ETS is most well known for writing and administering the GRE General Test, which is an admissions exam required by most graduate– and a growing number of MBA– programs. However, ETS also is responsible for writing the GRE Subject Tests. These are considered achievement exams that measure an applicant’s knowledge of a specific field of study.
In this article, the specific field of study we are interested in is Physics. Before we discuss what is a good physics GRE score, we will talk about who should take the GRE Physics Subject Test along with how the exam is structured and graded.
In general, it is prospective graduate school applicants that take the GRE Subject Tests. These test scores allow admissions to have a common measure for comparing candidates’ qualifications. If you are interested in applying to a physics master’s or PhD program, it is likely you will be required to submit a Physics GRE Subject Test score.
Now, the key phrase there was “it is likely.” There are some physics programs that could require applicants to submit both the GRE Physics Subject Test and the GRE General Test scores. On the other hand, a program could only require one or even none. Often, if a program does not require a Physics Subject Test score to be submitted, it is still encouraged.
Never assume the Physics GRE Subject Test is not required. The best thing to do is simply consult the program(s) you are applying to and ask. Even if a program says the Physics GRE Subject Test is not required, it is never a bad idea to contact admissions to see if submitting a Physics GRE Subject Test score is encouraged.
Submitting a solid Physics GRE Subject Test score can only help your application. I always recommend taking the exam no matter what is required. Your score can be used by admissions or fellow panels to supplement your undergraduate records, recommendation letters, and other qualifications for graduate-level work. This is a way for you to stand out from the competition and demonstrate your mastery of concepts that are essential to your field of study.
The Physics GRE Subject Test is almost three hours long and will consist of approximately 100 multiple-choice questions that will each have five answer choices: A through E. The cost to sit for the exam is $150 and you can register on your ETS Account. Unlike the GRE General Test, which is offered year around, the GRE Subject Tests are only offered three times a year: September, October, and April (click here for a list of test centers and dates).
Furthermore, it is a paper-delivered exam and a calculator is not permitted. Therefore, there is no need to bring one with you to the testing center. What you will need to make sure to have on test day is your confirmation email, your valid photo identification, three sharpened No. 2 or HB pencils, and a reliable eraser.
Some of the questions will be grouped in sets and can be based on diagrams, graphs, experimental data, and descriptions of physical situations. The International System (SI) of units is predominantly used on the exam. The test book will provide a table of information representing various physical constants along with a few conversion factors among SI units.
The overall goal of the Physics GRE Subject Test is to analyze a test taker’s ability to apply fundamental physics principles in order to solve problems. All of the questions are designed to quantify a person’s knowledge on concepts that ETS believes the test taker would have mastered in the first three years of undergraduate physics.
The following chart lists the content that will appear on the Physics GRE Subject Test along with the percent it will make up of the test. For a more in-depth explanation of content, click here.
|Question Content Specifications||Percentage of Test|
|Optics and Wave Phenomena||9%|
|Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics||10%|
The amount of questions you answer correctly out of the 100 is referred to as your raw score. Fortunately, points are not deducted for questions you answer incorrectly, so never leave a question blank.
ETS then uses the process of equating to turn your raw score into a scaled score. Since the GRE Subject Tests are written by humans, there will always be very small variations in the difficulty level of the exams. The equating process ensures that these minor variations do not affect a student’s overall score and corresponding percentile. Hence, the same number of correct answers on one exam will not always equate to the same scaled score on another.
Your scaled score will range from 200-990, in 10-point increments. On this score range, 200 is the lowest a person can score and 990 is the highest. Note, very few test takers, if any, score below a 400. Although the Biology and Psychology Tests also provide subscores, the Physics Subject Test does not.
When you receive your score report, you will see your scaled score and the corresponding percentile. Essentially, a good physics GRE score is what translates into a high percentile. Currently, the average physics GRE score is 712 (meaning a person who scores a 712 did better than about half the test takers and worse than half the test takers).
The following chart shows the most up to date Physics GRE Subject Test scores and the corresponding percentiles.
The answer is, it depends. Some programs will simply encourage applicants to take the GRE Physics Test, such as the University of Georgia. While others, such as the University of Colorado, Boulder, require applicants to take the GRE General Test and Physics GRE Subject Test, but set no minimum score requirement. Other programs might be very clear about the score they want from applicants.
Always contact your program to see what their score requirements are. If they do not specify, usually the average score of their past admitted students can be found on an online forum.
Admissions decisions will be made by a committee that will examine your application in its entirety, i.e. your standardized tests scores, personal statement, GPA, letters of recommendation, work experience, past research, and so on. Always keep your application in mind when creating a target score. If you know a part of your application is not very competitive, such as your undergraduate GPA, then you might want to try to get a Physics GRE Subject Test score that exceeds what the program is looking for.
Taking the Physics GRE is not necessarily cheap, but fortunately the $150 includes sending your score to as many as four graduate institutions or fellowship sponsors. When you register for the exam, you will be asked to designate your score recipients. If you have not decided who to send your scores to upon registration, you can contact GRE Services prior to test day in order to add score recipients.
After test day, you can send out additional score reports–but it will cost you $27 per recipient. Hence, I highly recommend doing your research and choosing your recipients before sitting for the exam.
ETS offers the ScoreSelect tool that allows students to decide which test scores they want to send to their recipients. This is meant for people who have taken the Physics GRE Subject Test more than once and want to only send out their best score. Score Reports are mailed out to recipients exactly five weeks after the Subject Test date. There is no need to contact ETS with updates on your score report. They will send you an email when your score report is available to view on your ETS Account.
Currently, the average Physics GRE Subject Test score is a 712. This may or may not be considered a good Physics GRE score for the program(s) you are applying to. Some graduate and Phd physics programs will require applicants to take the Physics GRE Subject Test, some will not, and some might simply highly encourage it. Always do your research by contacting the admissions program(s) you will be applying to.