter questions myself because I didn’t want to do condensed matter in graduate school.

Bottom line: if you’re an US resident, you can get a score high enough to get into an Ivy League physics PhD program (grades and research experience pending) with only the introductory textbooks to work with. If you actually did that, however, you’d be most likely be attending a “lesser Ivy”, should you get an Ivy League acceptance at all; in a physics context, this means UPenn, Brown or Dartmouth, in descending order of difficulty. In fact, to meet UPenn’s latest average (70th percentile), you need to answer ~60% of the questions right. Lesser programs can do with a lower amount of correct answers. Vanderbilt and Dartmouth, two programs that are similar in many respects (housed in highly prestigious universities, not-that-well-regarded, a collection of physical disciplines with similar representation), can make do with a 50th percentile. This meant answering 44 questions back on Form 0877, 38 questions back on Form 0177…


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