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How to practice for physics gre when out of study material?

Posted: Sun May 05, 2019 11:54 pm
by luci
Hey people, long time lurker here
I recently got my results for the April Physics GRE. I scored 850 (77%), which (as an international male currently doing a masters) I feel is not good enough for the schools I want.
So right now my chances are,
  • Improve all of my other stats (which I'll do anyway)
  • Aim lower (which I won't because I'm stubborn)
  • Aim different (lots of people tell me to go to Europe instead, but I'm really stubborn!)
  • Retake the Physics GRE in October and try to get a better score
So here's my main problem, I don't really know how to improve my score. I'd love to have some excuse for my low score, like I couldn't study enough, I was busy with coursework, had some personal problem, that I get nervous on tests or that I didn't prepare enough, but the truth is none of the above applied and I gave my honest to God best effort.
I read "Conquering" start to finish, did all the end of the chapter problems, did all practice exams in the book and the released 2001-2008 and 2017 tests in real-test conditions on weekends, during a systematic plan 12 weeks long. I did flashcards with anki and studied every single day. Near the end, when I realized I was plateauing around 800 I also started doing older released tests during the week and heavily reviewing and redoing all practice tests.

So where did I fail? Time and accuracy. When I tried to answer fast, I fell into obvious traps/made algebra errors. When I tried to be accurate I ran out of time...

Let's say I chose to retake the test in October. What should my plan be? Should I retake the same practice exams? I know them by heart almost, it would be ridiculous. Should I change the numbers around? invent my own practice tests? how do I even do that... I'm getting kind of desperate here, someone must have been in a similar situation before, right?

Anyway, thanks for reading and see you on the 2020 thread! there's still plenty of time, go go go go!

Re: How to practice for physics gre when out of study material?

Posted: Mon May 06, 2019 2:02 am
by Nishikata
Hi luci,

Where are you applying, and what's your profile?

I had similar situation in 2017. In April test I scored 840, then I retake in Sept at 900, and finally in Oct I got a 980.
So improvements are definitely possible, especially if your issues are only on time-management problems.

First, take a break for about 1 month. That will help clear your memory on the practice problems from Conquering. Maybe you can prepare for and do the general GRE or TOEFL in this period. After that, try again on those past tests and see if you can score a 990.
(It has to be perfect on timed conditions, because you would still have the past memories on several questions)

Second, you might have realised that the marking scheme for pGRE has often had low cutoff bars for 900-ish score. For example, in some of the past tests, you can get above 900 by getting around 80 problems correct with no mistakes. So choosing the right problem to solve is key.

There are problems in pGRE that needs lengthy calculations, and there are trivia questions. Trivia questions are either you know or you don't. Hence this type should be the first ones to be looked at. Similarly, you should be able to spot the questions that will take significantly long time. Only do these at the end when you are sure you have a systematic, sure-fire methodology to solve it.

I think in Conquering, there is a chapter of test-taking methods that emphasize on certain tricks, like dimensional analysis, limit checks, back-of-envelope calculations, and so on. That helped a lot.

If you have a lot of time, try solving 1st year physics textbook and Griffiths electrodynamics / quantum mechanics again. Maybe your skills are a little rusty on these topics, so a revision could be of help.

All said, pGRE score alone is not sufficient to get admission.
See my profile in 2019 thread and maybe you'll get a better idea on your chances.
I am stubborn too, so feel free, do whatever you are gonna do anyways.


Re: How to practice for physics gre when out of study material?

Posted: Tue May 07, 2019 11:55 am
by luci
Hi Nishikata, thanks for your reply.

My intention is to apply to a top 30 program in hep-ex, with a strong preference for neutrinos. I'm a south american male with a terrible gpa but I will have strong letters from research in hep-ex (for particles other than neutrinos though, but my advisor says it isn't thaaat big of a deal). I have my eyes already set on a few potential PhD advisors in the US whose work I'm interested in, my plan was to start contacting them soonish.

It really does sound like you were in my same situation and were still able to keep improving and get a great score in the end. Tell me, had you gone through all released practice tests by the April date?
I did use a first year textbook to fill in some gaps that I felt conquering didn't properly address, like lenses and thermodynamic cycles, but maybe I could use a boost in special relativity (sorry) and classical mechanics, and just improve my speed in general, and knowing when to cut a problem off.

I already have a great TOEFL (somehow): 119 (R: 30 , L:30 , S:30 , W:29), so I'm going to focus on the general GRE for now and give the PGRE a rest. The PGRE was on April 6th so technically I've already had a month's rest, but I don't really feel like starting to prepare THAT test again right now...

Do you guys think taking the General GRE on July 6th (two months) gives me a reasonable time for studying? I got this textbook pack a while ago but haven't even touched it, so I'm starting from zero, I don't even know the format of the test. I guess I'll just start studying and take a practice test to figure out a timeline.

Re: How to practice for physics gre when out of study material?

Posted: Wed May 08, 2019 2:12 am
by Nishikata
Yeah i did finish all the practice tests. I got my score in April because I had to leave about 20 questions blank (or random shots at the choices). Time management completely went wrong.

I took April’s pGRE and then August’s TOEFL followed by September/October pGRE and November gGRE.

gGRE is offered very often, you can take them every 21 days if you got a bad score. In hindsight, i should’ve done the gGRE much earlier (June/July) perhaps. I got lucky that i do not have to retake the gGRE.

Based on your TOEFL, i assume you are alright with the AW section, so just focus on the flashcards for the Verbal section. Quantitative should be OK for serious candidates for top schools. Therefore, 2 months should be good, or make it 3 months to be safe.