Graduate Record Examination

I took the GRE in physics for the first time today. First time officially, anyways. I had taken two practice exams from books before doing this. But, taking the exam is more or less a necessary thing for going on to graduate school. As I’m looking to go on to graduate school, obviously this was a must. Even though I’m scheduled to take it again, I’d say I think I did rather well this time. Time will tell, in regards to that, and thus time will tell how useful the advice I’m going to be sharing on the subject is.

If you’re gonna take it, don’t freak out. I totally freaked out at first. Someone told me that how I scored on the exam would be a key factor in determining what grad schools I can get into. While this is still more or less true, supposedly a good record in research (represented by good letters of reccomendation from the people you do research for) can make a lot of difference. After all, they want to know you’ll be able to do the research even more than they want to know you’ll be able to keep up with the course work. Also, based on what I hear from people and from looking at websites, if you get above the 50% percentile, you still have a chance of getting into places, just maybe not all the places you’ve dreamed of. Of course, the only way I can verify this is to see my score and how many places accept me, so the answer may be a while in coming if at all. Furthermore, they say that if you take the test twice, graduate institutions will be more likely to overlook the worse of the two scores. In my panic, I signed up for both the October and November tests. After my relief when taking the test for real, I’m not sure I need the second one, but it couldn’t hurt. If I really wanted the money back for the second one, I believe I could get it.

The test itself wasn’t all that bad. Based on my practice exam scores I’d say it’s not all that bad to not answer all of the questions. I got a worse score on my second practice by trying too hard to guess at things I only remembered vaguely. The problems actually seemed easier than the one on my practice exams. Plus there are a lot of tricks to make it easier. I’ve always been told good things about using dimensional analysis (seeing which answers are in the right units and selecting based on that), but I get the feeling the ETS is on to that method because it didn’t apply in terribly many problems. Still, it’s a nice tool to use. Based on the grading system, guessing when you’ve gotten it down to 2 seems pretty worthwhile. Sometimes I can’t remember if a particular equation used a sine or a cosine, so I guessed on at least one question where this was an issue. A wooden #2 pencil can make an excellent and subtle random number generator for guessing. I still only used this method when it was down to 2 possible answers.

I was at least somewhat under-prepared for this exam, despite my confidence in it. Opting to take the exam after college was over was a bad idea on my part. At the time, I thought I had too much on my plate to handle studying for the exam, but a lot of the material was that which was covered in my first 2 years of college, and covered again in more rigor in my junior year. Anyone looking to take the test should keep this in mind. There were a number of questions that I left blank because it had been far too long since I last touched upon the material with enough thoroughness to feel comfortable. I didn’t hit the books until about august, my summer wasted being glad I was done with college. I probably would’ve taken the GRE during college if I had landed a tutoring job due to the nature of the material. I had the chance to, but I was on the fence between tutoring and lab grading, because it would be my second year as a lab grading, which would make the job a little less painful. Ultimately I decided to tutor, but the indecision made me miss the time window for the job. Our department was small, so positions were fairly limited.

Despite these mistakes, hope is not lost for me, and we’ll see how this all bodes for me in the future. There’s still plenty of time for me to get in better shape for next time.

Most institutions offering a PhD in physics seem to require the GRE. I think in theory this is a pretty good idea, because not all grad schools are familiar with the amount of rigor in each college, and a B in two different, supposedly equivalent physics courses may represent a different level of mastery of the material. However, it’s sort of a pain that it’s the only people to go to for this, because they have no competition and can name their own prices. It’s $20 to have the people from the GRE send your scores to institutions you’re applying to. And that’s not even for a full official document; they send an electronic copy. That’s pretty crazy. if it was a full official-looking piece of paper that had to be snail-mailed over, I suppose $20 is justified. However, they’re willing to automatically send your scores to a select number of instutuions automatically when you take the exam, no extra charge. The problem here is knowing ahead of time where you want to go. I picked some places I was interested in, but I still haven’t made my whole list. If you’re strapped for cash and looking to apply to grad school, value these bonus sends they’re giving you.

I hope this was helpful for anyone looking to take the GRE in the future.


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