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What is Included on the Physics GRE&Reg;?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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The physics GRE®, or Graduate Record Examination, is a multiple choice test for graduate school that is comprised of 100 questions roughly divided between nine broad subject areas. Those areas are classical mechanics, electromagnetism, optics and wave phenomena, thermodynamics and statistical methods, quantum mechanics, atom physics, special relativity, laboratory methods, and “specialized topics.” Specialized topics is basically a catch-all section that can contain elements of nuclear and particle physics, electron theory, and mathematical properties, among other things. The exam is designed to broadly test students’ aptitude in physics at both the basic and advanced levels.

On most physics GRE® exams, over a quarter of the questions concern either classical mechanics or electromagnetism. These subjects are standard courses at most universities and are considered core knowledge for nearly all physics majors. Questions often concern fluid dynamics, Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, and the properties of magnetic fields.

The physics GRE® is a core requirement for most graduate-level physics programs in the United States and Canada, as well as some programs in the UK and Europe. It is rarely the only requirement, however. Applicants to master’s and doctorate level physics study must usually first sit for the general physics GRE® test. The GRE® physics subject matter test is a highly specific exam that tests applicants’ ability and aptitude within the physics field.

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As far as GRE® subject tests go, the physics GRE® is often regarded as one of the most difficult. Part of this is owing to the range of subjects that can be — and often are — tested. Exam administrators provide students with general guidelines about the types of questions that could be asked but do not make any content guarantees. Examinees must typically be prepared for anything.

The majority of the questions included on the physics GRE® test students’ ability to apply laws, theories, and basic physics principles to discreet facts. These must be recalled from memory. Students cannot bring any notes or materials into the exam, but some constants and basic equations are provided on the test booklet’s front cover.

Graduate school hopefuls typically study for the GRE® physics exam by reviewing core concepts and practicing sample questions under severe time constraints. Examinees are typically allotted 170 minutes — a little bit less than 3 hours — to complete all 100 questions. All exams are graded on a weighted percentile basis that takes all other test takers’ scores into account. In most cases, perfect scores are awarded to students who answer roughly 80% of the questions correctly. It is extremely rare for students to actually answer all questions correctly.

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