{Review, Grad Apps} Conquering the Physics GRE

Yikes. Less than a week to the Physics Subject GRE…….and of course I’m cramming because I haven’t covered all the topics at all. In my defense, I was sick, but I really, really should have started studying earlier. Fourth year courses are killing us D: But no use crying over spilt milk, and thank god I have the October date booked too!

I still need study breaks though, so let me take this opportunity to give a brief review of the book I’m studying from: Conquering the Physics GRE, a relatively new book written by two MIT PhD students. (The website for the book is here.)

For virtually every single subject GRE test, there exists some sort of “Cracking the ___ GRE” review book – except for Physics. There’s the “purple book” that is pretty much agreed to be not…great. I’ve also heard that the Serway text is great for studying for the GRE, but hell if that thing isn’t huge. (Also, I still have the Halliday Resnick book from back in high school…) When it comes to studying for the Physics GRE, it’s generally accepted that either you know this shit, or you’ll learn it by going through the practice tests. Which is great if I was still in third year and remembered any of this, but I haven’t touched optics since…well, 2nd year? That was well over three years ago. True, it’s not a hard subject, but there’s a lot to cover.

Seriously, I wish they’d told us to start preparing for this thing a long time ago.

From the website, Conquering the Physics GRE is “a comprehensive book […] containing all of our practice exams, solutions, and subject reviews in one convenient place.” It’s also probably the best one out there…by virtue of it being the only one.

No but really, it’s pretty good.

It assumes that yes,  you’ve learned this all before, and is clearly meant to be a review. From the two official tests I’ve done so far, the book is indeed comprehensive. However, at times, it’s too comprehensive. Let me rephrase that: sometimes it goes too in depth on topics that don’t necessarily need the depth. One drawback I’ve found is that it tends to go into superfluous detail on “special topics” and some derivations. For example, the introduction of spin gives the wavefunction as the tensor product of the spatial part and the spin part – nice to know, but all I really needed was the reminder of what to do with the things.

It’s also sometimes difficult to pick out the important bits. This isn’t a book designed for a quick 2 day crash course – it’ll take time to sit down and read through it. The presentation could be helped with more tables, equation boxes, etc. The section on particle physics could have been neatly summed up in a handy table and a quick explanation, instead of the several paragraphs and pages it does take up.

Another shortfall is that, on the other hand, it occasionally thinks too highly of the readers’ exhausted brains. While it’s easy to work out the path difference needed for constructive thin film interference, the text would be greatly strengthened if they had briefly included something that could be found on wikipedia: soap bubble in air, constructive interference, 2nd = (m-1/2)λ, boom.  Thankfully, this is an occasional occurrence. In the same chapter, for instance, they do give the constructive and destructive interference conditions for the double slit experiment.

Warning, it does miss some topics. For example, it entirely skips impedence and reactance in the E&M chapter. So while a good book, do not use alone. Basically.

The book itself is a little pricey – 50$ on Amazon, and if you don’t live in the states, good luck with shipping. Thankfully, they also sell PDFS of the individual chapters on their website, and for 3$ each, it’s well worth it if you’re in a bind and need a quick review.

So far, the book is still in early editions, and it’s a good starting place (if you have more time).

Seriously though, don’t wait until the last week and realise you still have 6 topics to cover. Noooooooot fun.

Alright, study break over. Wish me luck haha. . .


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