The qualifying examination is clearly one of the most stressful events in a graduate student's academic experience. This is very common as the exam is often shrouded in mystery, is an unfamiliar test format, and can be "high stakes".
If you have prepared systematically, you are in great shape and should be confident that you are well prepared to succeed in your qualifying examination. If your stress levels are severe or debilitating you should seek help immediately. However, for minor stress, the following tips can help calm your nerves and increase your confidence.
1) Schedule your exam at a time and location for your comfort. If you are a morning person then schedule your exam during the morning or in the afternoon if you are an afternoon person. Talk to your committee several months in advance about scheduling a time, and they may be more flexible to accommodate your needs.
2) Decide in advance:
How will you respond to off-the-wall questions? Off-the-wall questions include those from “left field,” or those that you have not anticipated. Expect that you will get a few of these and create a plan about how you will respond to them. Perhaps you can ask your committee member to repeat or clarify the question. Take a few moments to think about it. It is okay if there are a few seconds of silence. Restate the question out loud so that you can make sure you understood the question as it was asked. Then go for it! You are well prepared to answer.
How will you respond to questions that you do not know? It is almost inevitable that you will be asked a question or two during your examination and will not know the answer. So it is best to prepare ahead how you will answer it when it is asked. Questions such as these are designed to test how you think about a problem, not what you know. Do not try to “fake” your way out of it. It is best to be honest and say that you don't know. Some possible answers include:
- “I don't have that information at this time. However, I would obtain that information from…”
- “That is a good question and I am not sure about the answer. However, I would find the answer by…”
- “I am not sure what the answer is, but if I was to make a hypothesis based on my knowledge it would be….”
3) By having a plan for what to do, you will reduce your stress level if and when a questions is asked that you do not know the answer.
4) The week before:
- Reconfirm the date and location of the qualifying exam room with all your committee members. This way you can touch base one last time with all of them before the big day. You can rest assured that everyone is clear on the day, time and place.
- Visit the exam room and check that the keys fit, the lighting, heating, air conditioning, are all functional and ready to go. This will help alleviate any of the nagging “what ifs” about your exam day.