The University of Utah
Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah

GRE & Common Exam Requirements

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About the GRE & Common Exam Requirements

The GRE General Test and the GRE Physics Subject Test are required of all applicants for graduate admission. Current students may satisfy the common exam requirement (equivalent to passing the exam) by electing to take the GRE Physics Subject Test, and attaining a score at or above a value set by the Department (around the 50th percentile) during their first year of graduate study.

GRE Preparation

Common Exam Policy

(Revised Summer 2012)

The Purpose of the Exam

This written test, based on advanced undergraduate physics material, is designed to determine if a student’s background knowledge of physics is sufficient to proceed into the Ph.D. program. The exam is administered just before the start of each Fall semester; you should take it just before your first year classes. A passing score is typically around 50% or above. If you do not pass, you may retake the exam at the beginning of your second year. Note: you can satisfy this requirement (equivalent to passing the Exam) by attaining a GRE Physics Subject Test score at or above a value set by the Department (around the 50th percentile) at any time until the end of the calendar year following your second attempt at the Common Exam.

The Common Examination is used to determine whether a student is officially allowed to become a candidate for a Ph.D. degree, and is an important indication that the student is progressing. Before passing this exam, a student cannot form a Ph.D. supervisory committee. Candidates for the M.S. Degree are not required to take the Common Examination, although the exam is very useful as a diagnostic in determining which courses should be taken upon entering the program. The result of the test is also taken into account in the renewal of teaching assistantships and in nominations for fellowships.

The Structure of the Exam

The examination consists of a written examination to be taken in two three hour periods on a single day shortly before the start of fall semester classes. The outcome of the common exam is based solely on the student's score on the written examination.

The written examination will be confined to undergraduate course work, and will include the following subjects (levels are indicated by reference to Physics course numbers at the University of Utah):

  1. General physics (at the level of 2210, 2220, 2230)
  2. Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics (at the level of 3760)
  3. Classical mechanics and special relativity (at the level of 4410, 4420)
  4. Quantum theory and modern physics (at the level of 3740, 5450, 5460)
  5. Electricity and Magnetism (at the level of 4410, 4420)

Copies of earlier exams may be obtained from the bottom of this page.

When the Exam Must Be Taken

The Physics Common exam must be passed by the start of the second year of graduate work. Enrolled graduate students who have a Physics graduate record examination (Physics GRE) score above the 50th percentile (currently a Physics GRE score of 680) will be exempted from taking the Common Exam. This GRE score is defined as an acceptable substitute for passing the Common Exam. Graduate students without a Physics GRE score, or with a Physics GRE score below the 50th percentile must take Common Exam upon arrival.

A student is expected to take the Common Exam just prior to the Fall semester in which the student starts graduate work. If the student fails that first attempt, a second attempt is permitted in the Fall of the following year. Students admitted to graduate work in the Spring semester are treated, for this purpose, as having started graduate work in the Fall semester of the following academic year. Students who register for Fall semester, but who arrive too late to take the written examination, will have forfeited their first attempt at the common examination.

A student may elect to take the Physics GRE exam during their first year of graduate study. A passing Physics GRE score (> 50 percentile) can serve as an acceptable substitute for passing the Common exam. If the student does not achieve a sufficient GRE score by the beginning of their second year, the student will be required to take the Common exam at the beginning of their second year of graduate studies.

If the student fails their second attempt at the Common Exam, no further attempts will be allowed on this test. However, students may still pass the Common Exam requirement by scoring above 50th percentile on the Physics GRE test before the end of the calendar year following the second attempt at the Common exam (October and November of their second year of graduate studies).

Previous Common Exams

We strongly recommend that you try to solve posted common exam problems from previous years on your own first, and consult their solutions, which are included in the postings, after that. Doing so prepares you better for the actual exam.

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