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How to study for general exams

I could use some advice on how to study for General Exams in the social sciences. I’m especially having trouble getting through all the reading I’m supposed to do! Any tips on *how* to read for exams? How about studying for generals, more broadly?


*A version of this question and the subsequent student answers were first posted in the UW Graduate Student Facebook Group. They have been edited for clarity and re-published anonymously with the permission of the question-asker. 

Hi, there!

Whew. What a great question! Preparing for General Exams is one of the most challenging and daunting aspects of a doctoral career, but I’m confident with a strong plan and your determination, you’ll enter your exam well-prepared!

Let’s start with how to prepare for General Exams more broadly. Thankfully (for you and for the Guide), UC–Davis has a comprehensive and accessible guide with tips for approaching your general exams.

This guide breaks preparation into five, concrete steps: understand how the qualifying exam works; know your examiners’ interests and personalities; prepare early; reduce your stress; and have an exam day plan. Check out the article for more advice on putting these steps into action!

Inside Higher Ed also features a guest blog post from Ph.D. candidate Stephanie Hedge on studying for General Exams. Hedge recommends writing every day, as well as reading previous exams and writing practice questions.

I hope that these resources, combined with conversations with your advisor, committee members and peers, will help you to feel more confident in how you organize yourself for the General Exams.

The other piece you asked about is how to read all the material you need to cover for your General Exam in a timely fashion. The Guide has gathered several responses from people who have completed their General. Read them below.

On the whole, they made it clear that you should be strategically skimming these texts — not reading them cover to cover — and focusing on the material as it relates to your research and the history of the field.

“Resist the urge to read everything cover to cover. Instead, skim through the entire book or article — spending at most 20 minutes on this step — and then speed read through it focusing on the beginnings and ends of each chapter. If anything doesn’t make sense, go back and read more carefully.”

“Write a mini review for each book from the perspective of your research and your reading list. For me, this helped me read strategically and also better remember what I read. Your committee might be different, but for my purposes knowing the highlights of an argument was important but knowing what X author said on page 53 in the footnote (for instance) was not. And that made it easier for me to read quickly.”

“Read reviews by others to get a second opinion on books you have to skim.”

“Try focusing on the network of conversation as opposed to a single article or book. For example, think about how author X responds to author Y, author Z disagrees with author Y’s response, etc. If you can keep track of that (especially as it relates to your questions) then you don’t need to devote nearly as much time to reading each piece itself, and the intro/conclusion plus footnotes will be enough to tell you how an article or book fits into rest of the literature.”

You will likely find it helpful to develop a system to organize all your reading notes.

One student suggests: “Try using your phone for notes. You may use Siri to dictate important sentences (verbatim or your own analyses/connections to other work, with a symbol to differentiate them). At the end, you should have about a page or two per book or article. That way, it’ll be easier to review that before your exam!”

This Grad Hacker article suggests a few different strategies: using a Wiki, a blog, or even an old-fashioned scrapbook!

Best of luck!

–The Grad School Guide

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