Preparing to Prepare

based on notes by Jennifer Davies


Why do we do qualifying exams? Understanding the purpose helps you strategize, and work more effectively toward being fully prepared for the exams. Different programs give the exams for any number of reasons, some of which are listed below (as pieced together from various institutional handbooks):

To continue building on knowledge acquired in coursework. In other words, to fill in gaps in knowledge in your discipline.

To develop a foundation of expertise in your particular field or specialization.

To prepare for dissertation writing.

To prepare to apply for jobs.

Taken all together, regardless of discipline, program, or department, qualifying exams help you to demonstrate that you understand how to integrate your learning and research into a coherent framework of ideas that is useful and intellectually exciting in your field.

You should, however, consult with your committee members to determine more specifically what your goal in studying for the exams should be, particularly if you are in charge of creating your own reading lists. Some lists may be very specific to your field of study and may function as a base from which to extend future research (i.e., dissertation research). Other exams may function as surveys which test your breadth or depth of knowledge in a particular area in order to test what you have gained from your coursework and to prepare you to teach college-level courses in your discipline. Some exams rely on a general base of knowledge but ask you only to know a handful of major works well (depth); others require a familiarity with a survey of works (breadth). Some exams may attempt to do all of these things. No matter what the case, find out what your committee expects of you and try to streamline your lists or reading as much as possible to fulfill these expectations.



Get to know your department secretary/administrative assistant well. Chances are, he or she has seen and administered many of the required procedures before and can help you navigate the idiosyncrasies and paperwork of your particular program. Make sure to ask which forms you need to fill out both for your program and for CGU—these forms can sometimes fall to the wayside, so to avoid any future paperwork nightmares make sure you complete them all in a timely and organized manner..

Ask questions. If you hesitate to avail yourself of all the resources your department has to offer, you may miss out on some valuable preparatory aids (both mental and academic) available to you.

Become familiar with your department’s expectations and guidelines for the exam; departments vary dramatically from one another, and even programs within departments may have different procedures for exams. What are the requirements in order to attain ABD status? Some departments hold screening exams, others require that you complete annotated bibliographies or survey articles, still others require both a written and an oral exam. Find out what you need to do—it will help you to develop a plan of attack and alleviate the anxiety caused by "surprise" requirements.

  • Are you required to craft your own reading lists, or are lists provided for you? (Some departments even require a combination of both.)
  • Are you responsible for assembling a committee, or is there a core of faculty who are in charge of the exams?
  • Are you responsible for scheduling or are there set dates on which the exam is administered?
  • What sort of paperwork, at both the CGU and the department levels, is required of you?
  • Are you required to take preliminary exams or oral exams in addition to the written qualifying exams?

Become familiar with the actual examination process. Taking care of the required paperwork sets the stage for the main event of taking your exam. For the most part, the actual preparation of mastering the content you need for the exams is something only you can do. However, there is often more help available than you might think that can help you save time and energy so you focus on the essential, work more strategically, and approach your exams with in a calmer frame of mind.

  • Are past exam questions and answers available to you in your department office?
  • Are there students who have recently passed their exams and who would be willing to talk to you about the process?
  • Some departments may allow you to structure your own exams. Find out if your department is one that allows you to craft your own questions. Some professors may actually encourage this (it means less preparation for them and may also ensure better essays from you).
  • If you are someone who doesn’t do well on timed or oral exams, consult your committee members for advice. Some departments allow take-home exams for those with difficulty succeeding on timed exams.
  • For oral exams, ask your advisor to provide you with a first "throw-away" question. In other words, ask him or her to come up with a very general question to start you off so that you have a few minutes to talk to the committee about a question on which you have prepared an answer. This can be a very general question such as, "Identify one or two common threads which unify the lists you have studied." Many committees will be happy to do this for you—it can get the ball rolling for everyone involved.
  • Find out the nitty-gritty mechanics of taking the exam. These may seem unimportant now but on exam day, you will be glad to have made such preparations.
How much time are you allotted for each exam?
Are you given access to a computer or is the exam hand-written?
Is it qualitative or quantitative?
Is it "open-notes" or from memory only?
Are you allowed scratch paper?
Are you allowed to take food or drinks into the exams (particularly important for long exams)
Are you taking the exam in a room by yourself or will there be others present?
Are you allowed to print out a copy of the exam after you’ve taken it?


Finally, remember that the qualifying exams are an opportunity for you to share your expertise in your chosen area of the field with your committee. YOU are the expert here; while they know the field, they do not know your selected area at the level of detail that you do. These exams are one of the critical steps you take to moving from being their junior colleague as a graduate student, to being their peer in the field. You're in charge, and the exams are your chance to articulate your ideas.

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