USC Computer Science and Engineering Department
Qualifying Examination Information Page

This page contains basic general information about the qualifying exam.

Reading List

Core Topics (see below for specialty research topics)

  1. Algorithms (CSCE 750): Introduction to Algorithms (2nd ed.) by Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, and Stein Please note: Starting Fall 2014, NP-completeness will no longer be tested in the Algorithms section of the exam; it will be tested in the Theory section.

    For further reference see Dr. Buell's website (above) and Dr. Fenner's CSCE 750 website (

  2. Architecture (CSCE 513): Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach, 3rd ed. Hennessey and Patterson, Morgan Kaufman, Chapters 1-5, 8.1-8.5, Appendix A

  3. Compilers (CSCE 531): Compilers: Principles, Techniques, & Tools (2nd ed.) by Aho, Lam, Sethi, and Ullman, Addison-Wesley, Chapters 1-8. For further information see Dr. Fenner's CSCE 531 website

  4. Theory (CSCE 551): Introduction to the Theory of Computation (1st, 2nd, or 3rd ed.) by M. Sipser, PWS, Chapters 1,3-5,7-8. The main difference between the first two editions is that the 2nd edition contains solutions to selected exercises and problems. The 3rd edition adds new material in Chapter 2, which is not covered by the exam. Please note: Starting Fall 2014, NP-completeness is included among potential topics covered in the Theory section.

    For further information see Dr. Fenner's CSCE 551 website

Specialty research topics (Note: these are meant as as only a rough guide and are not updated regularly.)

Core areas of some past exams

2021 Spring
2020 Fall Spring
2019 Fall Spring
2018 Fall Spring
2017 Fall Spring
2016 Fall Spring
2015 Fall Spring
2014 Fall Spring
2013 Fall Spring
2012 Fall Spring
2011 Fall Spring

Guidelines for Students

The qualifying exam is given once each semester. You are expected to have passed the exam by the end of your second year in the Ph.D. program.

The exam consists of three sessions, each lasting an hour and 45 minutes, on three respective topics:

The first two items above are called core topics, and questions from these topics in some past exams are given through the links above.

Each topic contains three numbered questions, which are weighted equally. You are to submit an answer to your choice of two of these questions. Do NOT answer all three questions! If you do, the committee reserves the right to discard one of your answers arbitrarily.

The exam is closed-book, closed notes. No written, printed, or electronic materials or communication of any kind is allowed.

Answering the Questions

For each topic, you will be given a code to use to identify your answers.

We will be scanning and rearranging your exam pages as part of our archiving. To facilitate this process, we will expect you to adhere to the following guidelines for your submitted answers:

For core topics at least, your exam will be graded by two faculty members.

What constitutes a pass?

There are three possible outcomes from taking the exam:

  1. You perform acceptably on all three topics. This means you passed the exam.
  2. You perform acceptably on two of the three topics but not on the third. This is called a conditional pass and it means that you must retake and do acceptably on just that topic on the next exam. (You can switch you choice of equivalent core topic for the retake, however; for example, if you fail Compilers the first time, you can opt to take Architecture the second time.)
  3. You only performed acceptably on one topic, or on no topics. This is considered a complete failure, and in this case you must retake the entire exam the next time it is given, including the topic on which you did acceptably, if there is one.
Current department policy allows only one retake of the exam, so not passing completely after two tries (even if you conditionally passed the first time) means that you can no longer continue in the Ph.D. program.

Guidelines for Faculty

If you are supplying questions

  1. Submit three numbered questions, numbered 1, 2, and 3. Students have 1 hour 45 minutes to answer their choice of two out of the three. A numbered question may have multiple subparts if you think it appropriate. Keep in mind that numbered questions are weighted equally when grading.
  2. The exam is closed book, closed notes, and no electronic devices or printed material allowed. This includes calculators, so do not pose questions that assume the use of a calculator.
  3. Students put all their answers on separate sheets of paper, not on the handout. Keep your questions flowing one after another, without a lot of space in between. Also, do not include blanks (e.g., blank entries in tables) that you expect students to fill in on the handout.
  4. Submit your questions in PDF format, but also include all related source files (e.g., LaTeX or MS Word) so that we can edit them if need be.
  5. If you are supplying questions for one of the core topics (513 Architecture, 531 Compilers, 750 Algorithms, or 551 Theory), then limit yourself to the topics on the established reading lists, above.
  6. If someone else grades your questions (and this is always the case for the core topics), then be prepared to provide solutions to the grader. (Solutions may be communicated in writing or orally.)
  7. Your questions will be printed on a laser printer in grayscale only. Keep this in mind if you are tempted to use color to convey essential information.
  8. Please submit your questions by 12 noon on the day before the exam. (The exam is always held on a Saturday.)

If you are grading answers

  1. If you have a conflict of interest (e.g., a student of yours took the subject you are grading), then at least try to find someone else to grade that topic. (We understand that this may not be feasible.) This is less of a problem with the core topics, because each of those topics is graded by at least two people.
  2. Grade each numbered question out of 20 points total.
  3. If you take points off, make some mark indicating what was deficient.
  4. You may communicate you grades to the Chair (currently Stephen Fenner) either by email (scores only is OK) or marked-up hardcopy of student answers.
  5. Please include with your grades a pass/fail recommendation for each student you grade. This is especially important for the research areas, where scoring is less consistent.
  6. If you think an answer or part of an answer is missing, please let us know immediately. A page may have been misfiled at some point.
  7. Be prepared to answer questions from students afterwards.

This page was last updated Wednesday September 29, 2021 at 13:10:44 EDT.