How to Prepare for Your Qualifying Exam

The two words that cause so much anxiety for grad students, “qualifying exam”. This is also known as the entrance exam to candidacy. Basically, it’s an exam, created by a committee of professors, that tests your knowledge and skills. After passing, you become a PhD Candidate! Exciting but also the most stressful few weeks/months of your grad school experience.

See, Master’s students have it easy(I kid, getting a masters is difficult). They just present their thesis at the end of 2 years and that’s it. For PhD students, you have to take the candidacy entrance exam and more than likely present your proposal to your committee too. So if you read my post Oral Qualifying Presentation :Grad School Stress (here), I go in depth in how to prepare for the presentation. That is probably the most stressful portion due to actually getting in front of your committee and presenting your research.

For my qualifying exam, each committee member will submit questions to my adviser along with time requirements. My adviser will then give the questions to me, one exam at a time, not all together. I will then need to finish the exam in the allotted time frame and submit directly to my committee members.

Some exams are closed book. These exams cover classwork that you have done and you have to pass each section in order to go on. I believe other engineering departments do it this way, which I find terrible because you can immediately be kicked out just from not passing one section of an exam. That’s my opinion though.

Now, I want to go over how to prepare for the written part. Most of this can be used for both formats of the exams, testing you knowledge on classwork or my type of exam.

Two Pencils Near Book

Before the Exam

  1. Make sure you know everything that is in your proposal.

This one is super important because the committee uses this to understand what your area of expertise is. Read papers on the different aspects of your research. Learn the methodology of the experiments and be prepared to defend why you did your experiments a certain way.

2. 2 hours before the exam, stop everything and relax

You may want to read more and cram as much into your brain as possible, but you need to rest. By working more, you are just tiring yourself out and you need the mental strength to continue this marathon of an exam. Spend this time doing something you like or watching a movie. If you want to, I say meditate sometime during his time frame. You will be way less stressed and more focused to tackle whatever is thrown at you.If the exam is open book, expect that the exam is going to be harder, not easier.

3. Remind yourself that you belong here and that you are ready.

Self talk is so important. Often, you will have doubts and imposter syndrome will slide in. You will experience imposter syndrome but don’t let it overtake you. You belong in this program and you will be a doctorate one day.

4. Remind yourself that you will pass

Your adviser would not let you do the exam unless the felt that you are ready and that you will pass. Remind yourself of this. It comes back to that stupid imposter syndrome and our anxiety. You will have the “what if thoughts” such as “what if I fail?” or “what if the exam is so hard, I die?”. Replace the negative what ifs with positive ones like, “what if I pass?” or “what if I do so well that they just hand me a Nobel Prize?” Train your brain to think of positive situations, especially when you are in a stressful situation.

Close-up of Hands

During the qualifying exam

  1. Do some breathing exercises after you finish a question or one of the exams

After you finish a question, or one of your committees exam, take a 3 minute break to just focus on the breathe. This will relax you and reduce any anxiety that comes from preparing for the next exam.

2.Try not to drink too much coffee

I think we all know why you shouldn’t drink too much caffeine during an exam. There are actually quite a few reasons not to go overboard. I am not saying to cut caffeine out. That’s a bad idea, especially if you are a coffee drinker. Just don’t overdo it. Drink enough to wake you up and get your brain functions running. It will definitely help. Just make sure it’s in moderation.

3.Tell yourself that you will be fine

You will be fine regardless of the outcome. My friend didn’t pass his qualifying exam and now he’s building satellites and launching them in space. Look at both sides, if you pass, you go on to get your doctorate. If you fail, you get your masters and you can start making a difference in the world sooner. You will be fine in the end, I promise you that. Plus, you are ready for this exam so you’ll pass regardless.

4.Write until your hand falls off.

If you think you answered the question, keep writing. Over answer ever single question that you have. Write until your hand hurts and you form blisters. This will guarantee that you pass! that came directly from my adviser who has been doing this for longer than I’ve been on earth. When in doubt, just keep throwing out information. Committee members want to see that you are willing to go above and beyond and this is one way to show that just that.

People Running Near Seashore at Daytime Photo

After the Qualifying Exam

  1. Relax

Go do something that does not involve reading or writing. Go to the movies or go swim in the ocean. Do anything else and get your mind off of thinking about the exam. You may not feel good about the exam afterwards, and that’s normal. Find things that give you joy. You deserve it.

2. Prepare to hear back from your committee

You may hear back from them right away, or maybe not for a bit. They will tell you if you passed or failed and hopefully it’s a pass. Once you hear back from them and you passed, congrats you can finally put “PhD Candidate” after you name in your emails! If you failed, you have a second shot at passing. If this is the case, start back at the first set of advice, and we will see you relaxing on a beach somewhere in no time.

Good luck to all of those preparing for your qualifying exams. You will do amazing! I have mine next week so I will let you guys know how it goes when I am done.

**If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, I highly recommend that they seek help. Online-Therapy.com or TalkSpace.com are great ways to reach out to a licensed therapist and get the help needed. Therapy has 100% helped me and I know it can help you.

5 thoughts on “How to Prepare for Your Qualifying Exam

  • 4.Write until your hand falls off.

    For a closed book live in class written exam I would memorize say a simple 6 or 8 point outline if I knew the topic.. Then I would write the first letter of the outline and put
    that in the margin. That would be my take off point to start as the mere letter would bring to mind that point of the outline. If I did not know the questions ahead of time I would write a simple sparse out line in the margin based upon what I knew about the question. At least I would remember to write everything I knew. Of course state the thesis in opening paragraph. Always felt the summary closing paragraph was the weakest kind. Instead of a summary I would either allude to something related in the past or allude to possibiltes that may evolve in the future. Always bring at least 3 new pens as in my experience one or two would freeze up.I would avoid “filler” sentences or paragraphs in the attempt to impress that instructor with your broad knowledge I would add specific facts like a date, persons and places to enhance the topic. I remember doing a essay on Napolean which I felt would get a C at best.But I recalled Napoleon was defeatitd at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Ironically the US entry into these European wars begins in the War of 1812 which started on June 18, 1812. I believe that got me the A-.The irony is that June 18, 1949 is my birth date.

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