For admission to Ph.D. programs in physics in countries like USA, Canada, Australia and Japan, one mandatory requirement is the Physics GRE exam. Performance on the exam is fairly important in the admission process, especially when the applicant is from an engineering (non-physics) background. I took the exam as an engineering student and was able to score 990/990 on the exam. In this post, I will write all about the exam, its contents, cost and preparation strategies.
About the Exam
The physics GRE is a standardized test offered by ETS which tests standard undergraduate level physics. The exam consists of 100 multiple choice questions (MCQ) where only one answer is correct out of all the choices. The duration for the same is 170 minutes. In India, the test is only paper-based where the answers are to be marked on an OMR sheet. Each correct answer fetches one point and finally, the total number of correct answers gives the net raw score. This raw score is then converted to a scaled score out of 990. The exact scaling used is different each year depending on the performance of the test takers. Usually, a raw score of 90 above can fetch a full scaled score of 990 out of 990.
Cost of the Exam and Dates
The exam is fairly expensive and costs $150 worldwide. This comes out to over ₹ 10,000 with the current exchange rate. Moreover, the exam is offered only once per year in India so there is no provision of multiple attempts within the year. The exam date is usually near the end of October each year in all major cities. Registrations start around August each year.
What the exam tests?
The exam is fairly straightforward and tests only basic undergrad level physics. The MCQs are often formula based and require a quick application of simple formulas. Rarely would a question need significant calculation.
It is important to practice speed and accuracy for this exam. The biggest challenge is usually time since 100 questions are to be done in 170 minutes only, and that too to be marked physically on an OMR sheet.
You can find the syllabus, weightage of all topics and exam rules in the document on the following link: https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/practice_book_physics.pdf
The physics GRE in the level of questions is easier than other exams like IIT JAM, GATE physics, CSIR-NET, and JEST. So if you are preparing for these exams, the preparation would be more than sufficient for this exam.
For engineers who are just starting out to get into physics after engineering, and need to develop a background in undergrad level physics, you can read the tips I have given on how to study undergrad level physics on your own in this post for IIT JAM preparation in the ‘Syllabus and Background’ section: IIT JAM preparation for Engineers
Once the relevant background is there, the next step is to practice specifically for the exam. This means solving the questions asked in the exam via previous year papers. On the following link, you can find all the previous year physics GRE papers with solutions: http://physicsguide.in/gre-physics/
Only 6 such papers are available (1988, 1992, 1996, 2001, 2008 and 2017), and so these need to be treasured. NOTE: There is no specific reliable book for the physics GRE exam.
This part of the preparation should start 2-3 months before the actual date of the exam. Initially, you should give the 1988 test as a mock. Make sure you time the test and see how much time you take to complete the test. Check your answers and see which topics are the weakest, particularly formulas etc that you got wrong. Revise those topics.
Then a few days later, repeat the same with the 1992 exam and the 1996 exam. After these three mocks, you would get a fair idea of how to complete the test on time and about the weak topics you need to brush up. Make sure those topics are brushed up. JAM/GATE/NET preparation books can be used for the same.
In the final leg of the preparation, the 2001 and 2008 papers should be used for the mock tests. This time, do not just time your test but make sure you exactly stop at 170 minutes. This would help you to know how much you have improved and how many questions you can now attempt in 170 minutes. Again, analyze your performance and see which topics still give you a problem.
After revising the weak topics and analyzing the performances in the previous mocks, give the 2017 test as a mock 2-3 days before the exam. Take this exam at the same time as the actual exam, that is, 9 AM in the morning. Keep a clock set to 170 minutes and take the exam. This time you should expect to perform your best and this would be an indicator of your actual performance on the exam day. Analyze the results and again think of improving upon your test-taking strategy and solving questions.
What is a good Physics GRE score for engineers?
For engineers without any physics courses, the physics GRE is very important. First of all, there is no cutoff score. Ph.D. admissions work differently as they consider all parts of the application and every score is accepted for evaluation. A score above 950 is essential to be competitive in the very top programs in the USA, although physics GRE is just one out of many requirements for Ph.D. admissions abroad. And you can easily aim for 990/990. Getting 90 out of 100 questions correct can get a full score.
You should aim for a score of at least above 900. If you are a physics student in master’s, keep in mind that the marks in your physics courses would count much more than the physics GRE. But still, a good score in physics GRE is important in convincing the admission committee that you can at least do undergrad level physics.
Finally, physics GRE is not the most important part of the application and thus it alone won’t ensure admission even if you get 990/990. But a high score certainly increases chances of being accepted. At the top universities, almost all applicants have high physics GRE scores and hence a good score is needed to simply be at par with other applicants
If you want to read about my journey into physics after engineering, you can read about it here: My Journey into Physics After Engineering -Vaibhav Sharma
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About the author:
Mr. Vaibhav Sharma is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the prestigious Cornell University, an ivy league university which is the 14th best university in the world and is among the top 10 universities in the USA!!
The fact that he once was an engineering grad like the readers of the blog should give us all enough hope and assurance to pursue our passion for physics after engineering.