To most all graduate students (including all at Dartmouth), two words provoke primordial fear sending chills down the spine inducing a sweat upon the brow of even the most adept physicist; qualifying exam. Now that you have removed your hand from your mouth, recovering from a most horrifying gasp, let me try and explain just what the qualifying exam involves and some of what it doesn't. I believe it is easier to start with the latter of the two.
What doesn't the qualifying exam cover? Pixies, dragons, and large knights brandishing broadswords. All else is fair game. It turns out that explaining what it involved was easier than coming up with three (lame) examples of what it doesn't. Listing the subjects, one gets the feeling of ease, that it will be okay and it's not as daunting as people make it sound: Classical mechanics (Newtonian and Lagrangian/Hamiltonian), Relativity (Special and General), Statistical Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics and Astronomy with a dabble of special topics, mainly Solid State.
Great! Only a select number of topics! Oh but wait... that's pretty much all of physics... and when they say astronomy, they mean astronomy... ALL OF IT! You could easily spend all of your time memorizing the pertinent equations and it's still entirely possible that you'd miss something important. Every time I find that I've (re)learned material, more material comes along that needs to be crammed in next to everything else; a giant orgy of physics concepts and equations in your head.
Aside from research this is my job, save the last bit of grading for the class I have to TA (introductory astronomy). Research and studying encompass most of my day, every day, and will continue to until September 17th at noon when I finish my last exam (there are two, physics short and astronomy long). It is quite possible that I know the most about physics as I ever will, a peak in my general physics/astronomy knowledge base. Or, I could learn more. I'm hoping for the latter if I retain all I am reviewing for the test.
I keep one thing in mind for the upcoming "qual": 60% is almost guaranteed pass!