Grad School Written Exams


Recently a reader wrote in for some info on taking her written exams. The question was a follow up to a post I did after I completed mine in 2008. See the earlier post.

I figured since I wrote her some tips my friends and colleagues have shared around, I’d also post them here to WT as some of you are probably thinking about your writtens in the near future and/or plan the writtens for your students and advisees.

So here are some tips:

First, study like it’s a class. I studied with partners for months, having weekly meetings that we all prepared for and brought our resources, then pooled them, quizzed each other, and set assignments for the following week. We al also continued to study on our own in between meetings.

Second, narrow in on what you might realistically be asked and study accordingly. If you have not been provided sample questions as if it is possible to get some. If the questions are insufficient, or don’t seem to suit you, try to imagine what they’d really ask you and then write practice answers. Maybe don’t write the whole essay, but write outlines of what you’d want to discuss.

Third, I found it much better to focus on notes, outlines, key articles and topics etc, rather than just re-reading everything that’d ever come across my desk. Some people do that, and it works for them, but many find that overwhelming and unfocused. I found it was easier to say that I’m an “expert” in maybe 5 areas, and here are the ways I’m going to outline those areas. The key authors, texts, theories, concepts, etc. If asked about those areas what would I say? Chances are your questions will be vague enough for you to showcase what you know already, not what you crammed and memorized the night before about everything you’ve ever heard.

Fourth, know a few key theories well and how you’d relate them to virtually anything. Same with authors/researchers.

Fifth, practice writing syllabi as it’s not uncommon to have to conceptualize a class and one great way to outline that question is through creating the class week by week including what the students would do activity-wise and what they’d read.

Sixth, (and possibly most important) use your time well exam day. Different styles of questions are given, but it’s not uncommon to have multiple questions of which you’re supposed to answer a selection of. My first day I answered one with enthusiasm and basically blew my wad making the second one a stretch in every way because I was exhausted. The next two days I had a much better plan which was to outline my selected questions thoroughly, then go back and answer them. So, when you get tired and move onto latter questions, you’ve already got the main ideas written out for you from when your brain was full of your morning coffee. I recommended this to friends who all said it was helpful.

Finally, bring snacks, and comfortable clothes like slippers if you want to kick off your shoes. There’s nothing more distracting than being uncomfortable physically. I even asked for a radio which they did provide.

Hope this helps.

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1 Comment

  • megan December 03, 2009 12.11 am

    Per the snacks, i brought a cooler with a variety of choices, since I crave different things depending on my mood, and it’s hard to anticipate moods during an 8 hour exam. So there were carrot sticks and other healthy things, along with salty and chocolate-y junk foods. The beverages were the most important, I had water, soda, frappuchinos… and at the bottom of the cooler was the ‘just-in-case beer’. I never needed it, but knowing it was there helped. That cooler was complete and ready for anything.

    Also, I brought a vase of tulips, and when I needed to refocus, I just closed my eyes for a while and breathed in the sweet smell of the flowers. Do whatever it takes to make that exam room comfortable. It may sound weird, but it worked.


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