Past Qualifying Exams & Information

Information for Students

The purpose of the qualifying exam is to assess understanding of basic undergraduate level physics. The qualifying exam process provides an opportunity to collate course work, to gain confidence in skills, and to solidify knowledge underlying advanced course work and ultimately significant advances by Wisconsin physics graduates.

The qualifying exam is offered on a Saturday in both September and February. The nominal passing score is 60 out of 100 points for qualification for pursuit of the doctoral degree and 50 out of 100 points for the masters degree. Entering students are required to take the exam in their first semester and to consult with their advisor and with an exam administration committee member following the assessment. Students have three opportunities to pass the exam. Doctoral candidates must pass the exam by their third semester.

The exam is composed of two parts.

Part I is comprised of ten elementary level questions to be answered in two hours and counts one third of the total score. The topics are mechanics, thermodynamics, kinetic theory, waves, electromagnetism, electrical circuits, light and optics, and elementary modern physics. The representative elementary physics texts are Fundamentals of Physics (Halliday, Resnick and Walker) and Modern Physics (Serway, Moses and Moyer).

Part II is comprised of a choice of 10 out of 15 questions on intermediate and advanced undergraduate material to be answered in four hours. About ten Part II questions concern core topics: classical mechanics (motion in electromagnetic and gravitational fields, rigid bodies, coupled oscillations, and continuum vibrations), electricity and magnetism (statics, fields in matter, Maxwell's equations, optics and radiation), thermal physics (thermodynamics and statistical mechanics of matter and radiation), and quantum mechanics (wave mechanics, angular momentum, perturbation theory, atoms and molecules, and scattering). Representative core text books are Classical Dynamics (Marion and Thornton), Classical Electricity and Magnetism (Barger and Olsson), Thermal Physics (Kittel and Kroemer), and Quantum Physics (Gasiorowicz). Additional questions may concern light and optics at the level of Optics (Hecht), special relativity, nuclear/particle physics, plasma and space physics encountered as applications in core courses, and laboratory techniques including error analysis, instrumentation, circuits and electronics.

Students are encouraged to consult their advisors on how to best prepare for the exam. Previous exams are available for study. Outside reading, auditing of UW-Madison courses, and group problem solving sessions are typical strategies for students requiring additional preparation. Students with special requirements must consult with the Graduate Student Coordinator at least two weeks prior to the exam date.

The qualifying exam is administered by a rotating faculty committee that solicits problems on specific topics from the faculty. The committee members work, edit, and select the exam problems, and are available during the exam to address any questions. Problems are usually graded by the originators on a scale of one to ten with six as the nominal passing score. The committee is permitted some discretion in setting the passing score levels and considers average score as well as the best interests of students in the final determination.


Representative List of Problem Topics

Part I (10/10 questions - 7 minutes each: 200-299 level)

Mechanics, possibly vibrations or sound
Electric Circuits
Electromagnetism (not circuits)
Light (possibly geometrical optics)
Kinetic Theory
Any subject

Part II (10/15 questions - 12 minutes each: 300-499 level)

Classical Mechanics (and gravitation, if possible)
Classical Mechanics (and electromagnetic forces, if possible)
Classical Mechanics (vibrations and/or sound, if possible)
Waves (interference and diffraction: not necessarily light)
Light (possibly including lasers)
Circuits and Electronics
Maxwell Equations and/or EM Waves
Thermodynamics and/or Kinetic Theory
Particle Detection (not necessarily counting statistics)
Properties of Matter
Lab Techniques and/or Instruments
Quantum mechanics
Atoms and/or Molecules
Special Relativity
Nuclear and/or Particles
Plasma and/or Space


Past Exams

The department maintains a file of hard copy versions of past Qualifier exams in the graduate student lounge (3339 Chamberlin Hall). Below are links to PDF versions of some recent exams. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view these files.

Qualifier Spring 2004 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2004 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2005 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2005 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2006 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2007 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2007 (part 1) pdf | (part 2) pdf
Qualifier Spring 2008 (part 1) pdf | (part 2) pdf
Qualifier Fall 2008 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2009 pdf 
Qualifier Fall 2009 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2010 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2010 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2011 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2011 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2012 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2012 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2013 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2013 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2014 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2014 pdf
Qualifier Spring 2015 pdf
Qualifier Fall 2015 pdf
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