The GRE by Sheila Kannappan

The GRE, especially the physics GRE, sends chills down many students’ spines. Let’s demystify it with some frank discussion. By default, please assume discussion of the physics subject test, and specify if/when you are referring to the general test or another subject test instead.

I’ll start the discussion with an article from the APS website that you may find disturbing:

The punchline: the physics GRE correlates weakly with academic performance in grad school and not at all with research performance, but unfortunately, it does seem to correlate with whether you are male, female, or a minority. It is speculated that the format of the test — very fast-paced and intimidating — has something to do with that.

Okay, don’t get mad, get even. In the spirit of “the best defense is a good offense”, you can follow these tips from a former GRE question writer:

Or if you’re already past the stage of being able to do anything about your score, take comfort that there are many programs that do not consider the GRE: for example, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and a growing number of graduate schools (including some highly prestigious ones in other countries).

Those are just my thoughts — let’s hear yours!


  1. Laura Miller
    Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know much about the physics GRE since I did not take it! The main thing I can recommend about the subject GRE is to buy a study book early and start working through it. Practice really does help!

  2. Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Some random thoughts on this…

    – Some of the best researchers I know, old and young, never had to even take the GRE,… and of those who did, they didn’t necessarily ace it. Lots to be said about that, and about standardized tests in general. Now, if you already took the GRE and didn’t do as well as you wanted, knowing all this is not necessarily much help. So… what to do?

    – My first advice is this: work hard on your statement of purpose to highlight all your strengths. Most likely these include: really good grades in your courses, extra curricular activities (physics related, especially if they involve community outreach), research (especially published work), presentations in conferences (oral and/or posters), and so on. Don’t be afraid to comment on those even if the information is already in your transcript or your CV. Your statement of purpose is your chance to show your own take on your abilities.

    – Find a graduate student and ask them to tell you what their work involves (writing reports, programming, presenting their work, reading papers, etc.) and emphasize in your research statement any experience you may have that overlaps with that.

    – The above applies as a general rule, of course, but if you want to maximize your chances of success in spite of a weak GRE spot in your CV, then you should contact *directly* the people you potentially want to work with. If you are already working with them by the time you apply to graduate school, then I’d say your so-so GRE scores are close to irrelevant (that’s my personal opinion, of course).

    Finally, remember this: In the end, what faculty look for in a graduate student is a colleague, someone that would work for but also with them, and that will ultimately become an independent researcher.

  3. Erik Forseth
    Posted November 8, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Hard to beat what’s already been written. As Sheila and Joaquin have made clear, I think the GRE is ultimately irrelevant as a predictor for your future performance as a scientist/researcher, but it’s an unfortunate fact that some of the top schools won’t even look at you unless you score above a certain threshold (nevermind that where you go won’t matter as much as the quality/relevance of the work you do and with whom you do that work — that’s another discussion!). So, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t do as well as you like, but you should still take it very seriously!

    Joaquin gave unbeatable advice on how to proceed if you’ve already taken the test and aren’t so satisfied with your scores. But if the test is still in your future, here’s my advice:

    – Studying with friends can make the process a little less painful. My impression is that there’s a close-knit and supportive undergrad SPS group here at UNC who study together, so if such a group exists at your school, you should take advantage of that. On the other hand, these can turn into social gatherings and the group dynamic can make it hard to really focus, so be careful not to fool yourself if you’re “studying” with them a lot but not really getting anywhere!

    – There’s a dangerous temptation when reviewing freshman physics material: when something looks familiar, you file it away by thinking to yourself, “oh yeah, I remember that stuff.” Don’t do that! Go over it again, practice it, drill it! While the questions on the exam can be tricky, the majority of them will cover “basic” physics.

    – Like all standardized tests, there is an extent to which you can “learn the test:” timing strategies, dimensional analysis, etc. It’s worth researching some of the tips that are out there.

    – On that last note: take multiple practice tests under exam-day conditions. The GRE really can be, as Sheila said, “fast-paced and intimidating.”

    – A final note regarding the general (non-subject) GRE. Maybe a faculty member can step in and correct me here if I’m way off. This test might matter for things like consideration for certain fellowships, but I’ve never really heard mention of it for admission to graduate physics programs. It’s not clear to me that it matters much at all (unless maybe you totally bomb it). After three years of intense problem-solving in your math/physics courses, I think the quantitative portion will feel kind of “fun” for you. It’s a computer-based exam, and you can actually feel the questions getting harder as you answer them correctly. Don’t stress out, treat it as a fun challenge, and you will do well.

  4. sean
    Posted November 10, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Admissions committees at top schools probably cull their applicants based on GRE and GPA before they dig deeply into an essay. So studying for the exam is a good idea. How well you need to do to pass this basic hurdle depends on the school and probably the particular committee member. In any case it’s a waste of your money and time to walk in unprepared. A poor grade says either “I’m not as smart as your other applicants” or “I could not care less.” Not good advertising by a candidate. Tailoring your application towards the groups you want to work in is a very good idea. I’m sure that there are schools and programs that do not require a GRE score, but that is a very poor criterion for choosing your graduate school. As everyone has said, GPA and GRE are weakly correlated to professional success since they are both indicators of a fraction (willingness to work towards a goal; basic intellectual competence) of what it takes to be successful. Besides – like Erik said – you already enjoy learning, so this is just more fun.

  5. Sheila
    Posted November 10, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    No one has said what a good score is, so let me take a stab at this elephant in the (virtual) room. What you have to remember when interpreting your score on the physics GRE is that the test-taking pool for the test is *people who want to go to grad school in physics*. Moreover, a lot of international students study for it at extreme levels, so for a U.S. student to score in the 60s-80s percentile-wise is completely solid, and the 90s is really rare. As long as you clear 50th percentile you won’t get cut from consideration at most places. Even if you’re in the 30s or 40s, as long as you have a strong GPA and excellent letters/research experience, you can still get into strong schools, though you may suffer the extra stress of being waitlisted. At this level what you want to do matters — saying you want to be a pen-and-paper theorist invites a higher expectation for your GRE scores, whereas saying you want to build stuff in the lab will turn the focus to other elements of your application (especially past research success). Finally, I have seen people do well in grad school despite a physics GRE in the 10s or 20s, if their GPA and work ethic were superb (truly straight As helps). However, at this level some extra coursework before grad school could be a good idea, unless you know you just test poorly.

    I should also point out that the minimum physics GRE scores grad schools list are often completely false. We at UNC had a “typical” score listed in our brochure until recently that would have made us far more selective than Harvard or Princeton. I didn’t notice (because I think in percentiles rather than absolute scores) until a new faculty hire asked me with incredulity whether our students’ GREs were really that good. Based on this website:
    my guess is that of the top 8 schools listed in descending order of required minimum physics GRE score, only one is telling the truth: Berkeley. (Berkeley is known for being bizarrely overly attached to GRE scores as an admissions criterion.) So if you have your heart set on a particular school, don’t let a webpage or brochure discourage you from applying.

  6. Sheila Kannappan
    Posted November 22, 2015 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Here is a handout I made with strategies for dealing with test anxiety, and also some specific advice for GRE preparation:

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