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General Exam Guidelines

These guidelines were compiled from the suggestions of several people. Please feel free to contact us if you have anything to add.

See also the Official Physics Department generals webpage and the MIT Physics REFS Gerneral Exam Preparation Site.


By far the best way to study is to do old exams. While the exams have been revised in the recent past and (in particular) old Part I exams may bear only nodding resemblance to those offered now, they are still the best guide to the sorts of topics and problems that professors in this department consider relevant. Several years' worth of exams are available free in the Physics Education Office (room 4-315). The solutions are available in the reading room (4-332).

The exams have a tendency to creep upward in difficulty over the years and then get revised downwards in a sudden jump. Try not to be too surprised (or worried) about fluctuations in difficulty between different exams. It happens, and the passing scores fluctuate along with the difficulty. Also bear in mind that the most recent revision of the department's general exam policies and problems happened in Fall 2001, so older graduate students who took their exams before the revisions occurred may inadvertently give you inaccurate information.

Useful References

It's important to understand the level of the exam and not overshoot (or undershoot). It's overkill to read Jackson or Landau and Lifshitz for Part I (and even Part II) -- spend your mental energy elsewhere. We have compiled a list of books that we have found useful in preparing for the exams here:

For Part I:

For Part II:

There are also several sets of books of general exam problems which can be very useful:

Finally, here are some books that have some interesting problems but cover a broader scope of subjects than appear on our qualifiers:

Part I can be heavy on memorisation. Some people swear by flashcards.

It's a good idea to make sure you can not only do the problems but do the problems under test conditions. Speed counts, and so does endurance. You may find that sitting an exam for five hours straight is difficult in itself. You may wish to save a few days at the end of your studying to do practice exams in real time.

And here's some common sense: studying can be stressful and miserable. Take some time to be nice to yourself. Don't isolate yourself. Don't flip out. Remember: everyone has to go through this, nobody likes it, and you're even getting paid to study.

Taking the Exam

First and most importantly, get a good night's sleep.

The exams are held in Walker Memorial. They last five hours and go right over lunch, so you will need to bring food and water. It's also a good idea to bring sweaters in the winter and something to cool off with in summer: Walker is an old building, and the climate control isn't always perfect.

Calculators are allowed, so bring one. You will also need to bring your own pens and pencils.

So You Didn't Pass?

Okay, yeah, it's not fun. But try not to feel too bad about it: these exams are hardly a reliable indicator of how good a physicist you will be, especially if you are an experimentalist. Qualifiers are not why you came to graduate school, and in the big picture they are the least part of your graduate experience: research and classes are much more important.

It can be useful to go look at your exam paper to get a clear assessment of where you went wrong and which subject areas you need the most practise in. Your advisor may also be able to discuss your exam with you.

Finally, if you've failed Part I three times or Part II two times, you will have to take...

The Special Oral

These guidelines are courtesy of Jon Miller

In memoriam Mike Piv, PhD 2000, may your hair always grow red

0 Realize: they don't have to give you this exam. If you had really flopped the exam, and they thought you should go, they'd call your advisor and say so, and then you'd be having a talk with your advisor instead of taking the exam. In giving you this exam, they are looking for an excuse to keep you, because they want you here and believe that you can do it. The only other time they convene 3 profs for anything except cookies, is for a thesis defense, and it is hard enough to get 3 profs together for THAT, so be aware that they are really trying to keep you.

1 Your special oral should be on only the topics where they feel you did not demonstrate sufficient ability on the exam. This means that you can study ONLY those things which they mention, and not all four areas. So you get to focus.

2 ASAP: find out who is on your committee. Go talk with them. Tell them how badly you want to succeed. Tell them honestly what you feel your strengths and weaknesses are. Ask their advice. You can only win here: a) it's harder to fail someone you know, b) you can demonstrate that you took them seriously and used their advice when you take the exam, and c) it might actually help you study. But go and talk. Email is not enough. Not even close. Go and sit down and talk.

3 Do all of your studying standing-up at a chalkboard. Learn how to use the space well. Talk aloud. I know it's stupid. People looked at me funny. But look -- half of the committee's task is to get you nervous, to push you, to fluster you -- and then to see "Does his/her thinking go back to sound physics, or back to 2nd grade?" To the extent to which you can write clearly, talk clearly, and walk the committee through every step like you were literally teaching a recitation to freshman, you limit their ability to take any issue with you or to fluster you. The more YOU talk and the more YOU state your assumptions, the more YOU think aloud and show that you are using sound reasoning, the less THEY can try to do it for you. I cannot stress this enough. Really, do tons of problems standing up at a chalkboard and talking. I did them for anyone that would listen at any opportunity, even during commercials at home in front of my TV-addicted housemates.

4 Take at least 2, and preferrably 3, practice special oral exams. Have grad students sit down and play committee for you in a conference room and give you a practice oral exam. They need to be nasty. They need to try to get you off track. You need to make sure that they forget they are your friends, and instead really give it to you good. The first practice exam I took, they really did manage to get me nervous and angry and flustered. Thank god. Then I knew what it felt like. The next two were much better. But as with number (3) above, it's about learning to revert to solid physics when you get upset.

5 Go look at the exams you failed with someone who did well on them. They are available in the PEO. Make sure you can do those problems in your sleep. Try to think of twists and tangents. Try to make them harder. Try altering the assumptions and doing it again. See how many methods you can use to get to a correct answer. And know them all. I promise you, they WILL ask these questions in the oral exam. They will tell you to study these when you go talk to them. So these serve as GIMME's. So you better know them inside and out. Do these in your practice orals, too.