3 Tips To Prepare For Preliminary Exams

3 Tips To Prepare For Preliminary Exams

Preliminary exams can feel scary!

I remember my personal experience and the weeks of long study days.

It was helpful for me to go to the same coffee shop, everyday. I would sit at the same table, order the same drink, and listen to the same TV show.  

This routine helped my brain to remain clear and open for reviewing and processing notes.

I would sit for four hours every day, taking a break every 45 minutes.

Then, I would leave and go home.

Looking back, this was a very productive time and really prepared me for the dissertation process.

My exams were over a 4 day period.

3 of those days were in a windowless room where no notes could be used. Just my brain and me.

I panicked the first day as my brain went completely blank. I did not sleep the previous night from being so nervous. However, after a walk and a cup of hot chocolate, I was ready to go.

I did my best to answer each question and to survive the four days.

By the fourth day, I could no longer think straight and I looked on the outside how I felt on the inside. But I was happy knowing that I did my best and accepted whatever was going to happen.

I found out that I passed about a month later.

I survived my written preliminary exams.

I am here to tell you that you can and will also survive your exams.


Today, I’m going to share with you 3 things you can do to not only survive but to ace your exams.

  1. Answer the question

  2. Know what you know.

  3. Manage your thoughts.

Answer the Question

This is obvious, right….or is it?

People get wrapped up in reading and studying all the things.

Everything that you ever read or were assigned in a class, does not need to be reread and memorized. It’s almost impossible and not a good use of your time.

However, some people will do this and then proceed to regurgitate all of the things on their exams.

Harsh Truth: No one WANTS TO or WILL read that mess. So don’t waste your time.

The funny thing is that most people will write pages and pages and still never answer the question.

When you just regurgitate notes and literature, you will waste everyone’s time. Not only that, but you will also not pass because you probably didn’t answer the question.

When sitting down to write, ask yourself, “What is the simplest answer to the question?”

Start there. In one sentence, answer the question.

Only then should you begin to fill in (relevant) details, theories, and citations to your answer.    

The most important thing to remember is that this process is all about YOUR answer to the question and how you support that answer in the clearest and concise way as possible.

Know What You Know

Going back to my earlier point: you don’t need to know everything.

Overall, your exam is about evaluating if you learned what you needed to in order to make sound arguments about field-related topics.

Who are you as Doctor So-and-So and what are your philosophies about your subject matter?

In short, are you ready to be DOCTOR?

So what do you know?

What have you spent most of your time writing, reading, and enjoying in your courses?

Start there and make sure you know those things really well.

Yes, there may be some key theories and research terms that you may need to know... and you definitely should know those things.

I’m just asking you to be selective in how you spend your preparation time.

Most of your time should be focused on being able to take a stance and support that stance.

Focusing on what you know the most will help you to do this the best.

There is always time to go back, fix, or add citations.

No one is expecting you to be perfect.

They are expecting you to make sound arguments and answer the question in the allotted time. I know this is repetitive and it’s just that simple.

Plus, you don’t have as much time as you may think you do during your exams (whether you are in a windowless room or at home).

Therefore, the surer you can be about what you know, the easier writing will be when the time comes.

There is more to say about this but I will leave it here for now.

Manage Your Thoughts

The closer I got to my exams, the more emotional breakdowns I had.

The pressure and anxiety were just so much!

Looking back, I just want to give myself a big hug.

I want to remind myself that this is just an exercise. This is not life or death. No one is dying.

Yes, the preliminary exams determine if you move forward through the Ph.D. process and that can make the pressure feel unbearable.

But truthfully, it is not unbearable. It is not impossible.

Let me just say: YOU ARE READY FOR THIS!

The sheer fact that you made it to this point, says you are ready.

Preparation is needed and you can do that.

Emotions will be all over the place. They are just emotions. Emotions won’t kill you.

Make a plan to keep you anchored.

Gather your support team.

Tell people you may need them to just text you a funny joke every day.

Have someone to remind you to eat, bathe, and sleep.

Have someone to take you out so you can stay sane.

Find your spiritual practice: working out, yoga, prayer, meditation, or journaling that you can do every day.

Even if you do not pass. You will learn so much from the process.

And in my experience, most people who do not pass did not manage their minds.

It was not about them not knowing enough.

It was probably because they didn’t answer the question or write the answer in a clear enough way to support their argument.

Friend, you got this! I believe you!

Let me know if you need someone to talk to or process with.

What tips do you have for those preparing for exams? Let me know in the comments below.

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