All first-year physics graduate students are strongly encouraged to take the preliminary exam in January of their first year. The exam is also given in May, if needed.

The preliminary exam consists of four sections: mechanics; electricity and magnetism (E&M); quantum mechanics; and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics (TSM). Each student must complete two of the three problems given in each section. The exam is given on two consecutive mornings, with mechanics and E&M on the first day, and quantum and TSM on the second day.

No calculators or other electronic devices or other assistance may be used during the exam. The solution to each problem is to be written in a separate exam booklet, so each student turns in four exam booklets at the end of each day's 3-hour exam session. The faculty grade the exam booklets and then meet to determine which students have passed the exam.

Links to previous years' exams are below: