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GRE® Physics Test to Provide Additional Information to Graduate Physics Programs

In direct response to requests from members of the graduate physics community, the GRE® Physics Test will soon offer graduate physics programs more information about applicants' physics knowledge. In addition to receiving a total score for each applicant, programs will also receive subscores in three content areas:

  • Classical Mechanics
  • Electromagnetism
  • Quantum Mechanics and Atomic Physics

The above subscores, which will be included in GRE Physics Test score reports beginning with tests administered in September 2020, enable the assessment of strengths and weaknesses and can be used for guidance and placement purposes.

"These subscores may provide particularly valuable information on students from smaller undergraduate physics programs, or students whose undergraduate area of study is not physics," says Curtis A. Meyer. Meyer is Professor of Physics and Mellon College of Science Associate Dean of Faculty and Graduate Affairs at Carnegie Mellon University and incoming Chair of the GRE Physics Test Committee of Examiners.

Through its GRE® General Test and GRE® Subject Tests, the GRE® Program seeks to provide standard, objective measures of applicants' knowledge and skills. The tests provide all applicants with the opportunity to show that they have the requisite knowledge and skills for graduate-level work. This is especially important for applicants who may not have had the social or financial capital to attend prestigious undergraduate programs, secure the best research internships or obtain letters of recommendation from leaders in the field.

About the GRE Physics Test

The aim of the GRE Physics Test is to determine the extent of the test takers' grasp of fundamental principles and their ability to apply these principles in solving problems. It is designed to assess applicants' knowledge of content that is generally covered in undergraduate physics programs and considered important for graduate study in the discipline.

The content and scope of each edition of the test are specified and reviewed by the GRE Physics Test Committee of Examiners, a team of faculty representing undergraduate and graduate physics programs across the country. Individuals who serve or recently served on the committee represent the following institutions:

  • Baylor University
  • Beloit College
  • Black Hills State University
  • Brandeis University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Drexel University
  • Morgan State University
  • Temple University
  • Union College
  • Valencia College

The order in which courses are taught in undergraduate programs varies by institution, and the subscores will allow admissions committees to understand applicants' performance in particular content areas.

"This is where Physics Test subscores can be helpful," says Jim Napolitano, Professor of Physics and Department Chair at Temple University. "Information about how the applicant performed on different components of the test can help explain a lower total score. For example, if the Classical Mechanics and Electromagnetism subscores are high, but the Quantum Mechanics and Atomic Physics subscore is lower, it might be that those topics weren't covered in depth by the time the applicant took the test. A graduate program's course of action, then, might be to assign additional coursework to address that weakness."

While students won't need to prepare differently for the GRE Physics Test, the practice materials will be updated to include subscore information in July 2020.

Score Use Best Practices

As a reminder, ETS strongly advises against using hard cut-scores to make admissions decisions, as this practice can prevent qualified applicants from being seen. Rather, ETS emphasizes the need to balance the value of test scores with other information about the applicant, such as undergraduate coursework, work/research experience and personal attributes.

In an effort to facilitate holistic admissions, ETS provides a wealth of resources on its website, including a digital guide, to help programs consider factors related to implementing a holistic admissions practice. Articles, a rubric sample and a PowerPoint® presentation that can be delivered to colleagues are also available in the guide.

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