Preparing for the Physics Subject GRE

The physics subject GRE (Graduate Record Exam) is a standardized test of physics knowledge required by most graduate schools. I give a talk each spring about preparing - the powerpoint is available here Dr. Stewart GRE Talk

The GRE is given by ETS which can be reached at ETS. You should sign up for and take both the general GRE and the physics subject test. There are numerous study materials for the general GRE at most bookstores. These tests will be given on different dates. The subject test was given on September 19th and October 24th in 2015. There is also an April offering of the test. Expect a similar date this year. Sign up well in advance; the signup deadline is over a month before the test date.


For Wikipedia's complete list of Test Content. This list is also available in the GRE practice booklet. The main topics covered are Mechanics(20%), E+M(18%), Quantum(12%), Thermo(10%), Atomic(10%), Optics(9%), Special Relativity(6%) plus some additional fun garbage. For those of you who have not had all the above classes, don't freak. Much of the material can be done with a solid knowledge of your introductory physics classes, plus some general knowledge of what things are.

General Strategy

A student should allow six months to prepare for the exam. Since there are only five practice tests for the exam, the tests must be used wisely. Students should take the first practice test at the beginning of their preparation process to sensitize themselves to the types of problems on the exam and to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The remaining tests should both be taken as practice tests and worked as study problems well before taking the real test (but after some preparation). The published tests are, by far, your most valuable preparation resource.

The GRE physics subject test is unusual because it is substantially a test of knowledge, not a test of skill. This makes it very different than most other physics tests the student will have taken. This makes some sense to a graduate school because it ensures the students they accept have a broad familiarity with physics and have fully mastered the content of the introductory sequence.

Strategy is important in preparing for and taking this test. As I have considered how to best advise students, I discovered my preparation strategy was completely stupid. I studied from junior level textbooks exclusively. Most GRE problems are introductory level problems. It is important to work from both introductory and advanced sources and to identify the important points in the advanced sources. Working a lot of easy problems is more important than a few hard problems. Therefore, finding sources of worked problems is important. It is also important to be aware of the problems in the published tests, so you are working GRE-like problems.

Make this a valuable experience

This site will focus on strategy and it will sound like you're jumping through a stupid hoop these graduate schools have set for you. You can certainly approach it that way, but it would be better if you made this into a positive experience. Each of your classes have only introduced you to new material. This is your chance to draw that material together. Work from multiple sources, read, work on things that have bugged you, and begin to develop your overview of the subject.

There are three points where a physicist really learns the material; (1) Preparing for the GRE, (2) Preparing for the free attempt at the qualifying exam offered by most universities before going to graduate school, and (3) Preparing for the qualifying exam. Make the most of this first time to begin to master physics.

Students who took the GRE often offer the same advice:

  1. Plan to spend a lot of time preparing - Each of them wished they had begun preparation in May rather than August.
  2. Set up a schedule - Set aside some time to read and work problems each day. Plan to spend at least an hour a day, preferrably more.
  3. Work problems - Plan to work a lot of problems before the test. You not only need to know the stuff, you have to be fast.
  4. Focus on Physics 111 -Modern Physics- The bulk of the test is drawn for Physics 111, 112, and Modern. (and the stuff we didn't quite get to in 111 and 112.

The Published Tests

These are the official released copies of the GRE; they are your best resourse for preparing for the exam.

  1. Test 1 - GRE Practice Booklet(GRE0177)
  2. Test 2 - GRE Practice Booklet (GRE9677)
  3. Test 3 - GRE Practice Booklet(GRE9277)
  4. Test 4 - GRE Practice Booklet(GRE8677)
  5. Test 5 - GRE Practice Booklet(GRE0877)
  6. Test 6 - GRE Practice Booklet(GRE1177)

Study Schedule

  1. April -Junior Year (6 months to go)- Take the first practice test - get killed.
  2. First Half of Summer - Get a set of notes (and maybe notecards) together. Make sure you review all of introductory physics (Phys 111 - Modern). Review the biggest topics in advanced undergraduate physics. Look over the other published tests to get a better idea of what you should study.
  3. Set up a schedule to work on the test each day.
  4. Sign up for the subject and general GRE.
  5. Second Half of Summer (the sooner the better) - Start working problems and begin to use the other practice tests.
  6. Fall Senior Year - You should be working problems consistently. Make sure you use the published tests effectively.