Just a little over 12 months ago I was studying 24/7, trying to prepare in every way possible for the qualifying exams in my PhD program. It was a grueling, intense and unforgettable season. Since then, many PhD students have asked me what steps I did to prepare...so I thought I'd write a blog about my journey.
Here's how I tackled the journey:
1) Course Notebooks: I compiled a notebook of each course. I put in papers I wrote, the course syllabus and any discussion boards that were helpful. At this point I reviewed all the key texts and either pulled reviews I had written on them in class or made notes that I could use to remember.
2) Master Notebook & Faculty/Peer Advice: I then made a master notebook with the key learning outcomes from the syllabus and a powerpoint presentation for each course to help me study. I included key points from the text (which I found above) in the powerpoint.
I also reached out to the faculty who would write the questions for my exam and students who had taken qualifying exams over the last few semesters. I asked for advice on what to study and was able to review past questions (our program creates unique questions for each student and encourages students to review past exam questions in preparation. I realize not all programs use this approach). It was helpful to be able to find themes, identify key areas to focus on, and also to see how others had approached this in the past.
3) Practice Exam Answer Outlines: I went a little insane here--I purchased the large sticky note brain storming type packets and I outlined the key points in each course. By each main point I also included authors, quotes and years. This formed the outline of my response to questions (particularly in the core classes). I went through about 3 or 4 outlines for each class and used those when making practice test answers. It also helped me think through whether I really wanted to answer the questions the way I was or whether a different approach would be better.
4) Note cards: I wrote a ton of note cards. I had a stack of about 90 with key people, publication and year with quotes. The name of the author went on the front with other details on the back. I also had a stack of cards related to Quantitative tests. And then I had a stack of cards relating to the classes so I could quickly recall key texts for each course. I tried to go through this stack at least once a day, particularly early on.
5) Next, I started practice exams. I tried to write each question about 4 times before the actual test. The first time I wrote it with notes to create an "ideal" answer. This took the longest since I had open books and open notes, trying to get the perfect answer with quotations, theories, authors and years included.
The second time I wrote it without notes and then went back in and added everything I missed. I used a separate color when correcting the paper so I could visually see how much I needed to study. I did the same thing for round three.
By round four I got to the point where I could outline the entire answer within about 15 to 20 (with details of which people or citations I quoted where) and then I used the rest of the 2 hours to fill it in and review. This actually was a helpful process for me.
6) Study Groups/Buddies: While I could not meet with the study group during the time they all were available, my husband (thankfully) helped me. He would quiz me on my cards, key themes, ask me questions about the drafts of answers, etc. It was a really key part since it challenged me to express myself. Definitely have a person in your life who will ask the hard questions, quiz you even when you want to quit, and remind you that you'll be able to pass the exam with flying colors!
7) Key quotes: I also made a list of "key quotes" that had about two pages worth which applied to a variety of questions. I read that list every day for about a month and a half to really have it in my mind. While I still used the note cards, I made this list with quotes that weren't from courses. I tried to find ones that would illustrate that I was a scholar who knew my industry far beyond simply class material. I also memorized quotes that I could use in a couple essays due to their application with a variety of topics.
The Big Day: When I got to the exams, I found that I was prepared to write what I needed to, though the questions weren't quite what I was expecting. However, because of practicing with so much information and detail--I was able to apply those pieces to the question at hand. While writing for 8 hours straight, two days in a row was one of the most exhausting processes I've ever gone through, the practice and preparation helped the stress not be crippling. When you've done your work and know your content, you don't have to worry about blanking when it's time to write. You'll be ready.
Verbal Exams: After the written qualifying exams, I had two weeks to prepare for the verbal exam. I spent time reviewing my written pieces and I rehearsed what I wanted to address. I made sure I prepared to answer areas I had gotten wrong, things I left out and areas I wanted to expand on. I also practiced being calm--sounds silly, but it was one of the most important things for me. It's easy to get flustered and simply try to answer. But it's better to keep calm, take your time, and ask for clarification (when needed). Remember, this is about your faculty determining whether you're ready to be a scholar and join the academic conversation. Show them you're ready by being prepared and having sound reasoning behind your conclusions.