Looking back on my Physics GRE experience

Although many a student who takes subject GRE tests are, in fact, taking them today, in hopes of getting admitted to the graduate program of their choice, and prepared for weeks, if not months, for that one test that will, right or wrong, decide their future in their chosen field, if their field requires a subject GRE to be taken, that is, if one is an aspiring biochemist, chemist, biologist, physicist, literature scholar, mathematician or psychologist. For just about any field with a subject test, the subject test score holds more weight than the general GRE scores.

But, since I took it in April, at a test center located about 3 hours away from home, I was to drive my mother’s car, especially the closer to the test center I got, since I was the one who knew the directions to the test center. My mother and my sister both wondered why I was taking this test and what constitutes success or failure on this test. Last practice test I took, I scored somewhere between the 85th and 90th percentile; if the general GRE was any indication, back then, I would expect to do about as well on the real test vs. the last full-length practice one.

Security was a little less stringent than airport security but, since I do not have the dexterity to use a mechanical pencil for cheating, I found it a little suspicious that I couldn’t have a mechanical pencil on hand. And… man I felt alone during the test. The room I was placed in was a room that was normally used to train dental assistants, hence all the mentions to dentistry on the walls. There were two more test-takers, both of which were there for the psychology test. One was an undergraduate at Queen’s and the other was an undergraduate at McGill. We were placed on different rows, and even columns, for test security. The very room that was used for the LSAT a few months earlier, and the proctors said that there were 20 LSAT takers last time.

In fact, it was normal for the test center to look this empty, especially since it was the “low season” of GRE testing. Man, the test felt like I spent three hours in dental school; it was exhausting but well worth it. I skipped about 10-15 questions and wasn’t confident about ~8-10 more so I could reasonably expect my score to fall within the range of what I got on the practice tests. Because it was a scantron-based test I expected the scores to be released within one or two weeks (I had to take in account that the mail could take a couple of days to receive all the scantrons from all around the world) and, after two weeks have passed, I started checking MyGRE 3-4 times a day until the happy news came at midnight on May 5th.

9-1-0. 910. This is what I got.

Now I could double-check whether my list was realistic. Fantastic! Especially given the nerve-wracking general relativity final, I felt that my hopes for the Center for Particle Cosmology at UPenn were still alive.

Physics GRE refund programs

Rumors abound about the existence of programs aimed at giving graduation gifts to high-achieving students, especially at departments without a graduate program. I wanted to implement such a plan (despite the existence of a graduate program), thinking that it would amount to implementing one of the recommendations made by external inspectors, for little cost, since physics GRE sittings cost $US150 a pop, and that 2-3 students could receive that gift from the department’s part. Here’s the recommendation in question (translation is mine):

Recommendation 7b): Inform second- and third-year undergraduates of the TOEFL and GRE tests for those who desire to pursue graduate study abroad. Idem for the NSERC grants.

Now, if you wanted to implement some sort of conditional refund program, you would want the conditions to be stringent enough to say that the recipients deserved to be funded, but just stringent enough to fit the budget allocated to this purpose. That said, I would say that such programs would make sense from the standpoint of a typical American physics or astronomy department without a graduate program (e.g. liberal arts colleges), or perhaps even those with graduate programs, especially since Carlos Silva, a condensed matter prof at my undergrad, said that many physics PhD programs in the US had trouble recruiting students domestically (with collaborators at schools like the University of Houston, I’d be willing to give some credence to that claim, if only second-hand). That would be true, based on 2007-2009 data, unless things have changed in the past five years: 44% of new physics PhD students in that period (on average 2,000 yearly) were internationals. (source: AIP).

In the context of my undergrad, though, I learned nothing that could have been of use in physics GRE in graduate coursework, so I could safely say that even an undergraduate that is above average, but not NSERC or FRQNT-caliber, can score a 75th percentile, despite the near-complete absence of multiple-choice items in homework and exams. Or even an average student can get a 50-60th percentile through the material of the first two years. Even so, I feel that a 75th percentile can be achieved with a summer’s worth of study, for most students with a 3.3 and up from my undergrad. So I would have fixed the threshold for an award at the 75th percentile at my school; I would have received an award had that program existed back then.

The same Prof. Silva said that, if such a scheme existed anywhere, the scheme would likely be borne out of endowment funds. So please inquire if such a scheme exists where you study; perhaps you will have taken the test for free, pending a minimum score.

Factors to consider when choosing a graduate test date

Disclaimer: much of the following content is adapted from US News and World Report and was originally intended for use with undergraduate admissions tests (e.g. SAT and ACT). Here I have to say what it means in the context of graduate admissions tests, and may well apply to the LSAT, MCAT, DAT/TAED, and to a lesser extent, the GMAT. These tests are available on various dates throughout the year, although the number of dates vary greatly from test to test: it ranges from 3 a year to dozens of dates.

Many people who take graduate admission tests are people who took them as undergraduates, but beware pitfall #9: taking it on an untimely test date may ultimately cost you your coveted fat envelope. But I wish all of you success in this endeavor, regardless of the field. If you are struggling to choose the right test dates, these four tips are quite helpful.

  1. Departmental application deadlines: First, determine your application deadlines. You might find yourself in a crunch if you realize that the latest test date your program is willing to consider is fast approaching. Typically deadlines for PhD programs come in late December or early January (I advise you against applying any later, as PhD applications submitted past these deadlines are often not considered for financial aid), while med schools have much earlier deadlines (November is typical of a med school, like UPenn Perelman, November 1) and law/business schools, much later (Columbia Business School accepts applications until April 1, while Cambridge Judge round-5 deadline is May 1, but students who apply this late to a MBA program usually face longer odds than round-1 or round-2 applicants). However, you should remember that your scores are not immediately available. Once again, processing times depend on the test but 3-4 weeks is typical.
  2. Balancing multiple exams. It is also in your best interest to ensure your assessments do not overlap. Certain colleges and universities require the relevant test alone, while others, such as the University of Chicago’s qual-free physics PhD, may also request a GRE subject test. For international students whose first language is not English, the TOEFL must also be taken, unless one is applying to a JD program (which I advise against in the current condition of the American legal job market if one is a foreign student with respect to US law schools). Each exam will cover markedly different material, so it’s important to allot each test the individual attention it deserves. Students should also allow for the possibility that they will need to retake one or more exams. Studying for more than one exam simultaneously is difficult for most students, and it adds unnecessary stress and complication to an already challenging process. Finally, note that subject tests are available less frequently than general exams (3 times a year), which can further complicate matters if you are aiming for a PhD program that requires one.
  3. Consider school commitments: Even for those students who must only complete one test, there are several advantages to targeting nontraditional test dates. The summer, for example, may offer plentiful study time and a minimum of scholastic distractions. In this instance, the first advanced GRE (if applicable) or LSAT test date, generally in September or October, can enable you to capitalize upon ample prep time. For students who work full-time in the summer, or who attend summer classes, the school year – say, April – may be a more viable option. ​Jobs, internships and travel can also have a negative impact on your review habits. The intensity of your schoolwork, midterms or final exams and extracurriculars can also factor into your schedule. Plan your responsibilities ahead of time, and then choose a time of year that will have minimal distractions before your test date.
  4. Manage your family or job commitments: Finally, consider the world beyond academics. Many graduate student hopefuls have family obligations such as weddings and vacations, or job obligations like a business trip. Speak with the important people in your life and identify unavoidable commitments. You may find that you must alter your exam dates or, more radically, register for a different test (in the case of MPH or MBA hopefuls most likely, where they may have the choice of sitting for either the GRE or the MCAT/GMAT respectively). Since colleges and universities offering MPH or MBA programs often assign the GRE and the alternate test (MCAT or GMAT, depending on the case) equal weight, and the exams are scheduled on different dates, simple availability may factor into your decision. Take advantage of the full range of possibilities when making your plans. Sitting for a graduate test can be very stressful. You can mitigate this stress, however, with basic planning and preparation. Know your deadlines and try to give yourself enough distraction-free time to study, and you may soon find that scheduling your test date is much easier than you imagined.


Some TOEFL tips

Personally, I knew the TOEFL was not what will stop me from attending a PhD program in the US unless I bombed it. When I wrote it, someone else in the waiting room claimed that I was UCLA material without even knowing what I would have gone to UCLA for, much less what I would be building my application upon. Not that I would have aimed for UCLA, now that I know that UCs in general have tightened international PhD admissions. I realized that UCLA did not have a particle cosmologist on hand. Anyhow, enough of anecdotes, now move on with the test. Of course, some of these tips are variable, especially if you’re using TOEFL for a different purpose.

1. Make sure you understand the TOEFL! Although its intended purpose is to test the English skills of people, the truth is that the level of English tested is, in fact, quite shallow. I personally found the TOEFL to be not much harder than ministerial high school English tests (Secondary V version) but that might not be the case for you. Each section is scored out of 30 (iBT, or Internet-based test) but PBT (paper-based test) scores are quite different. You don’t pass or fail the TOEFL per se, or even a given section of it. What constitute passage or failure in the TOEFL depends on who is assessing your score, more on that below. Here is the test structure (per ETS’ website):

  • Reading (60-80 minutes, 36-56 questions): read four to six passages from academic texts and answer questions based on the texts.
  • Listening (60-90 minutes, 34-51 questions): Listen to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations, then answer questions.
  • A 10-minute break; please use it wisely even though it is here for a reason
  • Speaking (20 minutes, 6 tasks): Express an opinion on diverse topics; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
  • Writing (50 minutes, 2 tasks): Write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks, support an opinion in writing

2. Be prepared!

it’s a good idea to review what you need to aim for before you sit down and assemble your study materials, if any. Your target score will depend on what you’re using the TOEFL for. If you’re using TOEFL to enter a high school-level study abroad plan, you won’t have the same target score than if you were a prospective undergraduate or graduate student. For example, McKinney Christian Academy, a Texas private high school, asks for 50 on the IBT from an eighth-grader, and 75 from a tenth-grader, while the University of Toronto asks for 100 on the IBT, with a minimum of 22 on writing. So pay attention to whether the chosen program only has an overall score requirement or a subscore requirement.

Now, if you’re taking the TOEFL to enter a US university (other than for a JD; American law schools usually trust the LSAT to test one’s English-language skills at the JD level; LLMs for foreign-trained lawyers usually require it), you will notice that some of the tips I gave for the GRE are applicable to the TOEFL as well, and that there is some overlap with other admissions tests, especially with respect to reading and writing. When that overlap does occur, use that overlap wisely.

My advice: if you must use a textbook, please consider using a high school-level textbook for the writing and reading sections (it needs not be a TOEFL-specific textbook).

3. Read and listen to everything.

It is definitely not enough to just read and listen to things in your field of interest. You need to read and listen widely, not only for vocabulary reasons but for understanding reasons as well. You will read and listen to lectures about history, literature, even biology or astronomy. Some good resources include, despite the political bias and downsizing that has plagued CBC as of late, the following:

4. Learn to take good notes.

You probably are better at note-taking if you’re aiming for a graduate degree, but I can’t stress this enough: this is an essential skill you will need for the listening, speaking and writing sections of the test – AND a skill you will need later on at an English-speaking university. You can listen to each clip only once. You will then have to answer questions based on what you heard (it can be questions on what you heard, speaking about it or writing about it). Therefore you will need to take good notes!

  • Don’t write down everything you can, or even the words that you understand. You will need to write down the essentials. Otherwise you will use up your allotted three pages of scratch paper (OK, they’ll last you longer if you write on both sides of these sheets) before you know it.
  • Use symbols and shorthand wisely. Poor use of symbols and shorthand will likely hurt you rather than help you.
  • If you do find journalistic resources with both a video and a transcript, you may use them to practice note-taking. However, should you use journalistic resources to this end, I advise you not to look at the transcript before the video is over.
  • When you raise your hand during a test administration, you may ask for extra scratch paper. It takes a while for proctors to notice you, though.

5. Make sure your pronunciation is clear.

It is OK to speak with an accent. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to be clear, or else you can lose quite a bit of points. You have very little time to prepare your responses and even less to deliver them. The speaking section evaluates three things: the quality of the content, the grammar of the content and, to a lesser extent, how you sound.

That said, some questions will be about giving advice to people (I personally had to answer a question about on/off-campus housing, as well as another one for work-study) while others will about giving an opinion.

6. Learn how to write an essay in English

Forget about posterity, or even writing a life-changing document. Even though writing on the TOEFL is likely to be quite different from actual writing in your field, here you need to learn about the infamous five-paragraph essay if you are to achieve any kind of success on the TOEFL writing section.

  • Introduction – it introduces your essay (topic is introduced, defined, and then divided, each in increasing levels of specificity) your opinion as well as the topic you’re writing about
  • Body: 3 paragraphs that support your opinion (or, if you’re writing a dialectic essay, 2 that support your opinion and 1 that refutes the counter-opinion)
  • One paragraph, one idea; the first sentence of the paragraph explains what the paragraph is about, and the rest of the paragraph uses clear, specific examples to illustrate your opinion
  • Conclusion – a paragraph that summarizes your essay

7. Learn how to relax

It can mean quite a lot of things but, in the context of the TOEFL, this means primarily the following things:

  • There is a 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections. Use this time to use the bathroom if you need to, eat a snack, and do some stretching to relieve the tension in your back and shoulders! You will likely be fatigued by the halfway point.
  • Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
  • Get a good breakfast
  • Know your way around the testing center once you made your selection of a venue (you won’t want to get lost on test day)
  • Some test centres are very large with lots of people taking the test at the same time. There is a lot of noise and a lot of distractions. Make use of the noise-canceling headphones.
  • Due to the various speeds of the test-takers, some people will be starting the speaking section while others are still doing the listening section, and this applies to writing vs. speaking as well.
  • You can retake the TOEFL as many times as you wish but you cannot take it more than once every twelve days. Before retaking the test I would advise you to wait for the results of the first sitting. If you do retake, I would advise you not to do it more than three times because after the third retake, scores tend to plateau. But it’s the first retake that often yields the greatest improvement.

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…

Some GRE-taking strategies

Perhaps I have written too many posts about the GRE and different aspects of preparing for the test. I kept talking about preparation all this time, but I gave little to no indication about test-taking strategies. Now, if you followed either the roadmap or the list of general GRE study plans, you should be familiar with the content and the format. But some of these tips are subject test-specific and others are applicable both to the general and subject GREs. Let’s begin with the tips applicable to both the general and subject GREs.


  1. Answer the questions you’re confident about first. Remember, the GRE is a test where time management is crucial. If you answer the questions you’re confident about first, you would then save precious time that could be better spent on trying to solve the more difficult problems. Which leads to the next tip…
  2. Pace yourself. That doesn’t mean that you should spend as close to 2 minutes as possible on each math question, or close to 1 minute as possible on each verbal question. 2 minutes seems a little long to answer a math question but, when you start doing the calculations, you could realize that it is at a premium.
  3. Use the scratch paper. You will not be allowed to bring paper to the testing center with you, but you will be provided with scratch paper (on subject tests, the reverse of each page with the items contains scratch space). Use it to help solve math problems, outline your essay for the writing portion or write down formulas or vocabulary words you’ve memorized before the test.
  4. Use the elimination techniques at your disposal before guessing. If you can eliminate even one wrong answer (e.g. through dimensional analysis, limiting behaviors, unit consistency on the subject GRE, an answer choice whose meaning is opposite to another answer on the verbal part of the general GRE) you’ll be in a much better position to guess if it came to that. What form the penalties from guessing incorrectly on the GRE take depends on whether you are talking about the general or the subject GRE. On the general GRE, you might not be penalized on your raw score for bad answers, but the raw score of the first section determines the difficulty of the second one.
  5. Don’t second-guess yourself too often. Statistics suggest that your first answer choice is usually correct as long as you’ve prepared well for the exam and have a solid knowledge base. Do not go back through the test and change your answers on the paper exam unless you’ve discovered information that leads you to a new conclusion or you realize that you didn’t give yourself enough time to thoughtfully consider the question on the first try.


You may realize that there are tips that apply only to one section or one test. Here are the personal tips I used…


  1. (Verbal section), look at the answers before looking at the question. Instead of plunging ahead into the text, read what you need to be looking out for. You’ll save time and score more points by reading the answer choices before you read the text.
  2. (Analytical writing section), outline. It may seem like old hat, but you can’t disregard the GRE writing section. Before you start writing, make sure you take five minutes to outline what you’re going to say first. Your organization and thought process will be much higher if you do.
  3. (Subject tests), do not wait until the end to mark the answers on the sheet. It could cost you precious time if you did so, precious time that you could use for reviewing troublesome questions.


You may have also realized that general GRE tests and subject tests are quite different, not only in content but also in scoring. Whereas there are questions on the general GRE where multiple answers are acceptable, or even required, on the subject GRE multiple answers are not scored. Subject tests penalize you for any wrong answer to the tune of 1/4 of a raw point apiece. Hence the need to be able to eliminate at least one incorrect answer before guessing on a subject test which, scaled, is, in theory, scored from 200 to 990. In practice, on some tests, the actual ceiling is lower than 990, and the actual floor is higher than 200; for this reason, subject test scores are often reported as percentiles. And the general GRE is scored from 130-170 for verbal and quantitative, and 0-6 for writing. Which leads me to what constitutes a good score. Of course, this is very program-dependent, so what is good for one program is not necessarily good for another; however, not many programs will post the average scores of admitted students.

For informational purposes, here are the averages for UPenn’s physics PhD program (my first choice, now that Harvard and Princeton are removed from my list, replaced by Brown, itself replaced by UChicago and UNC-Chapel Hill): V626/162 (86th percentile; however, non-native English speakers are removed from the equation), Q780/163 (88th percentile) with no AW average posted.

General GRE concerns, part III

Before I begin listing (timeframe-dependent!) plans, here’s one thing I have to make clear from the onset. It is applicable to the subject GRE, regardless of the subject, as well as instances where you simply couldn’t schedule a computer-based general GRE sitting. You cannot bring mechanical pencils to the testing room. Moreover, all cheating schemes I know of that make use of mechanical pencils require an inordinate amount of dexterity to carry out due to the limited space afforded by such an item; however, and maybe someone can confirm that but I think it is easier to make use of a mechanical pencil anyway if you successfully applied for a supplemental testing center. Please take note that, if you take the computer-based test, it is generally considered a good sign if the second section of a type is harder than the first, since the revised general test adapts by section. 

Now, on with the timeframe-dependent study plans:


Plan 1 (1-3 days)

Have you scheduled a GRE appointment test in the next three days but, for some reason, put off studying for the test until now? Assuming you can’t, or don’t want to reschedule your test, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Read the GRE information, pages 3-34 of the ETS practice book, and then try your hand at all the verbal practice questions as well as the quantitative practice questions. Then practice composing two essays under timed conditions, one of each type (issue and argument), using one of each type of sample prompts. Be sure to read the analysis for each question you attempt in pages 3-34 of the practice book in question.
  2. Download the PowerPrep II software available for free on ETS’ website. Review all test-taking tips, and preferably take a full-length practice test under timed conditions. Be sure to read the analysis carefully for each question you did not answer correctly so that you will not make the mistake come test day.

Plan 2 (1 week)

This is the plan I personally used (I thought it was a good idea at the time to get the general GRE out of the way; it might have worked for me but maybe it won’t work for you): after carrying out Plan 1 as the first part of this plan, here’s how to augment it:

  1. Take another full-length practice test under timed conditions. Endurance is a key reason why so many students underperform is because building endurance and find one’s proper pace is so crucial. Again, after each test, review the material on each question you answered incorrectly but don’t dwell on your scores.
  2. If, after review, you find that you have one weak area, then by all means, work on each weak area. If your quantitative skills are weak, search the Web for high school-level math review. Alternatively, if your verbal skills are weak (be it because English is your second language or otherwise) study online vocabulary lists and find some verbal lessons on other GRE-prep websites.
  3. For each pair of essays you write, please find some feedback so that you know what to work on. 

Plan 3 (2+ weeks)

At this point, if you have two or more weeks, you may wish to repeat Plans 1+2 as many times as there are weeks (one day off is advised weekly) in your study plan. You may wish to supplement your study with a GRE practice book which contains more than just practice questions. 

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.

General GRE concerns, part II

Some of you may ask what use, other than in awarding financial aid that does not discriminate by the recipients’ fields, the general GRE have. Some people claim that it is a general test that test a common skillset that everyone contemplating graduate study, let alone a physics PhD, needs to master, and others claim that it measures one’s test-taking ability, if only that.

Given that many non-native English speakers, including the cram school graduates mentioned in an earlier post, will try to memorize a sizeable amount of words in order to do well on that test I don’t think it is about testing a basic skillset anymore. I think it does serve an additional purpose, though: test how well the examinee performs under pressure. That, even though the stakes aren’t as high as the LSAT for getting into a North American common law school (civil law schools trade the LSAT for consideration of subject difficulty); other than Yale, Stanford, Chicago and Northwestern in the US and Toronto, Windsor and McGill in Canada, common law schools care very little about what is termed “softs” in legal education parlance, and neither do civil law schools other than UQAM, where the softs are assessed once one gets to the interview.

But enough of the pressure cooker called the LSAT and its relation to legal education. There are nine pitfalls to avoid in one’s preparation for the GRE (and these pitfalls apply to both the general and the subject GRE):

  1. Overconfidence in your test-taking abilities. This is most commonly encountered when one went through undergrad with a GPA high enough to make her choices realistic in a university where multiple-choice items in tests or assignments are virtually nonexistent in her field (and my own undergrad is one of these as far as physics and mathematics are concerned). In these cases, one must not assume that one can take the GRE with little preparation and score high. Be forewarned: for each grad school hopeful with an undergrad devoid of multiple-choice items, there are grad school hopefuls whose undergrads contain a plethora of such items. And, of course, still others take the GGRE very, very seriously (too seriously for their own good sometimes; see #5 below).
  2. Overemphasis on certain areas at the expense of others. It is also equally tempting to put too much preparation weight on one area. Some will put more weight on their strong areas, others will put more weight on their weak areas. I could see why a mathematics or physics graduate would gloss over the quantitative section, though; their mathematical training is far more advanced than the math being tested. Because different test-users have different areas of emphasis, one should never report a GRE score as a composite score. You will be issued separate verbal, quantitative and analytical writing scores valid for five years; for the aforementionned reasons, even though your top choices do not ask for a high score in your weak area, this is not a reason to neglect it. I myself was guilty of this because all the quantitative prep I did was on the practice tests taken under exam conditions.
  3. Obsessing on troublesome practice questions. It’s one thing to review a practice question you got wrong in order to understand what went wrong, and that’s understandable. However, it’s quite another to dwell on a question you either take issue with or still don’t understand. Then you should ask for a second opinion; if that second opinion reveals the publisher’s fault, then alert the publisher and then, move on.
  4. Undue emphasis on practice test scores. Setting a target score based on one’s topmost choices is understandable. But try not to concern too much on your scores, if only because some test-takers do significantly better (or, less commonly, worse) on practice tests than on the real test; your concern then becomes how you would do your best on test day.
  5. Overprepraration. You should plan to take a significant amount of time to study for the GRE. It takes time to get rid of bad test-taking habits, and to get comfortable with the test content, format and time limits. But you never heard of the law of diminishing returns? This means that there will come a point where further preparation will become increasingly fruitless. So don’t drag out your preparation by spending an entire summer prepping for the test or by postponing your test sitting to give you more preparation time than what is actually necessary.
  6. Unrealistic expectations. Sometimes overpreparation stems from setting unrealistic expectations upon ourselves. It is true that you can do much better given a certain amount of effort, but there’s only so much you can do. Also be realistic with respect to the benefits of a book or a course; you can’t expect to go from getting 140-145s on your first practice test taken under exam conditions and end up with 160s on the real test with the aid of only one book.
  7. Insufficient practice under exam conditions. The test is 3 1/2 hours long; a common reason why some test-takers don’t do as well on the real test vs. practice tests is because they conducted these practice tests under conditions that do not, under any shape or form, resemble the real test. Endurance is very important; for this reason, I recommend using the full-length feature of PowerPrep II. Then again, do not expect feedback on the essays using this software, which leads to the next pitfall.
  8. Not taking the essays seriously enough. In my humble opinion, this pitfall is more common if the examinee desires to attend graduate school in a field where the writing done in the program bears no resemblance to what’s tested on the GRE. It is true that graduate schools in some fields do not look at writing scores beyond a certain point, while in others, it bears some weight. But the “reach” schools could be a school where you’re a borderline candidate and often borderline candidates are the ones most intensely scrutinized and this includes, unfortunately, writing scores.
  9. Fatalistic thinking and poor date planning. One can, for a reason or another tell herself: “I’ll give the GRE one shot and if I do poorly, I may as well just forget about graduate school”. It’s understandable if one cannot afford to take the GRE more than once but that sort of fatalistic thinking can also be due to poor date planning. More precisely, having scheduled to take the test too late for you to retake in a timely manner in such a way that the scores would still get to the departments before the deadlines. Some guidelines to this end: count 10-15 business days after the day you took the test for the scores to get to the admissions office, if you took the computer-based test, and count at least 60 calendar days from the first sitting if you want to retake. That said, if you can afford to take the GRE twice, register for and take the GRE once as a dress rehearsal; that way, you can get the butterflies out of your system and you’ll be more relaxed next time. In fact, per ETS’ research, most retakers improve their scores on their second try.

General GRE concerns

Now that you selected a physical subfield and started looking for faculty members on departmental websites, while keeping in mind one’s credentials, it is now time to pull the trigger on the general GRE. It is generally recommended to get the GRE, both general and advanced, out of the way several months before apps are due. Although the general GRE does not play a role as important as the physics GRE in the admissions process, some departments are, in fact, misusing the GGRE. This is ETS’ primary guideline:

“A cutoff score based solely on GRE scores should never be used as the sole criterion for denial of admissions”

Look a few posts back, when I said that some departments enforced general GRE thresholds, I wasn’t joking; Dartmouth (one of the easier schools on my list) asks for 307 V+Q as a hard cutoff. That isn’t a problem for me, since I have V162, Q167 (one should NEVER report a GRE score as a composite score because users look for very different things) but if that 307 V+Q was a soft cutoff instead, the application would still be considered but the remainder of the application has to be accordingly stronger for each additional point lost. Because the quantitative section covers, at the most advanced, pre-calculus, a physics PhD hopeful should normally find the quantitative section to be very easy. In fact, the math we use on a day-to-day basis comprises differential equations, linear algebra, single/multi-variable calculus, and even tensor calculus.

Now for the role of verbal GRE. Yes, it’s true one has to understand arguments, one has to have some reading skills to succeed in a science PhD program, but the reading content seems to be quite broad, and so is the vocabulary. But, while the reading content is supposedly made to be accessible to a wide variety of backgrounds, most of it is markedly different. And, really, same goes for the writing segment.

My own experience with the analytical writing (AW) segment is that, while strong writing skills do matter in the sciences, the writing skills assessed on the GGRE are just too different. An awful lot can go wrong because one failed to adjust to the audience, because one would write cogently but without respecting ETS’ “recipe” (that was my experience with practice tests, where I used what human graders I could find, scored 5-5.5 on the prompts I used, yet scored a 4 on the real AW)

That said, while high GGRE scores will not get you in by themselves, a low GGRE score can throw you out, regardless of the segment, although foreign students whose education is in a foreign language may be cut some slack on both V and AW (including me since I did my undergrad and M.Sc. in French)