Preparing for Your Qualifying Exams (Beyond Studying)

Preparing for Your Qualifying Exams (Beyond Studying)

July 6, 2016

Preparing for Qualifying Exams - Book lays open on a table, with letters rising up out of it

Your comprehensive exams or qualifying exams are coming up and you have your study system all mapped out. Your notes and texts are covering your living room, your partner or kids find you pacing and muttering at all hours of the night, and you’re running on an average of three hours of sleep. You’re on top of your academic game, but what about everything else?

As Ideas on Fire CEO Cathy Hannabach always says, you’re more than just a brain on a stick. Your success on these exams depends not only on how you’ve prepared for the material but also how well you take care of yourself.

Here are some ways to prepare in advance so that by the time your exams roll around you are feeling rested, in control of your schedule, and ready to work.


Getting into the right mindset before your comprehensive or qualifying exams start is half the battle.

How do you want to feel?

First, think about how you want to feel during your exam week(s) and write those feelings down. For example, maybe you want to feel prepared, confident, calm, secure, creative, or energized.

Make a plan

Next, below each feeling, write down what actions you can take to help you feel that way. If you want to feel calm, will a particular kind of music help? If you want to feel prepared, how about organizing and cleaning your home? If you want to feel creative, how about breaking into one of those adult coloring books that everyone is raving about?

These tasks may seem unrelated to studying. However, if they help with your mindset, the time they take will be well worth it.


As our Grad School Rockstars mentorship community members have learned, health is enormously important to success of your exam. Your brain simply cannot function at its highest ability without sleep, healthy food, and movement.


Make sure you are scheduling sleep into your calendar and not deviating from your schedule. If you are feeling foggy and groggy, you are not going to feel confident about your work.

Healthy food

Don’t assume that you will have the time or energy to cook during your exams. Your best bet is to stock your fridge with healthy, easy-to-make food so that’s one less thing to take care of. You will probably want to binge on junk food, which will make you tired and sleepy. Eating healthy food will make you feel better and work like a rockstar.


Build movement into your schedule. Whether it is a walk around the block every hour or some yoga stretches, movement will clear your head and reenergize you for the next round.

Do not ignore your health! If you try to stay up all night glued to your chair, you will not be in your best state of mind to do your best work.


If you set up these systems beforehand, your mind will be at ease and you can focus on the work.


I’ve talked a fair amount about scheduling above, but make sure your schedule is both written out and digitized. Google Calendar is one easy way to go.

Schedule in sleep, breaks (make sure your breaks consist of treats you are excited about!), movement, meals, and the order in which you will tackle the parts of your exams.


Make sure your computer is in tip-top shape. Take it to the Apple Genius bar, make sure it’s all backed up, and ensure it won’t crash.

If you’re working with a transcriptionist to type your exams or using voice-recognition transcription software, make sure those systems are scheduled and confirmed.

For greater planning purposes, think about what you would do if your computer did crash or your transcriptionist had a last-minute emergency. Can you save everything on a cloud storage system and plan to borrow someone else’s computer? Do you have a backup transcription plan? Having a backup plan will ensure smooth sailing when it’s go time.

Also, if you need to print anything as part of your exam, remember to refill your printer ink beforehand and grab a ream of paper. 

File system

To make sure you won’t need to constantly be rifling through articles, organize your notes in a way that makes them easily accessible. This might mean binders, clearly labeled piles on the floor, a special folder on your computer, or Evernote files.

The bottom line is, your comprehensive and qualifying exams aren’t worth burning out your body, mind, and spirit. Focusing on your mindset, health, and systems beforehand means that when your exams finally arrive, you will be prepared to rock.

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