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Taking Graduate-Level Standardized Tests -- Strategies to complete the test in time

  1. Apr 1, 2017 #1
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    Hello! This is not a real homework question but I was not sure where to post it. I am preparing for my physics GRE exam and I am not sure what to expect. I looked over some old exams (1980's, 2001 and a practice they posted from 2008) and they seem fine (in the sense that you can do them in 3 hours). However, I have a practice book written by 2 MIT graduate students and another practice book (by something called rea). They have some practice exams proposed by them but they seem impossible to be done in 3 hours (some solutions are really long and require many calculations). What should I expect? You really need to have a huge general knowledge and be super fast to get a good grade, or the 2008 practice exam (for example) is a good representative of the actual exam? Thank you!
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 1, 2017
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  3. Apr 1, 2017 #2


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    I'm not quite sure how the title of your thread relates to the content of your post and I might be not the right person to answer, since I never took an American test. But there are some basic rules, which I think help a lot as general strategy.
    1. Perform a triage, i.e. have a brief look on all questions, rate them and start to answer those, which you think are easy for you. Attention: The "easy" ones might turn out to be more difficult than the "hard" ones, because they might contain less information. Don't get stuck with those, tackle the next one. Use this to calm down. Don't panic! If it's inevitable, then panic here once, instead of each single time at a new question in the answering process. Now start.
    2. Read a question once and fast to see what it is about.
    3. Read it a second time, this time carefully, and note all information which is included on a separate paper, i.e. transform information into equations and formulas. Eventually draw a picture: no graphic engineering, simply a sketch.
    4. Determine what is asked for.
    5. Calculate. If you're ready or got stuck, take the next one.
    6. Tackle the ones which are left.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2017
  4. Apr 1, 2017 #3


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    The first GRE subject test I took was for math. I got a book to prepare for the exam, but I was soon discouraged. I couldn't figure out any of the problems in the book, and like you, when I saw the solutions, they seemed very involved and complicated. Then I obtained one of the old tests and found it was pretty straightforward, so I figured the book was misleading and useless. When I decided on physics instead, I just got two old tests. After my experience with the math prep book, I didn't bother with looking for one for physics. The old exams seemed to give me the best idea of what to expect.

    If you have a good solid background and can quickly solve any problem in intro physics, you're probably well prepared for the physics GRE. The exam isn't trying to assess your ability to do long or complicated calculations. It's trying to assess your understanding of physical concepts. Sometimes, you have to identify the relevant physical concept and apply it to get a straightforward answer, and other times it might simply be ruling out answers that don't make sense, for example.

    When I took the physics GRE (decades ago), it was loooooong. I barely had enough time to go through the entire exam once and then go back to the handful of questions I had skipped or was a little unsure about. I knew from the practice tests that I needed to go pretty fast. If I were you, I'd try to get one more recent than 2008, though.
  5. Apr 1, 2017 #4
    Thank you for this. Do you have any idea where can I find newer ones? (on all the sites I checked the 2008 is the newest)
  6. Apr 1, 2017 #5


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    I just checked the ETS website, and it looks like a more recent exam hasn't been made available. My concern was that perhaps the exam had changed in emphasis over the last decade, but if ETS thinks the 2008 exam still offers good preparation, it probably does.
  7. Apr 1, 2017 #6
    I also took the GRE physics decades ago. If my understanding is correct, ETS only releases a few exams 2008 being the most recent every few decades. A fellow grad student from China told me (about 30 years ago) their country/school (I do not remember which) makes available all previous GRE exams for them to study. If this is true ( maybe ?), it might explain why international students do so well compared to domestic students on these exams.
  8. Apr 1, 2017 #7


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    I took it a few years ago and think the test from 2008 and the one before it were the closest to the actual test I took.
  9. Apr 2, 2017 #8
    The physics practice book you spoke about is "Conquering the Physics GRE", right? The general consensus on that book is that the problems presented in it are more difficult than the actual GRE problems - however, if you are at the point where you can confidently answer the questions presented in that book, you will likely be fine for the test itself.

    Instead of just "looking through" some of the practice test problems from prior pGREs, work through an exam in test-like conditions while timing yourself.
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