Carnegie Mellon University

Preparing For Attainment Examinations

What are the attainment exams and why are they important?

The attainment exams serve two purposes: (1) to provide information to advise you on the courses you need and (2) to satisfy the departmental attainment requirements which ensure that every student has some breadth of knowledge across organic, inorganic and physical chemistry. During the first week when you arrive at Carnegie Mellon, you will be required to take three attainment examinations, one in each of the areas of physical, inorganic, and organic chemistry. If your undergraduate background is not in chemistry, we will work with you to select the courses you need to acquire this knowledge efficiently.  Feel free to contact Kevin Noonan ( as chair of the Graduate Program Committee to discuss this if you have questions.


The exams are standardized ACS exams in multiple choice format that cover information at the level of a typical undergraduate chemistry curriculum. The time allotted for each exam varies from 1.5-2 hours, depending on the number of questions (60-80).  The exams cover, approximately, the undergraduate background in chemistry given at Carnegie Mellon or comparable universities. To learn more about the range of topics covered, you might refer to the following texts or similar modern texts:

  • Organic Chemistry (Brown & Foote, 2nd Edition)
  • Physical Chemistry (P.W. Atkins, 6th Edition)
  • Inorganic Chemistry (Miessler and Tarr, 3rd Edition)

Included below are brief outlines of the main topics covered on the exams. The inorganic outline was prepared by one of our faculty members. The organic and physical chemistry topic outlines are taken from the ACS exam site’s study guides.

What is the standard for passing the exam?

To pass an exam, you need to achieve the median score among a national sample of undergraduates and graduate students.  Note that the median score is based on a population of both undergraduate and graduate students who take the exam so the standard for passing is fairly high.

How much should you study for these exams?

The department uses the results of the examinations to guide advising about your graduate course schedule, so it is worthwhile to prepare sufficiently for the exams so that your scores reflect your knowledge as accurately as possible. If you do not pass an exam in a certain area, you will be advised to take corresponding course work, usually at the graduate level but possibly at the undergraduate level if you have a gap in your background in that area. Therefore, effective review prior to the exam can help you avoid taking a course that repeats familiar material and can accelerate your progress in graduate school.  Studying for 1-2 weeks is recommended as a very rough guideline.

What are the possible outcomes?

Following your attainment examinations, you will meet with faculty to review the results of your exams.  At that time, you will be advised regarding the specific classes you will need to take during your first semester at Carnegie Mellon.

  • If you pass all attainment exams, you will have flexibility in choosing the graduate-level courses needed to meet the Ph.D. program requirements and may be able to complete your course requirements as early as your second semester.
  • If you fail an exam in an area, you will generally be advised to take a related graduate course to gain the necessary background. Passing an approved full-semester graduate course with a grade of at least a B will meet the attainment requirement for that particular area. This may be advisable for areas where your prior background has some gaps.
  • If you fail an exam in an area and have not had any relevant course work in that area (such as if your undergraduate major was not chemistry), you may be advised to take a related undergraduate course and then retake the attainment exam. Please note that these undergraduate courses do not count toward the graduate course requirement.

When does the attainment requirement need to be satisfied?

You have up to three semesters to pass all three of the attainment requirements.  Failure to pass the attainment requirements by the end of your third semester will lead to a delay in completing the research progress report and is grounds for termination from the program.

Suggestions for preparing

Our goal is to get students into their research as early as possible with strong foundation knowledge so that the time to complete the Ph.D. is reasonable.  The most valuable review for most students is practicing answering similar questions. One option we would suggest is to visit the GRE website and review the chemistry subject testing materials that are available online. Reviewing texts like those listed above or other modern texts is also excellent preparation for these examinations. To target your review effectively, it is useful to refer to exams from your previous coursework and identify the areas where extra reading and problem solving may be most helpful to you. If you are not experienced with multiple choice exams, you may also wish to practice answering these types of questions under time pressure.

Brief Review Outlines

Topics recommended for review for the inorganic chemistry attainment exam are:

  • Atomic Structure
  • Symmetry and Group Theory
  • Molecular Structure and Bonding
  • Acid-Base and Donor-Acceptor Chemistry
  • The Crystalline Solid State
  • Chemistry of Main Group Elements
  • Oxidation and Reduction
  • Coordination Chemistry: Structure, Isomerism, Bonding Theory, Electronic Spectra, Reactions and Mechanisms
  • Organometallic Chemistry
  • Bioinorganic Chemistry

For the organic chemistry exam, content is derived from both semesters of Organic Chemistry and includes:

  • Nomenclature
  • Structure, Hybridization, Resonance, Aromaticity
  • Acids and Bases
  • Stereoisomerism
  • Nucleophilic Substitutions and Eliminations
  • Electrophilic Additions
  • Nucleophilic Addition at Carbonyl Groups
  • Nucleophilic Substitution at Carbonyl Groups
  • Enols and Enolate Ion Reactions
  • Electrophilic and Nucleophilic Aromatic Substitution
  • Free Radical Substitutions and Additions
  • Oxidations and Reductions
  • Spectroscopy
  • Synthesis and Analysis

Content for Physical Chemistry includes:

  • Equations of State
  • Laws of Thermodynamics and State Functions
  • Mathematical Relationships in Thermodynamics
  • Chemical and Phase Equilibria
  • Kinetic Molecular Theory
  • Transport Properties
  • Phenomenological Kinetics
  • Mechanisms
  • Reaction Dynamics
  • Statistical Mechanics
Quantum Mechanics
  • Quantum Chemistry: History and Concepts
  • Simple Analytical Mechanical Model Systems
  • Modern Quantum Mechanical Problems: Atomic systems
  • Symmetry
  • Molecular Orbital Theory
  • Spectral Problems
  • Advanced Topics: Electronic Structure Theory and Spectroscopy