Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On preliminary exams

Today, I learned that I passed my preliminary exam and celebrated it by going to dinner with a friend and a glass of Bailey's, my favorite drink. Since I recently took my preliminary exam, I want to share what I learned from the experience, though I'm not sure if any of this is applicable to other people. At Purdue we have two options for prelims; we can either take an exam or write papers. I chose to take the exam thinking it would be faster. I am happy with my decision but  I do not think taking the exam option is the best option for everyone. Many of my friends took the paper option and they were happy with their decisions. So it's up to you. When we take the exam option we have two sections. In the first section, you have 24 hours to answer four questions about four core courses--second language studies theory, curriculum design, qualitative research and quantitative research. For the second section, you have a week to answer a question regarding what you want to do for your dissertation. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I write on my experience which may or may not be relevant to you. I hope you find something useful for you or someone you know. Since the seven day part is probably quite similar to writing papers for classes I will write my reflections only on the 24 hour section. I have no idea how typical this 24 hour exam is. After reading all this please do not think that I did all these all the time. For example, I did not read all the sources in my reading list, I did not code all the sources, I did not prepare answers to all possible questions I came up with, etc. Anyway, here it goes

Before the exam
1. Read the manual of your program and/or department regarding taking preliminary examinations. The process feels less stressful when you are familiar with the procedures.

2. Also talk to your adviser about your prelims in a timely manner.

3. If your department/program offers something like a workshop/roundtable kind of thing about the preliminary exam process, definitely attend it. Mine had one and administrators/professors/students who had recently taken the exam shared their understanding of the process and some useful tips. If your department/program does not have something like this consider requesting/organizing one.

4. Talk to your professors about the process, what kind of questions to expect, etc., but especially about what their expectations are. Since your professors have seen students take their prelims either as readers of the responses or advisers to other students, they can tell you about some frequently made mistakes. This way you can avoid making those mistakes. I found talking to my professors very helpful. 

5. Check if prelim questions from previous years are available. If yes, make copies of those questions. Even if you do not get the same questions, they are very helpful in giving you a general idea about what kind of questions to expect. I was lucky because our program has previous questions available for students, you can just go to the graduate school secretary and get those questions. This may not be the case for you. If you are not sure ask someone. It would be really stupid not to make use of such a resource if it is available.

6. Talk to your friends who have taken the exam. I found my friends' experiences very helpful. For example, I would not think of having junk food ready during the exam if one of my friends had not told me. You really need sweet stuff  and COFFEE. Who would have thought that one would need eye drops? Well, you definitely need eye drops. Trust me when you spend so much time in front of the computer and are sleep deprived, your eyes hurt like hell. Keep the eye drop ready, you will thank me later. 

7. If there is a reading list start reading the sources early and divide the work into manageable chunks. That way, the long reading list does not intimidate you. It feels really different having around a hundred articles to read and reading two articles a day.

8. Start studying early. I started studying like a year before my prelims, though I did not work with the same intensity all the time. Here is what I did. I started reading sources last year. In the beginning it was difficult to concentrate since I knew that I had a lot of time to get ready. So I invented a game. You can read more about the game here. Basically I rewarded myself for every reading I did. My reward was reading one thing I wanted to read for every three articles I read for my prelim. I have to admit that I could not keep up with this game that well in Spring semester but I did pretty well in Fall semester and during the winter break. You can choose your pace and your reward but I think the principle of this game might work for you too. This game turns work into fun. Anyway, I studied well in Fall semester and during the break but in the Spring semester I was too busy to study for my prelims. So I did not do much during Spring semester. I studied alright during the summer too but studying in the summer proved to be difficult. So many distractions! I increased my efforts a month before the exam and I think I studied most intensely two weeks prior to the exam. After that I studied less and less. Hope this gives you a general idea about how much I studied. This worked pretty well for me but again you have to find your own way and pace and it's important to keep in mind that some days are more productive than others. Do not beat yourself up if you cannot study for a day, for a week, or for a semester. Just keep going.

9. Do not read the sources idly. It is important to read with a purpose otherwise you forget easily. Read your sources with possible prelim questions in mind.

10. Interact with your sources. Take notes, underline, highlight, ask questions, discuss with friends, etc. Whatever works for you.

11. Prepare some possible questions before/during reading the sources. This is a cyclical process. I prepared some questions first then began reading those sources keeping those questions in mind. But once in a while I came across a source that made me come up with a new question. Sounds very much like coding doesn't it? Which brings me to my next point.

12.  Tag or label the sources using keywords or possible questions. This way you get an idea about for what question you can use which source. Moreover, you get an idea about which questions you have no source for, or too many sources for that matter. If you have too many sources for one question you should probably stop reading on that topic and start reading on something else. Or if you do have no source to answer a question then you better search for some.

13.  Have a prelim folder and put everything you find or write in that folder--articles, links, notes, references, brainstorming, drafts, etc,.

14. Make sure that those files and folders are well organized and that you can find what you are looking for easily. I had one folder for each core course, one for theory, one for qualitative research, etc. In each folder, I had one document where I collected my notes, outlines, drafts for possible questions, list of questions, quotes from specific sources, etc. I also had a one grand reference list. In the folders I had electronic versions of some sources too. I like to work with one grand document, for example one reference list for all core courses, but you might want to have different documents for each.

15. You need to figure out what works for you. This preparation process is a very personal one so take everything I write with a grain of salt and find your own way.

16. Have a copy of that folder online. You can use something like google documents or Dropbox to do that. I cannot overemphasize this, ALWAYS HAVE BACK UP!

17. Work with electronic copies of your sources if you can. This way when you need information about something specific fast you can just search for a keyword. With paper copies, unless you have notes and keywords in the margins you cannot search that fast.

18. The same thing goes for your notes. It is better to keep your notes/drafts electronically so that you can search for something fast. But do not change your habits drastically, which might slow you down. If you feel more comfortable writing an outline on paper rather than on computer, do not force yourself. If it works, if you think you are efficient enough stick with it.

19. Do not spend too much time on writing full drafts for all the questions you have. I do not think this is the most efficient way to get ready for the exam. I think it is enough to have outlines and specific sources for possible questions. Sometimes preparing a Powerpoint presentation for a question works too. When you have the outline and your sources ready, the response almost writes itself.

20. If you think you would be too nervous unless you do some pre-writing before the exam then focus on writing something that you can use for more than one question.

21. Most preliminary exam questions have more than one question in it. Divide those questions into several smaller questions. Again, divide your work into manageable chunks.

22. Write down your references in APA format--or whichever format is being used in your field--before the exam. This way you can save some time and focus on real writing during the exam rather than spending time on your reference list. I had a reference list like that. When I received my prelim questions I looked at this reference list to remind myself which source I could use for which question. So the reference list is helpful in these two ways. Of course, I did not use all the sources in my reference list to answer the questions, so I just copied the citations of the sources from my big list of references, which were nicely formatted, and pasted at the end of my answer.

23. Get all the psychological support you can get. What are family and friends for, right? Even if they cannot do anything regarding your work or exam, they can be less demanding and more understanding during this stressful time.

Just before the exam
1. Get a good night sleep the night before the exam. Take a sleeping pill if you have to.

2. I did not study just before the exam and I do not recommend doing so. This 24 hour prelim is like a marathon so save your energy for the real thing. I studied less and less when I had only one week to the exam and the day before the exam I did not do anything related to my exam.

3. Instead I did some fun stuff, I watched movies and went to shopping and dinner with my husband, I watched Anime, I stumbled, etc.

4. I changed my sleeping cycle so I woke up around two hours before the exam. This time was perfect for me because it gave me enough time to eat and shower and stuff but I did not have too much time to get nervous and freak out. But this one is personal too. You have to figure out what works for you.

5. I did some grocery shopping the day before to buy fruits, junk food, chocolate, cigarettes, soda, etc. Make sure that you have all you need for the exam day, coffee, cigarettes, whatever you like or need.

6. I cleaned and organized my working space. I cleaned my desk, organized my sources, note pad, favorite pens, etc, and arranged the room the night before.

7.  I made a plan. For example, I decided to start with the easiest question, to sleep after answering three questions and to save the most difficult one for last, not to work on one single question more than four hours, saving some time for revisions, etc. Some might like to begin with the most difficult one since your performance deteriorates as time goes by. I choose to begin with the easy one because (1) I know that my mind keeps thinking about the next task even when I'm busy working on a different one. So, I thought leaving the most difficult question for last I would have more time to think. (2) I knew that I would be more nervous in the beginning and feel better as I completed tasks. So, I thought knowing that I had completed three of the four would make me feel more relaxed for the most difficult question. You do not have to follow my game plan but you definitely need a game plan.

8. When I woke up, I had a strong breakfast, took a shower, dressed up for my prelim, ^_^ yeah, I even wore my favorite earrings and stuff (do whatever makes you feel good and relaxed, favorite scented candle, favorite chair, favorite pen, yoga, your lucky bracelet, etc.). Meet my good luck charm ^_^. His name is Dozo

During the exam
1. Be in front of your computer on time.

2. Take a deep breath

3. Open the document with the questions

4. Take a deep breath ^_^

5. Read the questions carefully

6. Decide if you need to make changes in your game plan. Maybe you decide that you will need more time than you anticipated to deal with a specific question. Revise and change your game plan if necessary.

7. Take five minutes to calm down. I think the moments just after receiving the questions was the second most difficult ones. More about the most difficult part later.

8. I started with the easiest question, the one I felt most prepared for and answered the most difficult one last. But you might want to go the other way around. Do whatever works better for you.

9. Again divide the task. Divide the work and focus on one question and even one part of a question at a time.

10. Allocate time for each task, for example, four hours for each question, half an hour for this part of the question, etc.

11. Focus on one question at a time

12, Before you start writing your response for a question spend about 15 minutes for planning. For example, I outlined by response and looked if I had anything prepared for that question before.

13. I had four questions so I decided to spend two hours on each then go to the next one. After having something for each question I turned to the first one. Actually this was my plan but I realized that I could complete my answer for the first question in three hours. So, I had a full draft for that in three hours, a rough draft of course. After that I started to work on the second question, which took me two hours because I had written something for this question before the exam. So almost half of it was already written in five hours rather than the eight hours I had allocated for the task. So I had a full draft for the first and second questions. After eating something (I had an Iskender kebab, one of my favorite dishes. Choose something you like and something that will give you lots of energy), I moved on to the third one. I had not done any pre-writing for this question so it took me a while to have a draft for this one. I had many short breaks (5-10 minutes), I think every hour or so. I paced around the house during these breaks. First of all I think better that way and secondly your body starts to hurt since you sit in front of the computer for so long. When I felt stuck with something I revised another question or copied and pasted the reference information from my big reference list. For example, when I felt stuck at some point for my second question I revised my response for the first question. When I felt stuck with my third response, I did the reference list for my second response. Anyway, you get the picture.

14. After working on three questions, I decided that I was too tired to continue. So I decided to sleep for a couple of hours. Before going to sleep I looked at the final question one last time hoping that my brain will keep thinking about how to answer the question in my sleep. This was the most difficult question. Falling a sleep was difficult because I was too nervous and I you just cannot shut off your brain that easily.  I think I could sleep only 2 hours or so.

15. I could not sleep well so I was not as refreshed as I was hoping for when I woke up but what are you gonna do ^_^ I ate something before going back to work. I think it is important to eat, drink water and have breaks. I think I was eating or drinking something the whole time ^_^

16. I had around six hours to the deadline and I had one more question to go and some revisions to do. I was pretty much on track. Since it takes me a while to really wake up I started with revisions. I had almost final drafts for the first three questions.

17. Five hours to the deadline, I started working on the final question. As I did for all the questions, first I prepared an outline, checked if I had something prepared earlier, wrote as much as I could, and took breaks.

18. Three hours to the deadline, I had a draft but I was stuck with one tiny section of the question. I had to do some research because I did not have any sources for that section to support my argument. I did not know the answer and I had never thought about that questions before. I panicked. I did a quick search and found no sources. This was the most difficult part of the exam, the one I was talking about above. Mentally I was paralyzed and physically I was exhausted. What did I do? I talked about the problem with my husband. He had no idea about the answer of course but just by talking about the problem I found the solution myself and realized that it was not a factual question, there was no right answer for that section and that was why there was no source to answer that question. All I had to do was give my opinion and write one paragraph on what I think about the topic. That's all. So that's what I did.

19. Two hours to the deadline. I had an almost final draft for all the questions. I put all my answers together and went over my references to make sure that I did not miss anything. I read the whole thing again.

20. I submitted my prelim and asked for confirmation.

After the exam
1. Do something that will keep your mind busy, do something like watching a movie or just sleep.

2. After the exam, I had a terrible headache partly because of sitting in front of the computer that long and partly due to sleep deprivation. I think you also need a pain reliever in case you feel the same way in the end.

3. The exam was over but not for my mind. I could not stop thinking about the questions, revising my answers again and again and again. I found so many better ways of answering the questions that I was quite certain that I was going to fail. Because my mind was stuck in the prelim exam I was not able to sleep even though I desperately needed sleep. So I wrote down this blog entry. I was going over what I had been doing for the last 24 hours anyway. I wrote down my reflections and suggestions and a blow by blow account of the prelim process. (I just waited to hear that I passed my exam before publishing it ^_^)

4. Thank the people who helped and supported you

5. Stay calm as you wait for the results of your exam and keep yourself busy.

6. When you learn the results go celebrate with your loved ones, I would say in either case ^_^

In sum, I think I was well-prepared for the exam but not for the aftermath of it. Anyway, this is all I can remember. As I said before take everything I wrote here with a grain of salt and find what works for you. I do not know how applicable my experience or suggestions are but I hope you find something useful in my experience.

Taking my own advice, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people who helped and supported me in the process, my writing ecology for the prelim exam if you will. I'm deeply grateful to my husband Engin Arik, my friends and colleagues Sema Akboga, Aylin Atilgan, Dwight Atkinson, Mira Bekar, Margie Berns, Fatima Esseili, April Ginther, Brian Guthrie, Veronica Jayne, Elena Lawrick, Carolina Pelaez-Morales, Jill Quirk, Laurel Reinking, Ryan Schneider, Yumi Takamiya and my family. Thank you all!


  1. These guidelines are very useful and depict the real prelim situation. It is smart that you wrote them down, so future prelim-takers can always refer to these pieces of advice. I would add two things: Although the exam lasts for 24 hours, don't count on those hours, even with large coffee intakes. Usually, people are able to write intensely for 16-17 hours. And if you have a writer's block, get on FB, and share your frustrations with other prelim-takers. You'll realize you are not the only who got stuck in the writing process.

    1. Hi Mira,
      It's nice hearing from you. I hope you are doing well.Thanks for adding your insights. You are definitely right. Let me know if you would like to be a guest blogger and share your experiences with us. You might find "The letters form the edge of chaos," which is basically the reflections of graduate students about grad school, interesting to read. Let me know if you would like to write for that project.

  2. Replies
    1. Well, it was quite an exhausting experience :-)