A year ago, I was in the heart of the graduate school application process. I look back fondly on the college search: ceaseless mail from universities around the country, weekend college visits with my dad, our late night drives fueled by cassettes from his high school and college days, the feeling that the greatest adventure of my life was about to begin. To this day, Ohio University (which I very nearly choose to attend for undergraduate) reminds me of Billy Joel and late night highways of Devo and the Knack.  However, the graduate school search, I do not recall with such warmth.

This is Physics GRE time. I remember traveling down to Ann Arbor with my roommate and another friend since the test was not offered at MSU when I signed up (I do fondly remember wandering around Ann Arbor after the test on a beautiful fall afternoon).

My (obvious) Advice:

  1. -Study. It’s astounding how much one forgets over the years.
  2. -Take the test twice if you don’t mind the expense. I only took the Physics exam once, but I did take the general exam twice. My score, which wasn’t bad, went up almost 200 points the second time, There is something to be said for the mental soundness which comes from knowing what to expect. I would suggest taking the physics in the spring and then again in the fall. Spend the summer studying the topics with which you had trouble the first time.
  3. -If you do poorly, don’t loose hope. I did terribly…only five percent of those physics students who took the exam I took who might also happen to read this post did worse than me. I did not get into most of the programs to which I applied, but I did get into two with good research opportunities and nice, smaller departments. The best advice is to apply smartly if you do poorly.  Do apply to the schools you would like to attend, but also seek out a couple schools with smaller departments or which might not require the physics GRE (there are some). You might find a hidden treasure.

At my undergrad, you could sign up to the computerized general GRE on pretty much any day. As I said, I took it twice.

  1. -Use the practice CD they give you, Take a couple of the practice exams they give you under testing conditions on a night or weekend  when your homework load is lighter
  2. -Most likely, the verbal section will be the most difficult portion for a physics or astronomy major. It has some pretty bizarre words. Studying flashcards might help. I found a website with a list of words, undoubtedly also found on flashcards which can be purchased, and focused on the words I didn’t recognize. You can’t be prepared for every word so try to practice reasoning to narrow the choices and make good guesses.
  3. -The writing portion may be tricky because of the time constraint. The first time I took it I didn’t quite finish one of the essays. Really do the practice tests they give you on the CD under timed conditions. You might be surprised how you spend your time on an essay.
  4. -The math section has some math you might not have seen in a couple years. Geometry for example. I did a quick review of the topics EST says the math section covers. It did come in handy.
  5. -Don’t be afraid to take it again. If you prepare well your score might go up…or it might not. It’s worth a try though, right?
  6. -Don’t brush off the general exam. Obviously a physics department might not put as much baring on the test as other parts of the application, and might especially give less weight to the verbal section. However, universities might care about the GRE. I received a nice tuition scholarship from the college which houses my graduate department, partly because my GRE scores, the second time around, qualified me. This freed up other money in my department so that I didn’t have to rely on a TA stipend for support this year (not that TAing is bad…but it’s one less thing to worry about during the first year of grad school). I was very lucky, but no matter what, doing well on the exam can’t hurt you, even if it might not help you as much.

I’ll be updating this post after midterms to include more specific information about the tests and how to prepare and recover from them.