Studying for and passing qualifying exams is undoubtedly one of the most difficult aspects of graduate school. The difference between getting a masters or PhD can rest on your ability to solve a select group of mathematical problems. Having gone through the process … twice… I have some advice I’d like to share with you!
1. Start early. – It’s never too early to start studying for your quals and I suggest beginning your very first year! (If you’re further along, no worries. Just keep reading!) By setting aside an hour a week to review the material as you go along, you will be ahead of the game when time comes to take the test!
2. Get copies of the old exams. – Most departments or more advanced graduate students will be happy to provide you with qualifying exams from previous years. You should make sure that you can solve every problem from beginning to end!
3. Create a solutions set of old exams. – One mistake I made was that I would look at old exam problems and write out a skeletal solution without filling in the details, because I thought I could solve the problem. But when I took my qualifying exams, I would lose credit on all those “details” that I didn’t write out. I suggest that you create a detailed solution for each problem that you work and show a few of them to your professor to verify that you would receive full credit.
4. Talk to your professors. – This is especially true if you have to take an oral exam like I did. By speaking to my professors individually, I gained insight into the type of question they would likely ask me. The conversation usually started like this: “Dr. Scott, I’m studying for my qualifying exams and I was wondering if you would give me some practice oral questions?” No one ever turned me down and I heard many of these same questions during my actual oral exam!
5. Relax. – Often easier said than done, relaxation can mean the difference between passing and not passing your exams. Your brain function and overall mental health improves when your body is in a relaxed state. So take a walk or go for a swim in the days leading up to your exam. And remember that no matter what happens, you’re still amazing!