Conquering the Physics GRE 3rd Edition
Conquering the Physics GRE Third Edition
The Physics GRE plays a significant role in deciding admissions to nearly all US physics Ph.D. programs, yet few exam-prep books focus on the test’s actual content and unique structure. Recognized as one of the best student resources available, this tailored guide has been thoroughly updated for the current Physics GRE. It contains carefully selected review material matched to all of the topics covered, as well as tips and tricks to help you solve problems under time pressure. It features three full-length practice exams, revised to accurately reflect the difficulty of the current test, with fully worked solutions so that you can simulate taking the test, review your preparedness, and identify areas in which further study is needed. Written by working physicists who took the Physics GRE for their own graduate admissions to MIT, this self-contained reference guide will help you achieve your best score.
Yoni Kahn is a theoretical physicist researching dark matter and supersymmetry. A postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, he obtained his Ph.D. from MIT in 2015 and in 2016 received the American Physical Society’s J.J. and Noriko Sakurai Dissertation Award in Theoretical Particle Physics. Adam Anderson is an experimental physicist working at the interface between cosmology and particle physics. He received his Ph.D. from MIT in 2015 and is now a Lederman postdoctoral fellow at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, developing instruments for performing precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background.
Conquering the Physics GRE represents the combined efforts of two MIT graduate students frustrated with the lack of decent preparation materials for the Physics GRE subject test. When we took the exams, in 2007 and 2009, we did what any student in the internet age would do – searched the various online bookstores for “physics GRE prep,” “physics GRE practice tests,” and so on. We were puzzled when the only results were physics practice problems that had nothing to do with the GRE specifically or, worse, GRE practice books having nothing to do with physics. Undeterred, we headed to our local brick-and-mortar bookstores, where we found a similar situation. There were practice books for every single GRE subject exam, except physics. Further web searches unearthed www.grephysics.net, containing every problem
and solution from every practice test released up to that point, and www.physicsgre.com, a web forum devoted to discussing problems and strategies for the test. We discovered these sites had sprung up thanks to other frustrated physicists just like us: there was no review material available, so students did the best they could with the meager material that did exist. This situation is particularly acute for students in smaller departments, who have fewer classmates with whom to study and share the “war stories” of the GRE.
This book endeavors to fix that situation. Its main contribution is a set of three full-length practice tests and fully worked solutions, designed to be as close as possible in style, difficulty, content distribution, and format to the actual GRE exam. We have also included review material for all of the nine content areas on the Physics GRE exam: classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics and waves, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, special relativity, laboratory methods, and specialized topics. To our knowledge, this is the first time that reviews of standard undergraduate subjects such as classical mechanics and thermodynamics have been paired with less standard material such as laboratory methods in the same text, specifically focused on aspects of these subjects relevant for the GRE. Exam-style practice problems and worked solutions are included for each review chapter, giving over 150 additional
GRE-style practice problems in addition to the 300 from the exams. The shorter chapters have review problems at the very end, while the longer ones have review problems distributed throughout the chapter.
The chapter on quantum mechanics and atomic physics is the longest, for two reasons: the combination of these two topics makes up nearly 25% of the exam, and the formalism of quantum mechanics is so different from the rest of the physics topics covered on the GRE that we felt it worthwhile to discuss a number of calculational shortcuts in detail. Unique to our book is a chapter on special tips and tricks relevant for taking the GRE as a standardized multiple-choice test. Some of the standard test-taking wisdom still applies, but we have found that the structure of the multiple answer choices often provides valuable hints on how to solve a problem: you will not find this information in any other test-prep book, because it is based on techniques such as dimensional analysis and back-of-the-envelope estimation, which most test-prep authors (who are not physicists) are simply unaware of. Next, a brief word on what this book is not. This is not a detailed review of undergraduate physics: many of the more difficult subjects get an extremely abbreviated treatment, designed to highlight only those formulas and problem types relevant for the exam. We believe this will help you succeed on the Physics GRE, but if any of the standard subjects are completely unfamiliar to you, please do not try to teach them to yourself from our book. There are many excellent texts out there relevant for that purpose, and we have included a list of them in the Resources section following this preface. We strongly encourage you to consult these references, as we have found them useful both in writing this present text and in our careers as active physics researchers. We will often refer to them throughout the review chapters.
Last, a comment on the structure of this book. We realize that there are many, many equations to learn that are relevant for GRE-style physics problems. To keep the amount you feel you have to memorize to a minimum, we only assign equation numbers to equations we feel are important to remember – everything else you can safely ignore. (This is not to say that you should memorize every single numbered equation – Chapter 9 contains useful advice for what to memorize and what to derive.) Also, while most of the review chapters review
material in roughly the order it was presented when you firstlearned it, Chapter 1 is structured very differently. We assume that you still remember many of the basic facts of classical mechanics from your freshman year introductory physics course, and so we focus our attention on problem types that are standard on the GRE, rather than on specific subtopics. We hope you will find this approach useful.
A book like this could never have been written without the help and support of other people. We especially thank Yichen Shen for his useful contributions to the condensed matter section of the Specialized Topics review. We thank Jen Sierchio and other members of the physicsgre.com community, as well as Raghu Mahajan, Nate Thomas, Jaime Varela, and Dustin Katzin at MIT, who proofread an early version of our first sample exam. Thanks also to Alex Shvonski, Kevin Satzinger, Jasen Scaramazza, Alastair Heffernan, Rizki Sharif, Benjamin Blumer, Andrew Ochoa, Ryan Janish, and especially Vinay Ramasesh for proofreading the first public versions of the sample exams and providing useful feedback. Y.K. would like to thank his advisor, Jesse Thaler, for bearing with him while working on a project that siphoned valuable time away from research. A.A. thanks Y.K. for being so accommodating and flexible toward his occasional “vanishing acts” from writing to attend to research obligations. A.A. also thanks his advisor, Enectalí Figueroa-Feliciano, and many other collaborators too numerous to name, for accepting (or at least pretending not to notice) any drag that this project caused on his research productivity.
Although we have made every effort to eliminate all factual and typographical errors from this book, the long errata lists for any physics textbook speak to the fact that this is impossible, especially in a first edition. If you find any mistakes of any kind, please email us at [email protected] and let us know. Even the smallest of typos is worth fixing. We will be compiling an errata list on our website, www.physicsgreprep.com, which we will update on a regular basis. If you would like to receive information on errata as we find them, please email us. We also would greatly appreciate any feedback on this book, both positive and negative, as we strive to improve its usefulness for students everywhere.
Yoni Kahn and Adam Anderson
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