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Studying for the pGRE seems hopeless

  1. Feb 3, 2015 #1
    Before I begin, let me just say that I've been studying for the past 5 months for the pGRE. I'm taking it in either September or October. I started so early because my school doesn't offer a few courses which are covered on the GRE (QM II, Mechanics II), so teaching myself those things took some time. I've been studying by going over previous tests (about an hour each night), taking them again and again, and figuring why I got wrong the things I did. I've also been going over "Conquering the Physics GRE" book which I've heard is helpful.

    Honestly, though, I'm so close to just giving up. I took a practice test a few days ago, and got a 520. This is higher than anyone at my university has gotten in the past 3 years, but it's not nearly high enough to get me into graduate school. I have the research, the good grades, and the letters, but this GRE is really the thing holding me back.

    I spend a lot of time on physicsgre.com and Ohio State's pGRE site looking at solutions for answers I can't quite get, and it's so distressing. So much "I studied for a whole 2 months and I only got a 950!" and "I got a 920, so depressed about this".

    I really just don't know what else to do. I'm not looking for an "atta girl" here, I'm looking for an idea of whether or not I should reconsider my choice for grad school. If I am having this much trouble with the pGRE, will I also have issues on the prelims/quals? Will I be behind in graduate school because I'm not familiar with the topics covered on the GRE?

    Also, another question - why on Earth if the pGRE has been a thing for decades are there only 5 previous exams available?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 3, 2015 #2
    How do you know you have to have that high of a score to get into grad school?

    I did barely above average on the math GRE and got into grad school, and I know people who did worse and still did. I imagine it's similar in physics, though I don't know for sure. But it does seem to be a fairly safe guess on my part that you probably have not gathered sufficient evidence to conclude that a 520 or whatever is "not nearly high enough". And I'm sure you'll be able to improve a bit more.

    No one is going to tell you whether or not to go to grad school. You have to make up your own mind. I can't say I recommend it for anyone except the most extreme academic masochists, especially given the great opportunity cost involved (5-7 years in time, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in forgone income/delayed career development). If you're so easily discouraged, you'll probably find grad school pretty discouraging because I'm pretty sure it's going to make studying for the pGRE seem like child's play.
  4. Feb 4, 2015 #3
    That's not necessarily true, I have sufficient evidence to conclude that a 520 won't get people into SOME graduate schools. The folks at physicsgre.com did a little summary for the average pgre scores by acceptances and the scores were very high, this was in 2010 but most likely scores have increased if anything. You can check the summary out here:


    You can see top ranked schools with average acceptance scores in the 900's range, lower ranked schools tend to have average score ranges in the mid 500's to highish 700's. The acceptance threads on physicsgre.com being any indication, foreign students coming into the US tend to have scores of 950+ but many domestic students have scores 700+ and that's on the low end; so it makes sense to conclude that high scores are far preferable to low scores, even with a high gpa. I also disagree with your assertion that grad school will make studying for the physicgre childs play, I've done some graduate level work in my undergrad and studying for the physicsgre was in some ways harder than that, it's a different sort of test IMO.

    To the OP, scores in the 500-600 range are enough to get you into graduate school, depending on GPA, research experience, and the grad school you're applying to. Yeah I read those threads about students depressed about their 800's and 900's too and it is enough to fill a person with dread. You got to remember though that the top schools like Harvard, MIT, Berkely, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell etc are getting hundreds of applications with scores of 800-900+ so lower scoring students like you and me are definitely at a disadvantage but it's not an task insurmountable task to get in somewhere, just will probably not be your first choice or that highly ranked of a school. Conquering the PhysicsGRE is a really good resource, I'm using that myself along with Schaum's Outlines and the Halliday and Resnick books (Young and Freedman is good too ). You might also check out this study strategy page, I'll be taking the test in September or October and I'm going to use this strategy in a more drawn out fashion to give me lots of time to prepare:


    Best of luck.
  5. Feb 4, 2015 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    You should always reconsider any of your theories in the light of new evidence. That is key to science and life.

    Whatever you choose will involve some degree of effort and reward and risk. Consider several good alternatives carefully and don't be afraid to re evaluate as circumstances change.
  6. Feb 4, 2015 #5
    Thank you for your opinions. Would it be helpful to take the pGRE in April as well as in September/October?
  7. Feb 4, 2015 #6
    That's an expensive practice test if you're going to take it in September or October anyway.
  8. Feb 4, 2015 #7
    It may be a fair point that it's in some ways harder than taking a few graduate classes individually. That's not the same as actually getting a PhD, which is what I was talking about. My dissertation makes everything else in my entire life seem like child's play. Nothing even came close, and I had relatively few difficulties prior to that. I don't think physics is necessarily easier, but maybe some topics/advisers would make it somewhat easier. Still, it's a very difficult thing to do.

    With regard to your other point, you listed average scores. There are two problems there. The first is that admissions committees don't follow any fixed rules and can make whatever decision they want, so it's hard to talk in absolutes. There are exceptions to the rules, particularly if the rest of your application can compensate. Secondly, say you only have a 10% chance to get into one of the top programs, but you apply to 10 of them. I'm too lazy to bother with calculating the exact probability, but you would have a decent chance. Even if it's 1% chance, you may still decide that it's worth it to still take the time to fill out the application and pay $60 or whatever it is to apply. And as you said, 520 is good enough for some grad schools, so it's more a question of how good of a school you can bet on getting into.
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