From the Past: Instructions for Stanford Physics Qual 1993

In cleaning out a file cabinet, I came across the Qualifying Exam that I had to take in order to pursue a degree in Physics at Stanford University. On top was a cover letter by Dr. Bob Laughlin, which I reproduce below. Hopefully he won’t have any issue with that! 🙂

Qualifying Eximination
Department of Physics
Stanford University
October 2,3 1993

To some of you, welcome to Stanford! I want to wish you all good luck on this exam, which may appear more challenging than you expected. I felt that an exam this long should be educational and fun, in addition to revealing what you know. This requires that the questions ask a little more than you know in a way that makes you wish you knew more. Most of these are written in a deliberately open-ended way, thus forcing you to pick the tool of physics appropriate to the task.

Please keep in mind that we are looking for physical intuition, common sense, and familiarity with the laws of nature, not mathematical virtuosity. You will get less credit for solving a differential equation brilliantly if the answer could have been obtained more simply some other way.

The questions on this exam are deliberately too long. Do not worry about failing to finish a problem. Just do the best you can, and feel free to guess the answer to parts of a problem that you have no time to complete.

The exam will be graded leniently and flexibly. We might, for instance, be so taken with the creativity of a guess that we give full credit for a problem even though some of its answers are a little off. We might also do the opposite; i.e., penalize a formally correct answer because a trivial numerical mistake gives a physically ridiculous result.

A major purpose of this exam is to concentrate your mind. This is a principle behind our grading policy, and should be a principle behind your strategy for taking the exam. Just relax, think physically, and have fun.

R.B. Laughlin