Assessment Exams

Since students who are admitted come with a variety of backgrounds, during the orientation week the incoming students take a series of four exams in intermediate mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermal physics and quantum mechanics. These exams are only used to assess the preparation of students to take graduate coursework and should not be confused with qualifying examinations that many schools may have. The exams cover the basic concepts of undergraduate physics at the level of Duke undergraduate course work. Students performing poorly may be required to take undergraduate classes at Duke to better prepare them.


In the period just prior to the Fall semester, entering graduate students take a series of four assessment exams that provide a helpful measure of the student's knowledge in Classical Mechanics, Electromagnetic Theory, Thermal Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, at the advanced undergraduate level. The exams are at the level of the following undergraduate courses at Duke:

The above links provide a syllabus and the textbook used in these course which can be used for preparation. Each exam will last 1.5 hrs and test the students on basic concepts through simple problems.

The purpose of the exams are two fold:

  • To assess the preparedness of the student to take each of the core graduate courses. The exam results serve as a springboard for discussion between the student and the DGS regarding how to best structure the student's course schedule. For example, a student who performs weakly on an exam may be advised to do additional background reading or to take an advanced undergraduate course in the corresponding subject area prior to taking the core graduate course.
  • Instructors of the core graduate courses may use the assessments to determine the overall level of preparation of students. This allows the instructor to better tailor the course to a particular group of students.


Students should prepare adequately for the assessment exams over the summer before arriving at Duke so that they are able to demonstrate their knowledge. If students perform poorly in the assessment exams, they may be required to take preparatory undergraduate courses before the core graduate courses.