Sunday, October 5, 2008

On the Physics GRE

Most of my spare time lately is being spent studying for the Physics GRE- that insidious test required for admission to most American astronomy/physics graduate schools. The reason it's insidious (beyond the silliness of reducing physics to multiple choice) is the grading curve is so heavily skewed towards international students, mainly coming from countries like China where they spend several years essentially studying for the Physics GRE. Us domestics make up for this with things like good lab experience, but you still have to try your best of course even if the percentile you're hoping for is probably 50% lower.

There are two GRE Physics exams in the fall (and the general GRE, of course, but no one cares excessively about that) and the first one is two weekends from now- conveniently right at the end of my midterms and the first day of Fall Break. Beyond the obviousness of doing practice questions and tests, I also have about 200 flashcards with various physics equations on them, because when you only have a minute or so a question you need to know the stuff like the charecteristic frequency of an LHC circuit or the van der Waal equation of states like that. I find this silly because I guarantee none of my professors could tell you most of these without looking them up, but no matter.

On the bright side, I realized I got a lot better at all this when I started treating my stack of flashcards like a violin concerto, and progress has gotten better. Each concept is like a measure, ten are a phrase so you have to go back and review, twice that you need to go back again to reinforce it... and then once your "problem spots" are out of the way (everyone's got them, in my case it's stat mech and some of the quantum) and you can waltz through the cards however they're sorted you find a few questions and see if you can do that. A musician's dicipline comes into life in odd ways...

So that's what I've been doing. (Yay?) I could rant about this topic a little more but think I'll abstain for now on the grounds that topic irritates me, except for one last observation- if I end up not getting into graduate school, remind me to go work for the GRE people. It's costing me $140 a pop to take this test, and they must make a killing.


tg said...

prescript: This post is not written as a rant, but I just felt that the bit about intl. students is not quite true in general.

Firstly, I don't know much about China but as far as I could tell most of my fellow students in India (which is another close-by country from where many intl. students come to US grad schools) prepared for may be two months or less for GRE physics. I studied a bit more (about three months) because I hadn't taken any formal classes in Physics apart from very basic mechanics and electrodynamics (I was studying engineering in undergrad).

After talking with other Indian students here at my PhD institution in US I suspect that may be more or less correct description about Indian students. You may like to check yourself about this at your home institution (of course there would always be some variance).

When it comes to General GRE exam (i.e. the English test), people do cram for months (about 4-6) but that is natural/legitimate given that it is not their first language.