As in comedy, the secrets to acing the physics GRE are timing and a sense of the ridiculous.
Just ask Ashwin Rastogi, a member of William and Mary's class of 2008, who scored the highest possible score on the standardized test. His score caused dropped jaws throughout Small Hall, home of the College's physics department.
"I checked with everyone in the department and even with all the emeriti I could get hold of," said Christopher Carone, Rastogi's faculty advisor. "No one has ever heard of anyone at William and Mary having a score this high."
Rastogi scored a 990, the highest possible score, on his first attempt at the physics Graduate Record Exam. Preparing for-and anxiety over-GREs is a rite of passage for college seniors bound for graduate school. GREs are administered by the Educational Testing Service, the same organization that conducts the SAT tests taken by college-bound high school students. There is a general GRE as well as subject-based tests.
Carone, an associate professor of physics, served as Rastogi's
coach during his prep period. There is nothing funny about preparing
for the physics GRE, which has earned a reputation of being the Darth
Vader of standardized tests. Carone worked with his student on several
strategies for attacking the test. For one thing, mastering pace and
time will give the test-taker an edge over the Dark Side.
"If you had five or 10 minutes to solve the questions on the physics GRE, anyone with a physics background could do it," Rastogi said. But with 100 questions to calculate and answer over a mere three hours, rationing of time is of the essence, because it works out to an average of a little over a minute and a half per question. If you obsess over calculations involving the course of a pendulum in the classical mechanics section of the test, once you get to the quantum mechanics and atomic physics sections, you'll wish you had that time back, he explained. Rastogi perfected his pace on the four available practice tests for the physics GRE.
"I told Ashwin that the important thing about the practice tests is that you use them to get your timing down," Carone said. "In a test like this, what can really mess you up is that can you run out of time and miss a third of the questions. So in the practice test, you get that rhythm of a certain number of minutes per question and you really internalize it. Then when you take the actual test, you work at that same rate and you won't have any time pressure."
The test is multiple choice, which makes it possible to execute another piece of strategy, based on the elimination of obviously wrong, ridiculous answers among the choices-before you do any guesswork.
"If you guess randomly on the physics GRE, you tend to lose points because they subtract points for wrong answers. So random guessing doesn't help you," Carone explained. "However, on each problem you can eliminate answers that are manifestly ridiculous, so that instead of choosing out of five, you can limit it down to a set of two or three. Then if you have to guess, you will statistically improve your score." He said that Ashwin needed no review of the material, per se, and that his advising was all based on strategy and test-taking techniques.
The strategy paid off. On the big day, Rastogi made his first pass through the test in a bit under two hours, "meaning that I had a little more than an hour left for checking my answers and going back to problems that were a little complicated."
"I felt really confident with all the material on the test," Rastogi said. "The curriculum at William and Mary definitely had covered almost everything that was on the test, except for some of the specialized topics like solid state physics. I felt really comfortable with the material. It was more a question of how many equations could I memorize, how many derivations am I able to do."
Rastogi's GRE achievement places him in the 97th percentile, a score almost certain to make him attractive to schools in the stratosphere of graduate physics study, Carone said. He is a double major, math and physics, carrying a 4.0 grade average into his final semester at William and Mary. He has done research in three departments, having worked with faculty in math and chemistry as well as collaborating on a physics project with Carone. Despite his accomplishments at William and Mary, Carone said Rastogi needed a high GRE score to make the cut.
"The very, very top physics schools might say ‘If you get below the 80th percentile, we won't read the application.' They'll use that as a cut on the total pool of applicants. But if you get above a certain score, they'll study the application in detail," Carone said.
Rastogi is applying to a set of graduate schools, intending to continue "the kind of work I've been doing with Professor Carone," he said, "particle physics, high-energy theory, with an emphasis on mathematical physics." He dropped by Carone's office with a "short list" of 14 graduate schools. Carone told him he was crazy.
"I said what are you applying to 14 graduate schools for, when you know you'll get into a significant fraction of them?," Carone said. "Let's see a much smaller list."