Exam Overview

In January, all first-year Ph.D. students are required to take preliminary examinations. These consist of three 40-minute oral exams covering material in three main areas:

  1. Transport Phenomena

  2. Kinetics and Chemical Fundamentals

  3. Thermodynamics

The graduate student handbook describes the material as, "basic principles and concepts in chemical engineering and chemistry normally included in accredited undergraduate chemical engineering curricula in the United States... Students who have taken a graduate-level course in any of these areas may also be tested on such graduate-level material. The examination attempts to probe and assess the student's understanding of chemical engineering concepts and ability to apply this knowledge to the solution of chemical engineering problems."

Prelims are graded on a letter scale with A and B being passing grades. Two passing grades are required (out of three) to pass the exam; however, professors will take into consideration the student's performance in coursework and a statement from the research adviser when determining passing status. Unfortunately, people do fail, in which case you take the exams again the following year.

Prelims Pass Rate
Prelims Pass Rate


The following information is suggestion and each student must understand their own strengths and weaknesses in deciding how much time is necessary to study for and pass their prelim exams. Some students may not remember specific topics from undergraduate programs and therefore may require additional studying time. Additionally, we cannot stress enough how important it is to be able to present your answers in front of others on a chalkboard coherently and confidently.

Below is a list of some things that should be planned out before and/or during studying for the exam.

  • Look through some of the binders to see the types of questions and topics that may be covered

  • Determine what may be covered in the exam that you are unsure/uncomfortable with

  • Create an outline or game plan for how to study for all three subjects

  • Individual study time to read through textbooks, notes, etc

  • Individual time to work through problems

  • Group study time to quiz each other at a board

  • Quizzing by older grad students

  • Time to relax and decompress between study sessions; you do not want to burn out going 24/7

  • Whatever else you feel will help you understand and convey your understanding of these topics. This is not a complete list for everyone.

As for preparation, each student should plan out before and/or during winter break an outline of what that students needs to study for the prelims. Students generally begin studying roughly two weeks before the exam, but this should be planned out in advance. Working in study groups is very helpful, as is practice quizzing by older graduate students and colleagues. There are a number of copies of old prelim exam questions running around the department in various research groups (and many sections from them are posted on this website).

Students preparing for their prelim exams should make sure to start practicing in front of others roughly 2 weeks before the actual exam so that they have some kind of idea of what they do not know or understand. It is a general trend to do individual study part of the day and work in groups quizzing each other at the board during another part of the day. Each student should make sure that older students in their lab (or another lab in certain instances) have a scheduled time to do mock-exams with them at least a week beforehand. Many labs will schedule these for the 1st years but every student must ensure for themselves. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

It has been said that first-year students benefit from a sufficient dose of advice and scary stories from older students who have already taken the exams. With this goal in mind, we have developed a general overview of the prelim process. The information here is for you. We hope that it will help you to improve your prelim experience.

A suggested timeline follows:

After Fall semester/ During winter break

It is not generally suggested to study for prelims before you are done with classes and the end of the semester.

During Winter Break

Have a good time. Eat, sleep, play, and enjoy being with your family and friends. Some may decide to study during the break--remember this is a personal decision for each student.

Returning To Berkeley

Try to return to Berkeley at least a couple weeks before the exams. Philosophies vary from person to person, but past students have found two weeks is enough to work through all or most old questions, read a few textbooks, and get in some good oral quizzing. Once into the swing of things, most people who study intensely find that they burn out after about 10 days. In short, know thyself.

Textbook suggestions

Some suggested textbooks include:

  • Transport Phenomena:

    • Bird, Stewart, and Lightfoot: Transport Phenomena

    • Denn: Process Fluid Mechanics

    • Cussler: Diffusion - Mass Transfer in Fluid Systems

  • Kinetics and Chemical Fundamentals:

    • Fogler: Elements of Chemical Reaction Engineering

  • Thermodynamics

    • Smith & Van Ness: Introduction to Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics

    • Koretsky: Engineering and Chemical Thermodynamics

    • Elliot & Lira: Introductory Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics


Study groups are highly encouraged; often, people meet in the chemistry library, the study rooms that you can check out in Doe library, or in the conference rooms within or between labs. Gather up all of the old prelim questions you can find from older students inside and outside of your research groups. Many older students have comprehensive "prelim notebooks" which may or may not be useful. These often contain tidbits of helpful information (e.g. lists of dimensionless numbers, descriptions of helpful mnemonics, etc.). However, beware that not all information in the binders is accurate.

Use the old questions as a way to focus your studying efforts. As you approach each question, refresh your memory by reading the texts. Memorizing answers to questions will not help you in the exam, but familiarity with the underlying concepts undoubtedly will. By the time you've worked through the sample questions, you have exposed yourself to most or all of the important underlying concepts.

Practice talking through solutions to questions. Work them out at the blackboard. Get together with one or more of your study group members and alternate answering questions you have not yet worked out. The key is to learn how to verbalize your thoughts.

The first week is usually dedicated to individual studying and some group quizzing at boards; practice at the board should really kick in during the second week. It is a good idea to practice as much as possible with older students, and moreover, to watch other people practice. Older students will often quiz much harder than the professors, so a successful practice should give you extra confidence. Again, you may feel silly or ill prepared, but persevere.

Practice verbalizing your thoughts. This is a key goal in the preliminary exams, and will likely be the key to your success. It may feel uncomfortable at first, and you may feel that you have not studied enough. Keep at it, and you will soon be able to expound with seeming knowledge and confidence on any chemical engineering topic.

Support your group members.

Exam Days

The exam schedule should be emailed to everyone in early January. Keep your committee in mind as you study, but do not study exclusively for your committee.

The Night Before the Exam

Relax. You have worked hard and deserve a break. Go out to eat, see a movie, take a walk.

Get a good night's sleep. Although obvious, this is the most helpful thing that you can do. Believe those who have already take the exams, two or three extra hours of cramming will not help you.

Exam Day(s)

There are three 40-minute oral exams covering undergraduate material in the three main areas.

In general, two professors proctor each exam. Exams are held in professor's offices or small rooms with blackboards (such as 109 Gilman Hall).

Attire is up to you, and formal attire is not expected or necessary. Wear comfortable shoes -- you will be standing up most of the day.

Do not speculate on the results of your exams while the exams are still in progress. This will only stress you and other students unnecessarily. You will have plenty of time to reflect on the silly things you said after the exams. Remember, you start out fresh in each exam.

Remember, professors want you to pass the exams. Often they will help you if you help yourself. As in practice sessions, verbalize your thoughts. Talk through each question and use the blackboard.

Each exam consists of three to four broad questions and lots of side questions. Occasionally, you'll be let out early if the professors are satisfied with your performance.

Carry yourself with confidence. If you have studied hard, you should have all of the necessary tools to pass the exams. It is certain that speaking confidently and thinking out loud are very helpful to your grade. Do not act timid or act like you do not know the answer--you can verbally think through this and the professors will probably help you out.

Getting the Results

Official notification will come in email form from the Department Chair of Vice-Chair as soon as it becomes available, usually in the evening of the exam day (or evening of the second exam day if held over two days).