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Home » Discover Rackham » Six Unbelievable Hacks to Survive Quals

Spoiler alert: just like in your average click-bait article, there is no real hack.

One of the great joys about qualifying and preliminary exams is being done with them and being able to look back fondly on them after emerging from that dark, dark tunnel. Since I suspect many readers are in the darkest depths of that tunnel at this point of the academic year, I would like to try to shed a little gleam of light on the process. I assume you already know you should have started early, studied a lot, slept a lot, eaten well, and exercised. If you have done all the above, you need only read item number one. If you haven’t, well, this is the post for you, from one panicky procrastinator to another.

1) Firstly, and lastly, and at every point in between, you are going to be okay. You would not be taking your exams if you were not ready and able to. It will be fine. If you, like me, are comforted by worst-case scenarios, ask senior students or faculty what will happen if you do really badly or fail. For me, knowing that I could retake a section if I failed one was a source of great comfort. If this is not comforting to you, get yourself pumped about how awesome you are going to be and think of the exams as a Warrior Dash that you will power through, arriving muddy and bruised but happy to the finish line. Either way, you are going to be fine.

painting of people in purgatory.

Light at the end of the tunnel or just another image ID for your Art History quals? (Wikimedia Commons)

2) The obvious advice is to start preparing early. Since this is unlikely to happen given human nature, prepare strategically. I found that my studying became the more effective and efficient the closer the date of the exam. Read summaries and reviews. Get a general feel for the main arguments and debates, and select one or two examples that illustrate those points. A format I found useful was to write the following summaries for each reading I did: main argument, evidence, strengths/weaknesses. Be ruthless about the time given to each topic or book: you can spend a year on each, of course, but if you have a month, you don’t want to spend two weeks on one small aspect of your exams. Make a schedule, and when the time allotted to one topic is up, move on. Make sure you know the absolute core material like the back of your hand – you’ll be amazed how much you can build on and extrapolate from that. There is no shame (fine, maybe a little shame, but this is not the time for dignity) in consulting introductory textbooks.

3) To facilitate #2, make sure you know what’s expected of you. Talk to faculty. Maybe your program shares old exam questions with students. Ask senior students. In addition to the questions, ask about the answers. Some kindly senior students were willing to share their own exam responses with me, and reading them – some brilliant, some less so but still passable – made it all seem a lot less intimidating.

4) Partner up. My cohort buddy is the reason I passed the Roman archaeology section of our exams, and I’d like to take a little bit of credit for his passing the Greek section. As the exams neared, we holed ourselves up in the office. This way, it was easy to ask for help as soon as a question came up. We would quiz each other. We would exchange summaries and notes. We talked each other down and egged each other on.

5) Keep calm and type on. In the exam itself, give yourself ten seconds of pure, distilled terror on looking at the questions. Then start writing and don’t stop. When preparing for my exams, I would get disheartened because I felt I knew “nothing” about a topic. My cohort buddy pointed out this was not true, and that instead of freaking out about details I couldn’t remember, I needed to focus on the central things I did know. State the obvious. Write about what you do know. If all else fails, write around the topic. In my exam, there was an Etruscan vase I had never seen in my life and a building I could not identify. Instead, I wrote about Etruscan pottery in general and about Roman ashlar masonry to show I was at least able to analyze what I saw and recognize pertinent aspects of it. Not ideal, but infinitely better than a blank paper.

6) Appreciate the process. This might only happen after the exams, but if you can, even during the lead-up marvel at how much you have learned even as you’re all too aware of how much more you still need to absorb. My cohort buddy would drill me about Etruscan temples over and over again and we’d high-five every single time I managed to beat one tidbit into my thick head. I’m still hardly an expert on the topic, but I know they’re frontal, without peristyles, and with high podiums. No, you will not retain everything or even most of what you cram into your head, but you will develop a better, broader understanding of your field.

Editor’s note: The preliminary exam/qualifying exam process differs from one graduate program to another. Make sure you work directly with your graduate program to understand the rules and guidelines that you need to follow to fulfill the expectations in your graduate program.