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This is the web-page for the Fall 2021 section of PHYS 481, "Physics Problem Solving". If you're on this webpage, it is probably reasonable to figure that you are likely enrolled in the class -- so thanks for signing up. Materials on this webpage are meant to supplement information given to you in class itself. I'm not a big fan of OAKS, therefore any on-line supplementary material for the course you need can be found here. To the left, you'll find important links/syllabi/etc.

If you'd like to find out more about me or the research we do in my lab, check out my main webpage.

- About This Course -

This course has several purposes that are loosely related to each other:

  1. Prepare junior and senior-level undergraduate Physics and Astronomy majors to succeed on their subject GRE tests.
    • Review basic material from lower level undergraduate physics.
    • Find out more about the test, test strategies, and the logistics of signing up for the test.
    • Focus on methods to quickly eliminate obviously wrong answers in order to have a better chance of "guessing" correctly.
  2. Develop skills associated with what is loosely known as "qualitative problem solving" (aka "Fermi problems"). The methods discussed and used will include scaling, dimensional analysis, limiting cases, symmetry, etc.
  3. Develop experience in effectively communicating within the disciplines of Physics and Astronomy.
  4. This is meant to be a low-stress -- yet practically useful -- course. Class discussions are hoped to be informal and, since the course is not yet a prerequisite for anything else on campus, we have a bit of freedom to digress into areas of mutual student/instructor interest. I've taught some version of this course a large number of times and -- in my experience -- the course is most enjoyable if you are comfortable asking questions and helping to guide the discussion. When everyone participates, this can be a very fun class.

    - Important Information about the Subject GRE -

    Although this class would be very useful for any upper-level Physics major, the major impetus for the creation of this course is based in the desire of several students to have a vehicle to help prepare for the subject GRE. Because of this, the Physics GRE exam will be the primary focus of approximately the first two-thirds of the course. If you plan on taking this test, it is my sincere hope that this class will help better prepare you for it. For students planning on taking the GRE, you should be aware of the following resources and information.

    ETS Webpage (the people who administer the GRE)

    Information Page for Physics Subject GRE

    Link to create an account to sign up for the test.

    FAQ page for the GRE Subject Tests.


    $150 (Plus there are a plethora of other options you can sign up for to give ETS your money if you so desire, like registering late, requesting additional score reports, requesting "hand-scoring", etc.)

    Important Dates:

    In 2021-2022, you have 3 dates you can take the test. Although historically this exam was offered on the CofC campus, the ETS website currently suggests that the closest location to take the exam would be Savannah at Armstrong Atlantic State University (for either the October or April test date) or Furman University (for any of the three test dates). If you plan to graduate in May and want to have your scores in the hands of a graduate school in time to evaluate your application in time to enroll in fall, you need to take the exam before the April test date.
    • Test Date 1: September 11, 2021. (Regular registration needs to be completed by August 6, 2021. Late online registration (extra fee of $25) needs to be completed by August 13, 2021). Scores can be checked on-line starting October 11, 2021. Test scores from this test date will be mailed on or around October 15, 2021. Note that, at least according to the ETS website, there are no nearby locations that offer this exam on this date -- the closest place I found that offers this test date is Furman University in Greenville.
    • Test Date 2: October 23, 2021. (Regular registration needs to be completed by September 17, 2021. Late online registration needs to be completed by September 24, 2021). Scores can be checked on-line starting November 22, 2021. Test scores from this date will be mailed on or around November 26, 2021.
    • Test Date 3: April 9, 2022. (Regular registration needs to be completed by March 4, 2022. Late online registration needs to be completed by March 11, 2022). Scores can be checked on-line starting May 9, 2022. Test scores from this date will be mailed on or around May 13, 2022.

    This year's schedule includes both good and bad news.
    The bad news: if you are in your last year and you don't look at this webpage until the first day of class, you are already too late to register for the first date -- even with late registration! I'm going to try and send everyone enrolled early an email before the semester starts to ensure that you don't accidentally miss this deadline, but it is kind of annoying.
    The good news: Maybe ETS is getting slightly less evil. (Maybe). See, this year you actually have a brief window of a few days to register for the second (October) test after taking the first (September) test. Thus, it is possible to take the test on the first date, realize you bombed it, and quick register for the test on the second test date. You don't have a lot of extra time (less than a week) -- but this is an option that wasn't available until the last couple years.
    More good news: You actually get to see your test 1 scores prior to going in and taking the second test. This leaves you with an additional strategy (outlined below) that most people haven't had in the past.

    More bad news: Since the tests this year aren't offered in Charleston, you're probably looking at either waking up SUPER early on a Saturday to go take the test, or having to make arrangements to stay in a hotel the night before (unless you happen to have family or friends in Savannah and/or Greenville you could stay with).

    If you are in your last year and plan on taking the GRE in an attempt to get into a graduate school for Fall 2022, you have a few different strategies:
    • You sign up for the first test date. At the end of the test, do a quick critical self-evaluation. If you are sure you bombed it, quickly sign up for the second date in an attempt to mitigate any damage that you did on the first test. If you rocked the first test, you don't have to worry any more about the GRE ever again and can focus on your class work, research, and applying to graduate programs.
    • You sign up immediately for both exams. After finishing the first test in September, you wait until you get your scores online on 10/11/2021. Based on your scores, you make a decision as to whether or not you want to cancel your October test date. You would have to decide pretty quickly in order to get half your money back, if you opt to just keep your first score. This is the option I personally would go with if I were in your shoes, but you have to be on the ball when you get your scores back. You only have a little while to act if you opt to cancel your second test date to get half your cash back. The other complication this year is that I am not sure where you would have to go to take the first exam.
    • If you are the gambling type, you could forego the first test date entirely and just put all your eggs in the October test basket. This is dangerous, but cheapest. It also involves the least travel.
    Important note: If you are in the exam itself and, while taking it, you realize that you're bombing it and there's nothing you can do -- they do include a "don't even score this test, just throw it away and don't send any scores to anyone" nuclear option. Of course, they're ETS -- so they still keep your money. But it is a worthwhile thing to keep in mind if you don't want your top school realizing that you tried to take, for example, the September test and only got 2 questions right.

    Test Format:

    Multiple Choice. 100 Questions. 170 minutes. (102 seconds per question). 5 Choices per question. No Calculators!. You are given a sheet with some fundamental constants on it.


    Each correct answer gives you +1. NOTE -- Up until just a couple years ago, you were penalized with a score of -1/4 on a question if you got it wrong. That penalty is now gone! SO GUESS ON EVERY QUESTION NO MATTER WHAT!

    - Class Due Dates -

    I hope to run this course on a compressed schedule so that you can do as many practice tests before the real Physics GRE test dates as possible. Assuming we use this compressed schedule, the following are the due-dates for the practice tests.
    • Sample Test 1 Due: August 30, 2021
    • Sample Test 2 Due: September 6, 2021
    • Sample Test 3 Due: September 13, 2021
    • Sample Test 4 Due: September 20, 2021
    • Sample Test 5 Due: September 27, 2021
    • Sample Test 6 Due: October 11, 2021
    • Fermi Problem Presentations: (Date to be determined by in-class draft based on performance of an extemporaneous in-class sample estimation problem). Your presentation will be scheduled for sometime on November 1st, 2021. (Backup date in case of illness or other complication -- November 8, 2021.

    updated: 20 August 2021