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Cumulative Exam Objectives

The ultimate goal of these exams is to test student’s overall content knowledge for proficiency in chemistry. This process should be a learning experience not only in test taking skills but also on content and the ability to apply chemical and physical principles to solve problems. Students start taking exams in their first semester, not only to be given the opportunity to get them completed, but also to enable students to see the type of material covered, the desired level of knowledge, and how the questions are posed. Additionally, for those students not suited for pursuing a Ph.D., the system allows them to recognize this in a timely manner. 


It is highly recommended that students review old cumulative exams to get a feel for the level of the exams and to identify gaps in areas of knowledge that may need to be studied further. More than fifteen years of exams, and many exam solutions are available on the Chemistry Exams webpage. Look over old notes from previous advanced undergrad or graduate level courses. Many times problems can be solved with information obtained from these classes. Ask second and third year grad students for their notes/exams from core classes in our department such as 620, 634, 641, 651, 671 and 696A. This may give you a better idea as to what type of questions Purdue professors pose. This is also a great way to meet new people within the department.  As the semester progresses you will find that the best way to study for your cumulative exams is to study for the classes you are taking.    

Certain divisions often refer to the recent chemistry literature. This is frequently observed in the organic division, which frequently references JACS, JOC, Tet Lett, and Organic Letters. Although we realize that you cannot read every chemistry journal out there, it is a good practice to start reading the core journals in your discipline, as well as JACS, Science and Nature. Think of it this way, if you read one article a day, you will read over 103 articles in your graduate career! You’ll be a chemistry machine! Common topics in inorganic cumes include molecular orbital diagrams and group theory related questions. It is best again to look at old exams for examples of what you might expect to see.    

The biochemistry topics are pre-announced. This means that the topic for each month is posted on the bulletin board outside BRWN 2124 and are available through the web. We recognize that these topics are somewhat vague, but they may help you to narrow your studying efforts.  

Taking the Exam 

When you get the exam on Saturday, look through all the exams. Do whichever division’s exam you feel you can score highest on. For example, just because you are in the analytical division, that doesn’t mean you can’t take an inorganic exam. Many people have walked into the exam, looked only at one division’s exam, gave up and walked out. This won’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to give it the “old college try.” -And you may be surprised at what you can produce when you sit and start writing.

While taking the exam, write, write, write. Many times scores are low because the student didn’t give enough information to answer the question. However, you should endeavor to be clear with your responses. Don’t just “memory-dump” a bunch of crap into your booklet. Try and make connections between concepts that you are explaining to show that you understand your solution/response. Bring a calculator and model set, as they may be useful. Typically, most divisions only ask conceptual questions, but sometimes a calculator helps

You have two hours to write the exams, so if you finish one exam with time to spare, try another. See how far you can get. Even if you don’t think you have enough answered to pass the exam, turn it in anyway. You do not get penalized for the number of “fails” you receive as long as you pass five after two years. At the same time, you can imagine how good you’d feel if you actually passed two exams in the same session. If not, DON’T PANIC. You have twenty opportunities to pass all of the required exams. Don’t feel bad if you shoot blanks the first few times out of the blocks. For many people, these exams are not a stumbling block. A lot of students will only have one or two in their first year, but then they quickly finish the rest in their third semester. You WILL get better at them if you keep at it. Often the questions are very class specific, so you are bound to get exams that are right up your alley.


The posting of topics is strictly a divisional decision. Currently, only the biochemistry division regularly announces their topics. Other divisions will occasionally announce the topic, often corresponding with the lecture material of a visiting speaker. Keep in mind that these exams are often much more detailed than your average cume.

You may look at your exam after it has been graded. Betty Hatfield in the main office has them and will let you see it if you ask her nicely. These booklets will only be held for 2 months following the exam. This is good for those students that may not recall exactly what they wrote because they were in some unprocessed post-drunken, pre-football stage. There is in fact an ongoing debate as to whether consumption of alcohol prior to an exam is helpful or harmful, but we will leave that for you to decide.

Ideally, cribs that are supplied to the main office will be posted two weeks after the exam. If a crib is not received from a particular division, the name and office number of the professor who wrote the exam will be posted. GSAB and the faculty strongly encourage you to visit these professors. Many of them will be eager to discuss your exam with you; however you have to make the effort by contacting them. 


Two weeks after the exam you should receive a letter in your mailbox informing you of your performance. It will tell you the division, your score, and whether you passed the exam. If you did not turn in an exam booklet you will not receive a letter, even though you signed in at the exam. A list of scores separated by division should be found on the bulletin board outside BRWN 2124 with pass/fail cutoffs indicated. Answers to the cume questions may be found on the bulletin board assuming that the professor who wrote the exam supplied them.