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How did you study for quals?

  1. Mar 29, 2013 #1
    So I got into one of those big brand name physics schools coming from a small department with not many resources. At first I was really excited, then I remembered the time I had preparing for the Physics GRE. I studied really hard for months and all I got was a "good" score.

    Now I'm doubting whether my undergrad institution prepared me enough for the academic aspect of grad studies. Any advice to get ready for quals? I don't want to go there and have to take all undergrad courses for a year because I do too badly on the diagnostic attempt of the qual. I've got 5 months till it happens.

    I downloaded a past exam and said to myself, "Hey! I can four of these! ...out of 20 that is -_-" It made me feel so dumb.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 29, 2013 #2

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    Why not? If you really are that far behind, you should be taking the time to catch up.
  4. Mar 29, 2013 #3
    It's kinda embarrassing. I was hoping to catch up before September, at least enough to not need undergrad classes. Just to bridge the gap between me and typical undergrad from a top 20.

    I worked my *** off for a 760 PGRE and those guys get 800+ not even trying. :(
  5. Mar 29, 2013 #4


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    The 'qual' exam seems to vary a lot from institution to institution with respect to what's considered passing. Some places it legitimately serves to thin the population, where in others it's more a formality. At any rate, when studying/doing my qual exam, I can say with certainty that I have never felt so unsure in my own ability to do physics. The thing is, everyone else felt the same way, and we all limped through together!

    There's really nothing special to it. Re-read undergrad textbooks. Do the relevant problems. Periodically take practice exams if they're available. Definitely find other people to do this with, as it's not only much more enjoyable but helps your understanding.
  6. Mar 29, 2013 #5
    Get quals from as many schools as possible then look over all the questions and note the concepts that you dont know that you think the question is about.
    You should have a list of a bunch of topics now. Add in any basic stuff that you think you need to know.
    Go over all the relevant chapters/notes/exams for the topics on your lists.
    Once youve done that go back and actually try the problems in the quals you have.
    Now note where you had trouble and go back and reread all the relevant stuff and look for more resources on this set of topics.

    Rinse and repeat on doing exams and problems.
  7. Mar 29, 2013 #6
    Im an undergrad but what i do know about physics/tests is that if you know how to derive the equations, you can solve most basic/intermediate problems as long as your calculus knowledge is good.
  8. Mar 30, 2013 #7
    Doesnt work for quals. Good luck deriving equations like Maxwells equations/ ground state of a quantum harmonic oscillator from first principles or spherical harmonics in a timed exam.
  9. Mar 30, 2013 #8
    You just completely missed the point. good job. if you know how the equations are derived you can better understand what the equation means physically and can apply it better.
  10. Mar 30, 2013 #9

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    Jason, qual problems are not like the elementary problems you are used to doing. You might want to consider that someone who is several years farther along than you might not be the one who is missing the point.

    Jesse, if fear of embarrassment is keeping you from learning what you need to know, your career in physics will be short and not much fun. You have to get past this.
  11. Mar 30, 2013 #10


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    If that is all that results from trouble in quals then the program you are going to is really trying to make you a good physicist instead of just weed you out. My quals had the same intent as what yours do, although I was in an EE department, not physics. I seriously botched a very simple probability problem, so I had to take an UNDERGRAD course to make it up even though it was not a prereq for any of the classes I would take in my specialty (plasma physics). I chose a senior level course in probability and stochastic processes. It has saved me in my career, and I would have been much less successful without it. It really was the best thing for me.

    Another example: my wife was at a small school for undergrad that had a very weak physics department but a very strong math department. She ended up with a major in math but took quite a bit of physics, then went to physics grad school. Her grad advisor suggested that she take 4 undergrad physics courses - a year of mechanics and a year of quantum mechanics. It did her no harm, just gave her a stronger background when she took a year of each at the grad level!

    Anyway, studying for quals is always a good idea for anyone, but I think that you shouldn't be too against taking an undergrad course or two (or four!) if it is in your best interest. I wish you the best.

  12. Mar 30, 2013 #11
    I think you must be referring to the OP wotanub

    Retaking undergraduate courses seems like an inefficient way to prepare for quals because they are meant for people who know a minuscule amount of the material when the class starts (class will move slowly) and you must know more than that. You should work on filling gaps instead.
  13. Mar 30, 2013 #12
    I know what you mean but I think this case is the opposite since I want to work harder now so I won't have to be take the undergrad classes.
  14. Mar 30, 2013 #13
    I never did pass my qual. The closest I got was a few percent shy of passing. I spent lots of hours working old qual problems and studying the standard texts. I could have benefited from more group study but most of my classmates were not into that. I think I also could have benefited from seeing solutions and the way problems were intended to be correctly solved. Instead, I would just work through the practice problem my own way never knowing how this matched up with the unknown grader's expectations. Otherwise, though I did well on the GRE and had a high undergrad GPA I was clearly far behind my peers from the beginning in grad school.
  15. Feb 28, 2014 #14
    A 760 is a respectable score, I think in the upper third. I will give you a little encouragement from personal experience. Whenever I struggled through a difficult problem evenings the summer before the quals, I said to myself, I am seeing this problem at my desk with a coffee/diet coke in front of me, without obvious time pressure. How would you like to see this problem or one like it for the first time, the day of the exam. Maybe you will be lucky and see this problem again. Your competition might be seeing it the first time

    Good Luck on you quals. I may have more to say later
  16. Mar 5, 2014 #15
    I want to relate a story to you that you may benefit from. It may or may not be relevant.

    I had a good friend who wanted to take the qualifying exam at the first opportunity. He was very dedicated right off the bat. He generally slept late and asked me to knock on his door so he could get up and be in by 8 to take the quals. I knocked and he answered and asked what I was doing that day. I told him I might see a movie. (I had studied for the quals a little but I still had one more chance the next semester to pass.)

    Instead he said, "Why don't you take it with me?"

    I jumped in with both feet and at 8 we were both taking the quals.

    I examined the test and I knew I was going to do badly. After about two hours I took a good look at the test and confronted the reality. I knew I could never pass this time. I asked myself, with time to prepare could you ever pass this test. Be honest. I concluded I could.

    My friend passed this test the first time (January). I worked (like a dog) problems all summer and eventually passed in (September). My suspicion was correct. I could pass. I know I did well, because I had one (future) advisor who did not allow me to work with him after the first test, who actually asked me who I was working for after the second test (and apologized).

    But I firmly believe if I did not fail the test the first time, I would either never have the courage, or be unprepared the second time (and I would have failed out). I know there are people that are motivated by initial failure. Others may be disheartened.

    My advice (not worth a nickel at Starbucks) is do not be afraid to "take a shot" with the diagnostic test.
    It would be interesting if others can give you the other side of the coin. There may be others that might say "you just got into graduate school. Play it safe". I can only relate my experience
  17. Mar 6, 2014 #16
    Are you guys saying that after failing a qualifying exam the after your first year in grad school, you had to take an undergrad class?
  18. Mar 6, 2014 #17
    I can only speak for myself. I did not take an undergraduate class after failing. I failed in January the same time classes began, and passed in September. The semester later the school allowed incoming graduate students to take a free shot at the quals the September just as they entered in September (The first week of their graduate career). The idea was you had to pass the first two years. so you could conceivably have 4 attempts rather than three Fall, Winter first year fall, winter second year.

    (One graduate school I attended later only allowed two attempts if you came in with a Masters. January and then April, Talk about rough. that's two attempts in 12 Weeks while teaching and taking classes, and maybe doing research).

    To make a long story short, I did not take a undergraduate class. However I can think of an advantage. If the professor teaching say, thermodynamics (my weak point), is on the qualifying exam preparation committee, he is likely to use a question on the exam that (s)he used as an exam question for the course. I have seen this happen before.

    This is a bit unfair in that if his students are sitting for the exam they may have an advantage, but as I said I have seen this before.

    My story was sent to inspire you. I hope you pass first time, but like you I had a hard time early when exposed to these qual problems. Maybe 4 or 5 problems out of 20 is pretty good after studying the first exam. Usually you can pass with about 50% but this depends on your school. You will have to work hard. (I did)

    Good Luck
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