You’ve picked your fields, made your list, and read (most of) the things.
Now it’s time to actually take the exams. Taking the exams is going to be different depending on your program. In my program students had three exam questions issued over three days. The questions were sent by email and the student had 24 hours to type a 10-15 page response and email it back to the committee. Questions were sent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with the oral examination the following Monday. The exams could be taken from anywhere and I completed mine from my home.
Another program I know has a major field and two minor fields. Students are given a week to answer the question in their major field and are expected to produce something about the length of a seminar paper (18-25 pages of text). Minor fields take 3 days and produce a shorter paper (10-15 pages).
Yet another program I know has everyone take prelim exams at the same time. Exams take three days and students must be on campus, in an isolated room, when writing. They are only allowed to write during business hours and cannot work on their questions when at home.
These are just a few of many, many variations on how different programs do prelims. Because of the variation, it’s not feasible to give one-size-fits-all advice about how to actually write your exams. However, it is possible to give some advice on how to survive your exams which is what this post is about.
Practice: Note Taking. I developed a rhythm when reading for prelims. During the day I would read and put sticky notes next to passages I found interesting or thought would be compelling. After dinner, I would sit down and type all of those passages into a Word document titled BookTitle_Notes. I put the page number at the end of every quotation. I used the Track Changes feature in Word to list any comments or thoughts about the passage I didn’t want to forget. Lastly, I put the full citation for the book at the beginning of every document.
Honestly, I should have started doing this in my first graduate course, but better late than never. The notes I took for this process were incredibly helpful during my prelims and through my prospectus. In fact, I still use some of these notes from those prelim books which became foundational for my dissertation.
Tools: A book stand will save your neck and sticky tabs will save those ILL books.
While you can certainly buy sticky tabs at your favorite office supply retailer I stopped buying them ages ago when I noticed that the employers at career fairs for undergraduates had dozens of little promo-notebooks with sticky tabs in them. Whenever I see more than a dozen undergrads in business attire I look for the career fair and ransack it for sticky notes.
Practice: Go Bag. This tip came from a friend who was in the third program mentioned above and had to take her prelims on campus, during business hours, over three days. She kept a go-bag by the door to her apartment and that go bag contained the books she absolutely knew she would need, a full water bottle, healthy snacks, and a couple of her favorite treats. She grabbed this bag every day when she left for campus and when she got home at night she filled up her water bottle and replenished her snacks.
Tools: A big a** bag, a big water bottle (or two), your core books, all the snacks.
Practice: Feed your brain. This one is a little more abstract but in the face of a high-pressure, intellectual challenge like prelims I know many, many academics who forget that they have to take care of their bodies. I am, in fact, the poster child for this particular affliction. It’s important to remember that your brain is dependent on your body. To function at it’s best you need to feed your brain by taking care of your body with food and rest. You can’t, and shouldn’t, prelim every possible second. Your brain needs breaks to do its best work. Plan out what types of breaks would be best for you.
Personally, I made meal times my breaks. I would give myself an hour at every meal to eat, stretch, and watch a show. This was in the context of a 24 hour exam period. The longer your exam period, the more breaks you need to give your body and brain.
Make sure you have food you can eat with minimum fuss AND that you’ll want to eat. Prelims are stressful. It’s OK to have comfort food around. Personally, whenever I get stressed I lose my appetite and have a hard time eating anything but toast. I think I had a dozen loaves of bread in my freezer the Sunday before I started my exams. I wasn’t planning to live only on toast but I was prepared in case that’s what happened.
I know you’ve heard this a dozen times but really, truly, honestly–HYDRATE. Your body is mostly water. Your brain is basically a fish. If you don’t want that fish to go belly up during prelims then give yourself plenty of water.
Again, these are general tips that will be adaptable to many, but not all, types of prelim exams. If you have tips relevant to how your program does prelims then leave them in the comments!