An Inside Look at the Physics GRE

Exam: GRE Test - Graduate Record Examination Test: Verbal, Quantitative, Analytical Writing

An Overview

The Physics GRE is roughly 100 five-choice questions, some of which are connected to the same diagram or chart and others of which stand alone.  The goal of the test is to determine your knowledge of basic principles of physics and apply them to scientific problems.  According to the ETS, most of the questions can be answered using mastery of the first three years of undergraduate physics.

The International System (SI) of measurements is used commonly through the test, and a table with conversions is provided in the test book.

The percentage of questions covering each topic is set by the examiners based on extensive surveys of undergraduate physics curricula.  That way the distribution of questions roughly mirrors that found in the average undergraduate physics course.

The Contents

The following is a description of the types of questions asked and the topics they might include.  Note that not all of these will appear on the test, and there may be some questions that fit the themes listed here, but are not described in the examples.

CLASSICAL MECHANICS — 20%.  This may include kinematics, work and energy, central forces and celestial mechanics, oscillatory motion,three-dimensional particle dynamics, noninertial reference frames, basic topics in fluid dynamics, dynamics of systems of particles, and Newton’s Laws.

ELECTROMAGNETISM — 18%.Lorentz force, electrostatics, magnetic fields in free space, induction, Maxwell's equations and what they’re used for, AC circuits, magnetic and electric fields in matter, electromagnetic waves, and currents and DC circuits.

OPTICS AND WAVE PHENOMENA — 9%.Wave properties, polarization, interference, geometrical optics, diffraction, the Doppler effect and superposition.

THERMODYNAMICS AND STATISTICAL MECHANICS — 10%.Includesideal gases, the laws of thermodynamics and thermodynamic processes, kinetic theory, statisticssurrounding thermodynamic quantities, ensembles, thermal expansion and heat transfer, and equations of state.

QUANTUM MECHANICS — 12%.Includesbasic concepts of quantum mechanics, solutions of the Schrödinger equation (including square wells, harmonic oscillators, and hydrogenic atoms), wave function symmetry, spin, elementary perturbation theory, and angular momentum.

ATOMIC PHYSICS — 10%.Includes the Bohr model, properties of electrons, energy quantization, atomic spectra and structure, x-rays, selection rules, atoms in electric and magnetic fields, and black-body radiation.

SPECIAL RELATIVITY — 6%.Includes four-vectors and Lorentz transformation,time dilation, simultaneity, velocity addition, energy and momentum, andlength contraction.

LABORATORY METHODS — 6%.Lasers and optical interferometers, counting statistics, data and error analysis, instrumentation, interaction of charged particles with matter,dimensional analysis, radiation detection, fundamental applications of probability and statistics, and electronics.

SPECIALIZED TOPICS — 9%.Includes condensed matter (e.g., x-ray diffraction, semiconductors, electron theory of metals, thermal properties, superconductors, and crystal structure,), nuclear and particle physics (e.g., fission and fusion, nuclear properties, basic properties of elementary particles, reactions, and radioactive decay), and miscellaneous (e.g., computer applications, mathematics, and astrophysics).

Preparing for the Physics GRE

There are several ways to prepare for the physics GRE, the best way probably being to look over your notes from your undergraduate courses.  Since the test covers themes discussed in undergraduate curricula, that is the most logical place to find proper study materials.

You will most likely be able to find tutoring services for the Physic GRE if you would like to study with someone who knows the test and the material.  Finding a test preparation course will be more difficult, since most companies only provide courses for the GRE General Test.  Search the ETS website for more information (

You can find a free practice booklet at  This will give you sample questions, information about the test, a free practice test, test-taking strategies, and an answer key.

Some Strategies

All questions are of equal value; don’t waste time on questions you can’t answer.  Move on to questions you know and answer them first.  Then go back and tackle the harder ones.

If you skip a question or mark multiple answers, that question is not scored in your final result.  Don’t worry about skipping questions, and if you change your mind on an answer, be sure you have erased your first answer completely before handing in your test.

Even though you lose points for an incorrect answer, that doesn’t mean you should skip any question you aren’t confident about.  If you can narrow down the possible answers to two or three, you have a fairly high chance of being right even if you aren’t confident in your answer.

Record all answers on your answer sheet.  Any answers you record in the test book will not becounted.  Also, do not wait until the last five minutes of a testingsession to record answers on your answer sheet.  It may take more than five minutes to fill in the circles, and you don’t want to do poorly simply because you couldn’t fill in your answers in time.

Relax.  You’ve likely already taken the GRE, and this is a test in a subject you want to study.  While there will be difficult questions, you can probably answer most of them well enough to get a good score.

Your Score

The Physics GRE will be scored based on both the number of correct answers and the number of incorrect answers you give.  You will receive one point for every correct answer and lose 0.25 points for every incorrect answer.  This forms your raw score, which is then converted into a scaled score.  The scaled score ranges from 380 to 990.  Note that the scaled score is only reflective of those who took the Physics GRE.  A 720 on the Physics GRE is not the same as a 720 on the Biology GRE and vice versa.

The Subject GREs offer the SelectScore option, which lets you choose which scores to send to a university.  You can send all, some, or none, depending on how you did.  This means that you can take the test again to improve your score and only send the best out of the tests you took.  This doesn’t apply for the General Test, but it is a nice perk for the Physics GRE.

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