Graduate School Qualifying Exams: what are they and how can I prepare?

academics physics qualifying exams

As a graduate student in a STEM field, your program probably has one or more written qualifying exams which you must pass, along with your oral exams, to earn the coveted title of PhD candidate. The written exams cover the fundamental material in your field—generally from courses you took as an undergraduate or a first-year graduate student. These exams are often a major source of stress and have a fixed number of attempts. Don’t be too scared though, they are designed to be passed with a bit of preparation.

I am in a physics PhD program, which requires 4 written qualifying exams. Here, I will share my preparation methods and offer some advice based on first-hand lessons that I learned. I was very stressed, but ended up passing mine with this strategy, so I hope it can help you as well. 

General advice:

Use each available attempt.

My program allows four attempts for each exam. Even if you haven’t studied for a single minute, sit all the exams during each attempt window. I studied for two my first time and made the mistake of skipping the other two because I “knew I’d fail” and I “didn’t want to waste time.” Don’t think like this! You have nothing to lose. Taking the exams with no prep can teach you about what topics are covered, how to budget your time, and how much you need to study for the next time.

Make sure to bring necessary materials with you to graduate school .

Your qualifying exams should cover content from fundamental undergraduate courses. In physics, we take exams in electromagnetism, statistical physics, quantum physics, and classical physics. I made sure to bring the relevant course notes and textbooks with me when I moved to grad school. Sure, the boxes were heavy, but I made good use of all these resources while I studied. 

Start preparing about 1 month ahead of time.

It is very hard to study regularly during the semester (as I discovered personally). Therefore, start studying during the summer break or winter break only about one month before the exams. This will give you a solid window of time to devote yourself to the topics, without conflicting with classes and research during the term. Passing the exams early is worth the lost weeks of vacation.  

Study strategy:

Pick which exams to focus on.

Focus on at most 2 exams during each sitting. You’ll take them all, but it’s better to study two weeks each for two exams and pass both than one week each for four exams and fail them all. 

Don’t alternate between topics. Spend two continuous weeks working on one subject, and then wrap it up and switch to the next.  

Make a Study guide.

Read your course notes like a textbook and pull out important information from each lecture. Copy useful definitions and equations into the study guide—you’re taking notes from your notes, condensing them down and distilling out the most important parts. Any time you’re confused on a topic, stop, and look it up online or in your textbook—your goal during this step is conceptual understanding.  

If you don’t have good course notes, you can do this with a textbook, but be careful because books are much longer than a set of course notes. 

You should end up with 10-20 pages of super useful, clear notes that cover the entire content of the course.

Make a list of solved example problems.

As you read through your course notes, copy solved examples into a new set of notes, separate from your study guide. Solve the problems yourself first, then compare with the solutions. Also, find relevant solved examples in your textbook and add then to your notes.  

You’ll end up with a neat compendium of solved problems from the course, with the topics in the same order as your study guide.  

Now, we focus on memorization.

Unlike the exams you take as an undergraduate, qualifying exams don’t allow any reference materials to be used, so you will need to memorize important equations and solution methods. 

Read through your newly made study guide and pull out 20-30 of the most useful equations and definitions—put these on flashcards. 

Read through your list of solved examples. You have a few options here: 1) pull out canonical problems and put them on flash cards or 2) realize that there are a few distinct types of problems and make a flash card of the solution steps for each type. 

Now, in just 2 weeks, you’ve read through all your course notes, revisited many useful sections of your textbook, put together a concise study guide, solved many practice problems, and produced a manageable number of flashcards. You’re all set to use these flashcards for prep during the days leading up to the exam.  Good luck!

Alexandra graduated from Caltech with a BS in Physics in 2022, where she worked with four diverse research groups in four years. Alexandra is now a PhD student and NSF GRFP Fellow at the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Science.


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