Written Qualifying Exams

The following resource is running tool for cohorts to leverage when preparing for their written qualifying exam, which takes place during their fourth semester.

General Questions


What was some of the most useful advice you got before taking your quals?

Allow yourself time to study. 

Learn how to read papers and figures efficiently. Take time to read the paper, and summarize the experiments and results they found. How did each experiment lead to the next?

Were they as terrible as you expected?
  • Definitely not. The questions weren’t easy but 100% fair.
  • Not at all. They were fair and – honestly – sometimes they were such simple questions that it was hard to sound intelligent and really flesh out a complex idea, let alone write for an adequate length.
  • I really overprepared, but I did study a tremendous amount. If i answered the questions under a decent length i extended to write about my thoughts and other relatable concepts. 

Getting Materials

The process of working with your committee to obtain materials can be a hurdle in of itself. Each professor will give different styles of material, and it even may vary between EEO and CMHD tracks.

How much time should you give between meeting with your committee members and getting papers to you?
  • The GPD and graduate program coordinator will send you an email for your year recommending times for you to form your committee and have your first meetings with them. Between the first meeting and the preliminary exam, there will be a deadline date for your committee to give you papers.
  • Some committee members only took ~2 weeks, others took a couple months (don’t be afraid to remind them). There is a deadline for them to send you your papers. If they do not comply, contact the GPD for assistance.
  • I met with my committee in December as a group. I didn’t meet with them between then and soliciting them for papers, unless they wanted to meet. They had a deadline to get papers to me, so I wasn’t worried about getting materials.
Do all committee members have to give you reading material or can they just give you topics?
  •  The committee members should give you 2-4 published research or review articles, which ideally should bridge the gap between your research and their expertise. When subject overlap is not possible, papers methodologically or conceptually useful to the student can be assigned.
What do you do if member(s) of your committee do not give you all materials by the due date?
  • If they don’t respond to emails, I’d just go straight to their office
  • Email, go to their office, get on your advisor to bug them. It may also help to provide them with some options, if finding the time to look up material is what is keeping them from doing their job.
  • Contact the GPD to assist you in contacting them.

Doing the prep work

Now that you have your materials from your committee, how do you tackle getting all of them into your brain? The following questions discuss techniques for studying and handling the materials, to working with your committee, to managing stress.

When you received all your materials, how did you begin your study plan? How far in advance did you begin?
  • I’d start as soon as you get your papers, try to make an outline of when you want what papers done. At least glance over every paper from the start in case you have any questions for your committee members
  • A month out provides the needed time to study. 
What were your study techniques? What worked; what didn’t?
  • Good stuff: making detailed notes, summarizing, color coding everything, writing “mock” essays Bad stuff: getting caught up in really small details. If you’re reading a cited paper from a paper that was cited in your original paper YOU ARE IN A WORMHOLE, I would take a break and reset. I was using a technique called “Pomodoro”. It is designed to increase your productivity by implementing scheduled breaks. All you need is a timer (https://tomato-timer.com/) . It worked for me, so I would give it a shot!
  • I would read and annotate, and then focus on the figures, since, to me, those helped tell the story the best and solidified ideas best. I wrote up mock questions and would bullet out ideas, but never wrote anything out in full. I had a Power Point with all the figures and I wrote up my own notes for each of them, then studied off that. The front page had the big idea of the paper and then I’d talk about how the figures fit together and what points they made and how the informed the next figure. I put everything in a notebook to keep it all together, and that was helpful since I would end up looking through everything when I looked for something specific, which was a good subliminal reminder.
  • Honestly, it was a mixed bag. Some people are figure intensive, others are concept intensive. Focus on figures, get a expert understanding, then work on understanding all concepts. 
  • Run through the papers if you need help understanding a concept with the committee member which gave you the paper or your advisor.


How much time did you devote to studying?
  • I studied from 6-10pm five nights a week a month out from the exam. (I achieved a 100% on all questions asked.)
  • It depended on the week/ how busy I was in lab. I tried to study in my downtime in lab (like if I had a gel running) but mostly studied at home every night.
  • I pretty much exclusively studied at home or at coffee shops at nights and on the weekends. I took off the week before the exam just to study and not worry too much about lab stuff (minus coming in just to do essential maintenance).
How often did you meet with your committee before your exam (excluding the first meeting)? How did you approach those meetings?
  • Probably just one additional time. I didn’t find it that helpful to be honest. I didn’t have any questions, I just wanted some hints about what kind of questions they were gonna ask, but couldn’t get much out of them.
  • I mostly emailed, rather than meeting. I asked for types of questions, but they weren’t super helpful or directional in their responses.
  • My committee was pretty MIA for the whole processes. I met with them once to explain my research and provided some example papers. Some of these papers ended up being selected and given back to me. 


Throughout the studying process, how did you practice self care / not spiral into despair? What worked best for you?
  • Hmm, I’m not the best person to answer this. I ate a lot of Taco Bell and drank a lot of boxed wine so I would suggest maybe NOT doing that? I also got really fat.
  • I relied a lot on my support system, which was a major privilege. I tried to eat well, and I set limits on the blocks of time I’d let myself study at a time (like 3 or 4 hours max without a major break). I also took a lot of walks, since the weather was nice.
  • I pretty much lived in the gym and worked out a-lot. I practiced discipline and it really put me at ease.
In the week/days leading up to the exam, how did you cope with the mounting stress? What helped you stay productive and focused?
  • I practiced self help techniques  1) Stress can be a positive experience. Stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol) can provide focus, energy and result in improved performance. 2) When I was stressed out, it was my body telling me to focus on studying. I just hit the books harder.
  • Set strict bedtimes and make going to sleep really intentional. I had to study in my room, so I made sure to put all my materials away and started burning my favorite candle about an hour before I had to stop studying. I also rotated my study spot, different spots in the morning vs the afternoon and between days so that no place was associated with negative energy.

In the Thick of It: During the Exam

You’ve prepped and pushed as much knowledge into your brain as it could handle. Exam day is here. Now what? What happens for those 16 hours?

What were some (general) types of questions you were asked? How much were they related to the material given to you by your committee?
  • Some people asked me really specific questions relating back to the papers (like certain figures, methods, etc) but others asked me about general concepts about my research in relation to the paper.
  • The questions were really fair and didn’t deviate from the material given, with the exception of my advisor who could justifiably pull in some other major concepts that I would have reasonable knowledge of. There were some “design an experiment,” compare and contrast, definition (almost like a textbook), explain how concepts linked together, etc. Some questions also linked two of the papers, asking for a compare and contrast.
Do we get to choose the order of the questions?
  • The order of the questions is not provided to you. Additionally, you do not get to see the questions before starting the exams. However, you do get to know the order of questions by committee member beforehand. You are given two sets of questions per day, and you pick one from each set.
How long were your responses on average (both length and time to complete)?
  • A 1 page response is seen as average. I was given advice that it is better to have a well rounded response which answers the question than one that rambles. 
  • The majority of people took 45 minutes to 1.5hrs to complete their responses.
What is a too short/specific or too long/specific length for an answer?
  • I would probably say half of a page (single-spaced) is pushing the limit for “too short”. I don’t think you should worry about the answers being too long, so long as you don’t run out of time.
  • Too long looks like rambling. If you’re just writing to write, and end up putting out 4 pages or more, odds are you’re not answering the question well. Going super off topic likely looks just as bad as not being able to answer the question. For too short, I ended up writing half pages and getting stuck, but with some brainstorming, I was able to hit the page mark, and sometimes go well past it. I’d say you just want to be sure you’ve answered the question as thoroughly and completely as you can, while still staying on track and creating a linear train of thought/logic.
  • Advice from my advisor: Aim for about a page. Answer the question, but don’t go off-topic. There is no point going off topic or just word-vomiting.
How do you approach formulating your answers? (Outlines – rough draft – or just write?)
  • I think I made an outline for most of my questions on some scrap paper, then began writing.
  • For the most part, I just started writing. I’d do a word cloud or bullet list when I struggled to write more or if I felt that my first draft wasn’t going well. Each time I tried making an outline before starting, I would just end up writing, so I never really used outlines. I’d be sure to reread my answers two or three times before submitting, though. And sometimes that’s when a lot of rewriting or editing would take place, either because I had more or new ideas, or because I didn’t like how I worded something.

Eye of the Storm: Between Exam Days

Exams are split between four days. What should you do between each session?

What is your advice for best utilizing the time between test days?
  • Because you should know the order of the committee member’s questions, you should re-read and prep the articles given to you by that person. Take some time to compare and contrast the articles if possible. How do they fit together? Are there differing opinions? Review the methods and figures. And most importantly, get some rest!!

It’s All Okay in the End

You did it — CONGRATS! You worked hard for weeks and now it’s over. You’re likely to have a lot of feelings. Here’s some tips that hopefully help those feelings be good ones.

How does grading work?

Q: The exam is pass/fail. Is this based on individual scores for each committee member or average of all scores? That is, does each question need to score >70% for or does the average from all questions need to be >70%?

  • All four scores should score above a 70%.
Is grading based more on content, or is grammar and presentation of a well-crafted essay factored in as well?
  • I never saw my scores and only got verbal feedback from one of my committee members. But if I had to guess, I doubt they put much focus on grammar.
  • I saw my scores from all 4 committee members, but only two had written feedback. They commented mostly on clarity of thought and correctness of explanations. Nobody said a word about grammar.

Final Thoughts

If you have been regularly reading literature in your field, and you take the time to dissect your papers, you should be 100% confident going into the test. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget the name of some reagent or if you said they left the experiment going for 2 weeks instead of 3. Your committee just wants to see you demonstrate your critical thinking skills and background knowledge in your area of research. As long as you do that, don’t sweat the small mistakes.

If I could go back and do it differently, the only thing I’d change is staring sooner. It’s unlikely you’ll be judged harshly for making a mistake – even a conceptual one – as long as you have good logic and rationale. Think about how your answers make you come across as a scientist and what qualities you want to convey: intellect, clear organization, synthesis of ideas, etc. Focus on a couple themes and use those to guide your writing, rather than trying to make everything perfect.