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Preliminary Exam

The Preliminary Exam is taken by all incoming mathematics graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, just prior to the start of the fall semester (generally in late August). It plays three roles:

  • It serves as a placement exam, to help determine whether students should begin with 500-level courses or with 600-level courses (or with a mixture).
  • It is a requirement for each of the graduate degrees in mathematics, in order to ensure that those who receive graduate degrees have a solid mathematical foundation.
  • It provides an incentive for incoming grad students to review basic material, which will then help them in their beginning graduate classes.

Students who do not pass the exam the first time will have a second chance to pass it at the end of the spring semester (generally in late April or early May). Those students take the Proseminar (Math 504, 505) during their first year, to strengthen their problem solving ability, their ability to present proofs, and their familiarity with material on the prelim.

The prelim exam focuses on the key material from undergraduate mathematics that is most important to those entering a mathematics graduate program. It is given in two parts, either on consecutive days or in the morning and afternoon of the same day. Each of these two parts consists of six problems, and students are given two and a half hours for each part (which is intended to be more time than is necessary for those who know the material).

The exam consists of problems in algebra (including linear algebra), analysis, and basic geometry-topology. Some problems are computational, some ask for proofs, and some ask for examples or counterexamples. Each part of the exam (morning and afternoon) constains a mixture of types of problems, and a mixture of analysis and algebra problems.

The following list of topics gives a general idea of the material that is covered on the exam:

  • I. Analysis (five problems)
    • Continuity, uniform continuity, properties of real numbers, intermediate value theorem, epsilon-delta proofs.
    • Differentiable functions of one variable: differentiation, Riemann integration, fundamental theorem of calculus, mean-value theorem, Taylor's theorem
    • Sequences and series of numbers and functions, uniform convergence, equicontinuity, interchange of limit operations, continuity of limiting functions.
    • Ordinary differential equations (separable, exact, first order linear, second order linear with constant coefficients), applications such as orthogonal trajectories.
    • Multivariable calculus: partial derivatives, multiple integrals, integrals in various coordinate systems, inverse and implicit function theorems.
  • II. Algebra (five problems)
    • Linear Algebra:
      • Vector spaces over RC, and other fields: subspaces, linear independence, basis and dimension.
      • Linear transformations and matrices: constructing matrices of abstract linear transformations, similarity, change of basis, trace, determinants, kernel, image, dimension theorems, rank; application to systems of linear equations.
      • Eigenvalues and eigenvectors: computation, diagonalization, characteristic and minimal polynomials, invariance of trace and determinant.
      • Inner product spaces: real and Hermitian inner products, orthonormal bases, Gram-Schmidt orthogonalization, orthogonal and unitary transformations, symmetric and Hermitian matrices, quadratic forms.
    • Abstract algebra
      • Groups: finite groups, matrix groups, symmetry groups, examples of groups (symmetric, alternating, dihedral), normal subgroups and quotient groups, homomorphisms, structure of finite abelian groups, Sylow theorems.
      • Rings: ring of integers, induction and well ordering, polynomial rings, roots and irreducibility, unique factorization of integers and polynomials, homomorphisms, ideals, principal ideals, Euclidean domains, prime and maximal ideals, quotients, fraction fields, finite fields.
  • III. Geometry-topology (two problems)
    • Vector calculus: vector fields in Euclidean space (divergence, curl, conservative fields), line and surface integrals, vector calculus (Green's theorem, divergence theorem and Stokes' theorem).
    • Point-set topology: metric spaces, compactness, connectedness, topological spaces, convergence in metric spaces and topological spaces.

Sample & Old Preliminary Exams


Sample Preliminary Exam

Spring 2016 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2016 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2015 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2015 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2013 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2012 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2011 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2011 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2010 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2010 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2009 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2009 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2007 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2007 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2006 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2005 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2005 Preliminary Exam

Spring 2004 Preliminary Exam

Fall 2004 Preliminary Exam