ETS administers 6 GRE subject tests - one of those being the physics GRE.
If you’re considering a Ph.D. in physics, chances are your grad school will ask you to take the physics GRE as part of your application. But what is a good physics GRE score, and how do we get there in the first place?
In this article, we’ll dig deeper into everything you need to know about the physics GRE, including an overview of the test and how it is scored. We will also give you a few tips and tricks to help boost your GRE score.
Physics GRE Scoring Key Findings
- Physics GRE is 3 hours long and has around 100 questions, which are written in different ways.
- This GRE test is split into 9 different categories, which count from 6% to 20% of the overall score.
- The scores are presented in two ways: raw and scaled.
- What is a good physics GRE score depends on the program you’re applying for.
Is the Physics GRE for You?
Before we get into the ins and outs of the physics GRE, we first have to determine whether or not the GRE physics test is for you.
Generally, it’ll be physics students, or those with a background in physics, who will take the GRE. It also depends on which program you are applying for since some don’t require students to take a physics GRE test.
However, it is more than likely that an undergraduate physics course will require test takers to submit a physics GRE subject test score.
Administrators will use these test scores to measure the candidate's qualifications against other students.
There may be some physics programs that require students to submit both the general GRE score and the GRE physics score.
Even if your selected program requires neither of these tests, it is always encouraged to submit them along with your application.
So, if you’re majoring in an unrelated field such as English or biology, you will not be required to take a GRE physics subject test.
However, you may be asked to take a GRE general test or different GRE subject tests.
If you’re still confused about the requirements for your specific program, it is best to contact them directly.
You can either check the admissions requirements page or talk to student services.
If it is stated that the physics GRE subject test is required upon application, you will not be considered without it.
As I mentioned previously, even if the GRE physics test is optional, I highly recommend taking it anyway. It could be the edge your application needs.
You will be given around 3 hours to take the physics GRE subject test, answering approximately 100 questions. These questions are multiple-choice, and you will be given 5 options to choose from.
Some of these questions will be grouped into sets and presented to you in the form of graphs, diagrams, coordinate systems, descriptions of physical situations, and experimental data.
The International System of units, also referred to as SI, is predominantly used in the physics GRE.
The test booklet will provide test takers with a table of information representing a few conversion factors and various physical constants.
You will not be allowed to use a calculator on the physics exam, so there is no need to bring one to the testing center.
You will, however, need to bring along your confirmation email, photo identification, three HB pencils, and an eraser.
If you’d like to take the physics GRE subject test, you will have to pay $150, unlike the GRE general test, which costs $205. You can register for your physics GRE via your ETS account .
The GRE subject test is only available 3 times a year - in April, September, and October.
You may be wondering what you can expect on the physics GRE subject test. Well, this GRE test has a wide range of topics, split into 9 different categories .
- Classical Mechanics - counts as 20% - Topics inside the Classical Mechanics section include Work and energy, kinematics, Newton’s laws, celestial mechanics.
- Electromagnetism - counts as 18% - Topics include Currents and DC circuits, Maxwell's equations and their applications, AC circuits, magnetic and electric fields.
- Optics And Wave Phenomena - counts as 9% - Topics include Geometric optics, wave properties, interference, superposition, interference, polarization, Doppler effect.
- Thermodynamics And Statistical Mechanics - counts as 10% - Topics include Kinetic theory, the laws of thermodynamics, thermodynamic processes, quotations of state, ideal gases, thermal expansion, heat transfer, statistical concepts.
- Quantum Mechanics - counts as 12% - Topics include: Solutions of the Schrödinger equation, fundamental concepts, wave function symmetry, angular momentum
- Atomic Physics - counts as 10% - Topics include Atomic structure, Bohr model, energy quantization, x-rays, selection rules, black body radiation.
- Special Relativity - counts as 6% - Topics include Time dilation, simultaneity, energy and momentum, velocity addition, introductory concepts.
- Laboratory Methods - counts as 6% - Topics include radiation detection, counting statistics, lasers, and political interferometers, fundamental applications of probability and statistics, dimensional analysis.
- Specialized Topics - counts as 9% - Topics include Nuclear and Particle physics, radioactive decay, nuclear properties, reactions., condensed matter, computer applications.
How is the Physics GRE Scored?
There are two ways in which physics GRE scores are presented to you: raw and scaled. First, you will be given a raw score that will later be turned into a scaled score.
The raw score refers to the number of questions answered correctly out of 100. Since there aren’t any points deducted for wrong answers, your raw scores won’t be affected.
ETS will use your raw score to calculate the scaled score. There may be a slight variation in the difficulty of each GRE test due to all tests being written by humans. However, the educational testing service ensures this does not affect the overall score and percentile.
Scaled scores for the physics GRE subject test ranges from 200 - 900. However, hardly anyone scores below 400 points.
The scaled score also comes with a corresponding percentile. A good physics GRE score will have a high percentile. The current average score for the physics GRE subject test is 717.
Take a look at the following chart to compare scaled scores to their percentiles:
What is a Good Physics GRE Score?
A good physics GRE score depends on which program you’re applying for and their standards. Some universities will only encourage the students to take the physics GRE subject test, while others will have a minimum score requirement.
Others won’t expect an average score, just proof that you understand the material at hand.
“The aim of the test is to determine the extent of the examinees' grasp of fundamental principles and their ability to apply these principles in the solution of problems.” - ETS
If you are not sure what the requirements are, it’s a good idea to contact your local educational testing service and find out.
You should also keep in mind that a university application is made up of many things: your GPA, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, work experience, etc.
If you know your application isn’t very strong in those areas, it would be a good idea to try to outscore the required physics GRE score. You can also look into taking the GRE general test to help boost your application even more.
5 Tips to Boost Your Score
Now that you know what to expect on the test day, you can work on boosting your total score. Here are 5 GRE prep and exam tips to help you along the way.
#1: Practice Formulas
If you study physics, formulas are very important, so you’ll need to practice them for the test day.
A prepared student is a confident student and in order to get an excellent score, learning the most common GRE formulas is crucial. 
You don’t have to learn each and every formula; you should only stick to the most common formulas likely to pop up on your test.
You won’t be given extra points for knowing everything there is to know about quantum mechanics. Refer to a test book prep to best prepare yourself for the exam.
#2 Take Practice Tests
Practice tests are a great way to learn how physics concepts are tested, and they’re a very important part of GRE prep.
There are currently over 6 official GRE tests available online, on the ETS website. The downside is most of them are older exams, so the questions may be a little outdated. That being said, the format and content haven’t changed too much, so it will certainly be helpful.
#3 Make Flash Cards
Flashcards are a student's best friend. You can use these to study past test questions and answer choices. Flashcards can be used to study formulas, laws, terminology, and much more.
#4 Answer Easy Questions First
When you get around to taking your GRE subject test, you should aim to answer the easy questions first.
If you find yourself stuck on a question, leave it and come back later.
It is very easy to lose track of time during your exam.
You should only spend a few minutes on each question, so getting all the easy questions out of the way first will give you more time to go back to the questions you marked for review.
#5 Answer The Questions You Think You Know
If you have no idea what’s the answer to a question, it is best to skip it altogether. Guessing can work in some cases; however, if the guess is with 0% knowledge, it can actually negatively affect your score.
Unlike the general GRE test, the score requirements for physics are slightly different.
You can lose points for every incorrect answer. You don’t lose points for unanswered questions. However, you do the wrong ones.
As a general rule, if you can eliminate 3 of the answer choices, it is a good idea to take an educated guess.
What is a Good GRE Physics Subject Test Score?
At the time of writing this article, the average GRE physics score is 712. However, depending on your program, this could be considered good or bad.
Some Ph.D. or graduate programs require a specific score upon application, whereas others simply recommend taking the test since it looks good on your application.
It’s always a good idea to do your research beforehand: check the college website, forums, and contact the admission board. They will give you a good idea of what constitutes a good score.