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How Do You Prepare for the GRE?

The GRE General Test

The General Test is a vocabulary and math-skills aptitude test similar to the SATs. Usually people who read extensively and keep their math skills fresh would not need special preparation for the General test. There is also an extensive logic and reasoning section. But if you like puzzles no special preparation is needed.

However, the form of the test is different enough from our everyday lives to be unfamiliar. So it is worth your while to practice taking the tests from the variety of sources available. A walk through a large bookstore should show up several possibilities from the Princeton Review, ARCO, Kaplan and many others. Official practice tests and study suggestions can be found at www.GRE.org -- the official site maintained by the ETS.

ETS will provide practice software similar to the program you will use to take the test. It would be a good idea to download the software and get familiar with the controls and how to answer questions well before the test.

The Math section deals with arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis. The Verbal section tests your ability to read material closely and reason through problems presented in written form. And the Analytical Writing section will ask you to respond to 2 different writing tasks.

You should download the software from the ETS site as soon as you register and practice with the sample tests (either from the ETS site or the other books) several months before you take the test to see if you should be working on anything. Specialized booklets on preparing for the Math section, Verbal & Quantitative Sections, Analytical Writing are available.

Other than that the best preparation seems to be a good nights sleep.

The GRE general is normally administered on the computer and employs an adaptive strategy that supplies different level of questions depending on your answers. It is important that you do well in the early parts of the test which determine the complexity of your later questions. Your score will be based on the level of the questions you answer as well as on the number of questions you got right.

In 2007, the role of vocabulary in the GRE General was reduced and more emphasis was placed on critical reading and writing. Also in 2007, on-screen calculators were used during the test. No outside calculators are permitted at this time. There is also an essay portion to the test.

The GRE Subject Test -- Physics

The Subject test is very different. Though not a sure indicator of success or failure in graduate school many people take it seriously as an indicator of something.

Official content description, practice tests, and study suggestions can be found at www.GRE.org. It is a 3-hour test of 100 questions still taken on paper, i.e., not a computer-based test like the General GRE.

Many of the 100 questions are problem-based though calculators are not permitted. Most of the Subject matter of the questions can be found in the first 2 years of a physic education, i.e, classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity & magnetism, DC and AC circuits, optics, and the traditional modern physics courses. Most of these are at the level of traditional calculus-based texts of the 1-year sequence and the follow up modern physics course. Smaller portions of the test require knowledge of upper-level courses in mechanics, e&m, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and nuclear physics. A table of physical constants is provided on the test but not the formulae.

The best advice seems to be to study physics very hard for 4 years then get a good nights sleep before the test.

But slight improvements in your score might be achieved with hard work and a lot of disciplined practice. And unfortunately, one of the things that the test may be measuring is how much time and effort people put into studying for the test.

If you have been out of school for a while then go and start your review with the AP Physics and Calculus material provided by the College Board.

Rough schedule

First year
Start by learning good problem solving skills.
Set up the solution symbolically without plugging in numbers until the solution is complete.
Estimate an answer with paper and pencil.
Checking limiting cases.
Use dimensional analysis
Keep track of problems you see again and again.
Study error analysis in the lab.

Second year
Beginning in Modern lab make one-page summaries of the experiments you do or are discussed in texts– purpose, procedure and data analysis.

Third year
Beginning of your junior year search the web for sites with GRE resources and discussion forums.

Go to the official GRE website and download the most recent sample test.

Search for other resources – more tests, study hints, discussion forums, solutions.

Check with the department for possible study help. Will faculty hold review sessions? Do the faculty have GRE resources? Can you form a study group or a no credit class to begin the next year?

The summer between your junior and senior year begin reviewing first year physics.

Become adept again at algebra, trig, and calculating numbers with paper and pencil. If possible, form a study group to keep honest.

To review the content choose a solid calculus-based, problem-based introductory physics textbook. Possible choices include Physics by Halliday, Resnick and Krane, Tipler's Physics, and many others. Choose a modern physics text that covers many topics and has lots of problems, an example would be Rohlf's Modern Physics:From alpha to Z-nought.

Part of the test is a speed trial so practice until you can solve the problems in the text quickly. Remember not to use a calculator and get into the habit of making quick estimates of the answer before making a detailed calculation. This will allow you to check your final answer. And some of the problems on the GRE Physics test can be answered with a correct order-of-magnitude calculation.

Only when you feel comfortable over this material should you move on to the upper-level courses. Particularly focus on the basic material in classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermal and statistical physics. Pull out your finals and homework and review the material looking for fast (that is quickly-solved) variations of the problems. But you should already have mastered (reasonably) the basic paradigms of the first 2 years of physics. There is a canon in physics -- a set of "classic problems" that you begin to see in intro physics and see again and again in your study. Pay particular attention to these problems.

Fourth year
Beginning of senior year register for GRE General and GRE Physics. Do not take them at the same time.

Form a study group to continue reviewing.

The ETS used to provide a booklet with three sample tests (in the 3rd edition). If you can locate them, use these as a training tool and diagnostic. Toward the very beginning of your preparation take one of the tests under test conditions, i.e., no calculator, in the time recommended, alone and with no interruptions. Get in the habit of looking over the test and first answering those you know well. Then come back and address those you almost know well, leave the ones which require considerable thought to the very end.

Analyze your test and see which topics are more difficult for you. Also see if your test taking strategy needs work.

Study the material for a while and later take the 2nd test under the same conditions. And then the 3rd test.

Under ideal conditions you should have started this review in the summer prior to taking the GRE in the fall. Take the most recent practice test 1-2 weeks before the actual test.

Prepare very hard until about 24-48 hours before the test … then stop. See a movie, go out with friends -- just relax and get a good nights sleep before the test.

Some GRE Physics Web resources

Educational Testing Service
Official GRE  website
last accessed: 15 September 2010

College Board
AP Physics
last accessed: 15 September 2010

Ohio State University
Physics Department
Preparing for the Physics Subject GRE Test
last accessed: 15 September 2010

Society of Physics Students
Physics GRE Resources
last accessed: 15 September 2010

Physics GRE.com
last accessed: 15 September 2010

yosunism subsite
GRE Physics Solutions
last accessed: 15 September 2010


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