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Help. I have one more chance.

Posted: Tue Sep 22, 2015 1:12 pm
by runcibleshaw
I graduated from my physics undergrad in May and I basically have one more chance to not get a crappy physics GRE score. I was unable to take it last year because of circumstances and so wasn't able to apply to most of the grad schools I would like to have. I took it in April and got a 590 after several months of studying. I just took it again on Saturday and I don't feel like I did any better. I'm at my wits end and don't know what I can do to improve my score.
I know what my problem(s) is(are). I'm slow, and I make silly math mistakes. I've tried as many of the recommended test prep/taking strategies I can find and it hasn't made a dent in my score. I've tried all of the practice tests under timed conditions multiple times. I've checked the answers I got wrong to understand why. I've studied flash cards, text books, GRE test prep books and my own class notes. I've probably put hundreds of hours into studying. I've tried to apply test-taking strategies like taking limits, checking units, and checking order of magnitude. The thing is I never am able to answer more than about 60 questions and I usually get a third or more of them wrong. I'm also very weak at circuits and statistics. I've tried to improve, but at this point if I see a circuit diagram or oscilloscope graph, I just skip it. My score is always between five and six hundred. It's really frustrating because I was a straight A student and graduated summa cum laude in two years from my physics program. I'm just not fast. I can answer every question on the test if I had twice the time, but apparently grad schools really want to know that I'm good at speed physics not that I can answer the questions in general.
So, if anyone has anything that can help me I would appreciate it. I'll try anything at this point. (And if you're wondering it's also not that I'm bad at standardized tests. I got a perfect score on the math portion of the SATs).

Re: Help. I have one more chance.

Posted: Tue Sep 22, 2015 1:58 pm
by TakeruK
Honestly? I think if you believe that you are at the peak of your PGRE performance, then I think you should make peace with that and focus on the other parts of your application. I first took the PGRE in 2009 and scored 640. I took it again later with a lot more studying (months of weekly study sessions and review) and scored 690. I did feel that I had reached my full potential on the PGRE and that I could not have scored any higher no matter what. I did not reach all 100 questions on the real test nor did I achieve that in any of my practice test (sure, I did get to question #100 because I skipped things I didn't know immediately but in no test attempt was I ever able to at least think about or attempt every question).

From your description, it sounds like you have reached something similar. I did everything you did and end up in the same place. I was also very frustrated because I feel the PGRE does not really test the kind of physics knowledge that is useful in my graduate programs (I am in astronomy and planetary science programs) nor is it the kind of knowledge I think is interesting (or even valuable). Oh well.

I am guessing you are taking the test one more time. I think the key point for the next month is to try your best to move on from feeling frustrated. I think you should know that your PGRE won't define you and it will not mean that you cannot get into any graduate school. Sometimes the extra pressure can cause us to underperform.

After you are finished taking the tests, it's much more important to focus on other aspects of your application. The PGRE score is only one tiny part of your application. As you said, your transcripts and other records will demonstrate that you are good at Physics. Sometimes I feel applicants are too focused on the PGRE. Remember that schools ask for a lot of different things in an application package and it would be a mistake to think that every item asked for is of equal importance.

Some more honest thoughts: Will a PGRE score in the 500-600 range keep you out of some graduate program? Yes. But most people will get rejected from programs for a wide range of reasons anyways. It's okay to have one part of your application that isn't as competitive as the rest. My scores were about 50-100 more than what you're listing but I still got into multiple top-10 programs.

My advice is to accept that you have done everything you can to prepare and that your PGRE score does not reflect poorly on you as a student of physics. I would not spend much more time preparing for the October test. Maybe take a break for the next few weeks and prepare for your applications in much more effective and meaningful ways (finding programs, talking to professors, getting mentorship from old professors, writing your essays etc.). Then, in the week before the October exam, take another practice test and prepare again to get yourself in the mindset. Then write the test and see what happens. (Alternatively, you can cancel the October test if you want to get a partial refund). Take away the pressure to score highly and you might do better (or not, but honestly, I don't think there is much else you can do in terms of preparation).

Re: Help. I have one more chance.

Posted: Tue Sep 22, 2015 2:14 pm
by runcibleshaw
All good points. It just seems like such an unfair way to assess what I know about physics. I know, life isn't fair, but it's hard to accept that there's no way I can get a 'good' score on this test.

Re: Help. I have one more chance.

Posted: Wed Sep 23, 2015 7:02 am
by slowdweller
First you have to honestly assess whether you've really mastered common undergraduate level topics to the level required for the GRE. If you want to test your mechanics ability, say, open Halliday and Resnick and from the first 14-15 chapters pick several two or three star problems randomly. Can you do them in a short amount of time, or do you need a long time to ponder over them, look up formulas and eventually you can do them? If the case is the latter, then I'd say you haven't had enough practice. Mend that. Do as many practice problems as you can find on topics you find that slow you down.

People keep saying that doing the past tests is the best way to prepare for the test. I can honestly say that that's not true in my experience, mainly because 3 of those tests (1986, 1992, 1996) are terribly outdated. Plus as you say, you've exhausted them at this point. Studying them further will be of little use. The best approach I think is to identify your weak topics (which you should be aware of, having taken the test twice), open the corresponding Halliday and Resnick chapters, read up on them, go through the examples, and most importantly do many many problems. In this way you expose yourself to many different types of problems and when those types of problems show up on the actual test, you'll be able to do them much faster.

You say you have trouble with circuits (don't worry, I hated them as well but with practice I've learned to get by). Use this approach to work on them. Most GRE's have at least 2-3 (sometimes as much as 5) problems related to circuits and if you can get those that's an easy 20-30 point improvement. Ditto for other topics.

Let me end with some anectodal statistics. Everyone I know who went through all of Resnick (at least 5 people) and did the majority of the problems got perfect or near-perfect scores. Most people who didn't (including myself), didn't. In contrast to what TakeruK says, I strongly believe that putting in the time to try a different approach which could improve your score is very worth it, especially if you want to apply for theory. The only case when it's probably not worth is if you're applying to astronomy programs.

Re: Help. I have one more chance.

Posted: Mon Oct 12, 2015 5:40 pm
by runcibleshaw
Welp, I missed the deadline for the October test. So, I guess I'm stuck with whatever score I got on the September test.