How to ace the GRE and Physics GRE

Tips and tricks to maximize your GRE and Physics GRE scores.

Most PhD programs in the US require the GRE general test. These scores matter, so start studying early and register at ETS to take the tests as early as possible.

  • For the general GRE test, I used and highly recommend The Princeton Review’s Cracking the GRE 2013 edition. It is excellent preparation and includes plenty of practice tests.
  • Don’t get an older version (e.g. the 2012 version), but get the 2014 edition.
  • ETS periodically adds new material to the tests so you want the most up-to-date book. You can take a computer-based or hand-written version of the test; I recommend the handwritten version as it is easier to make notes and work out the problems on the test booklet itself than on paper beside the computer.

The Physics GRE subject test is much more involved, and much more difficult. There are no omnipotent books from The Princeton Review, and you have to do the best you can using a variety of sources. Your Physics GRE score matters a lot if you are applying to Physics programs (especially if you are an international student, as some schools have cutoffs). Successful preparation in one sentence would be: do the 500 practice problems found online (links below) and understand the solutions and how to do them as fast as possible. In summary:

  • Your goal should not necessarily be to understand the material; it should be to ace this test in as little time as possible (not even ace – there is a heavy curve so an excellent score is typically 80 questions correct out of 100).
  • You have very little time per question so once you’ve understood a question, check the solutions websites if a comment gives a faster method of solving it by taking limits or physical intuition. Memorize the formulas you see popping up again and again (see formula sheets below).
  • Focus all your effort on writing the practice tests and reviewing the questions. Do not rely heavily or spend much time (if any) on an official ‘How to prepare for the Physics GRE’ book – the material is too extensive to be condensed into this form. The 2012 Physics GRE was very similar to the 2008 test, so it pays to ensure you understand and can quickly do all 500 practice questions. This will take time so start early.
  • Preferably take the April test (register here) so you can write the October test if you need to (if you write the November test you will not have a chance to retake it, and if you take the October test you will not receive your scores by the November test).
  • The old tests from the 90s are much harder than the current versions, so if you are short on time focus more on the most recent practice tests. Here are links to the five practice tests found online, with online solutions. IMPORTANT: read the comments of the online solutions, as they frequently give ways of solving problems much faster.

  • The awesome folks at Case Western Reserve University will send you free (FREE!) flash cards for the Physics GRE, all you have to do is send your address to [email protected] and they will put them in the mail (also have a look at their website).

  • Two former MIT students wrote a decent book attempting to summarize the material (I used a few chapters of this to review material).
  • Here are links to some formula sheets:
  • Additional ‘how to prepare for the Physics GRE pages’:

Is anything in this article confusing, are links out of date, or can this be improved? Please submit a pull request, tweet me, or email me :)