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How many hours to study for quals?

  1. Mar 25, 2017 #1
    I want a guaranteed pass. How many hours to be on the safe side? 500? 600?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 25, 2017 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    As many hours as you can spare and it must be intelligently spent doing problems, finding weaknesses and being able to teach what you've learned which is perhaps the best way to find out what you don't know.

    Talk to other students who've taken the exam in the past and find out what they had problems with. Also look at past exams if available and work all the problems and somehow validate them too.

    Basically eat, sleep and dream the exam. Make it so...
  4. Mar 26, 2017 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    No such thing. And even if there were, I doubt the difference between 500 and 600 would be significant.
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2017
  5. Mar 26, 2017 #4
    I spent 2000+.
  6. Mar 26, 2017 #5
    It really doesn't go by hours. Go through your undergraduate books, do as many problems as you can, find previous exams from your department and do them, make sure you live, breathe and eat the basics.
  7. Mar 26, 2017 #6
    I did not study for the quals specifically at all. I had studied hard through all my previous course work, so I simply looked at a few (a very few) typical problems, and let it go at that. It worked for me.

    I found throughout college that cramming for any exam was a mistake for me. If I did, I'd find a problem I could not work, and get all hung up on that one problem. The I went to the exam rattled to begin, and that was always a disaster. I found it much better to simply relax before any exam (I usually read Sherlock Holmes), and let the chips fall where they may.
  8. Mar 26, 2017 #7


    Staff: Mentor

  9. Mar 26, 2017 #8

    No such thing as a guaranteed pass based solely on number of prep hours. You might also want to check the pass statistics at your university. My physics grad dept was notorious when I was there many moons ago. You had two shots to pass the qual; if not, you were given an MS as a consolation prize, as well as given the boot. For each entering grad class, only ~50% ultimately passed. The qual was intentionally designed to trip students up.
  10. Mar 27, 2017 #9
    That's pretty nuts. Where was this, if you don't mind? May be useful to see some examples of crazier qual exams.
  11. Mar 27, 2017 #10
    You should be studying smart. If you spend 500 hours studying areas you are strong in or comfortable with, that really isn't useful study time. We can't give you an estimate for time: too many variables to consider.

    Also, cramming 500 hours into a single month is far less effective than studying 500 hours spread out over a year.
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2017
  12. Mar 27, 2017 #11

    I won't give my grad alma mater a bad rap on a public forum. Suffice it to say it's in the US, and one of the top rated physics research depts in the world. It's been 40+ yrs (yikes!) since I took the qual, and it looks like the dept's mended its ways. According to its website, pass rates for recent classes now range from 80 - 90%. But I checked a grad school monitoring website; looks like its entering class size is now about half of what it was when I was there. The first year was a brutal culling process back then; maybe it's grown more humane over the decades (either that, or undergrad enrollments have dropped and fewer disposable TAs are needed).
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2017
  13. Mar 27, 2017 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    Is this part of your plan to show up at a university, take the qual, and impress the faculty so much by your score that they offer you admission on the spot? If so, that's still a bad plan.
  14. Mar 27, 2017 #13
    In the early 80's I passed the quals. I worked approximately 20 hrs a week on research; and studied perhaps on average, approximately 30 hours a week (6 hours a day) on qualifying exam questions from old finals or problem solving from undergraduate level and graduate level textbooks. (I already had a good understanding of freshman/sophomore physics as well as linear algebra, and differential equations).

    If you have a good undergraduate program in physics with a good background in math, probably another 30 hours a week throughout the summer should get you through. That is 30 hrs a week for perhaps 16 weeks (close enough to 500 hours.)

    There are no guarantees in anything at life. Testing an entire undergraduate/early graduate preparation, even in a 12-16 hour test is going to be hit or miss.
    Studying at least 500 hours will certainly improve your chances.

    For every problem you have trouble doing, think of it this way. Would you rather encounter it in your preparation, while you can sip coffee, diet coke, or the drink of your pleasure, in comfortable surroundings, or would you rather confront it during the exam, without preparation. Ultimately, you may also be competing with your classmates, so you'll want to work harder than much or all of your competition.
  15. Apr 7, 2017 #14


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    I took the quals about 10 years ago, and a 50% passing rate was pretty common for both schools I attended (failed twice at one school - to be fair I really didn't spend more than 50 hours studying for either, was planning to transfer out at some point), passing the first time at the new school (after 500+ hours of studying). Many who didn't pass either switched to another department (engineering, computational science, materials) or transferred somewhere else and passed (like I did). So it worked out OK in the end, but a 50% fail rate is not unexpected for me.
  16. Apr 7, 2017 #15
    That's not how it works man!

    Do you have copies of old quals to study from?

    My formula generally is to take one of the old quals and take it like a test in the same conditions. Almost every week. During the next week I "correct" and study what I need to fix. I keep repeating that process.

    I'll let you know how it works.

    -Dave K
  17. Apr 7, 2017 #16
    Interesting. Did they let you transfer over all your graduate classes for credit?
  18. Apr 7, 2017 #17
    Yes. I plan to work through them all.

    By your way, it would be way less than 500 hours.
  19. Apr 7, 2017 #18
    I'm not sure how your calculation works, but my way can work into any number of hours. In my case (topology) I've spent entire weekends devoted to a single problem. Not because I couldn't find the answer, but because I realized that my inability to answer it in a test situation was based on a lack of mastery in a particular area. So I would have to go back and do a lot of review.

    I think it is more about the proportion of hours than the hours. i.e. you have a finite number of hours you can study. You might not get to decide how many hours you actual can allot in total, but you can decide what to do with those hours. Most of them should be spent on stuff you don't understand yet - especially in the beginning. It seems like a lot of people spent time in their comfort zone reviewing or going over problems they already know how to do.

    As I'm getting sort of near the end I'm doing more review/regugitation so I can answer questions quickly and correctly. But I spent a lot of time in the "dark corners" of the textbook with stuff that made my brain hurt because it was foreign to me. Actually, this part of the process is really kind of enjoyable because I have at least some feeling (delusion?) of understanding the topic.

    If I don't do well I will basically start the process over. I have...33 days.

    -Dave K
  20. Apr 7, 2017 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    Sorry, but this is fantasy. Indulging this is not going to get you where you want to go.

    You are way, way more than 500 hours away from passing the qual at a reputable school.
    You can't gain admission to a graduate school by walking in and acing the qual.

    If you are serious, you need to stop focusing on the qual and start focusing on the GRE. This isn't the first time you have heard this.
  21. Apr 7, 2017 #20

    Dr Transport

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    If I remember correctly, I worked about 2500 problems getting ready for my qualifier, I took all the texts we used and worked out 5-10 problems per chapter, then I did the past 5 years or so of old exams. If you do that, you'll have a decent chance at seeing multiple problems very similar to what you already worked out. I distinctly remember on mine that they wanted us to quantize the earth-sun system and get the analogous expression to the hydrogen atom.
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