A short guide to preparing for general exams

General exams are scary. At least until you pass them, and then you remember them fondly and condescendingly explain to early graduate students how much you enjoyed your generals prep year and that maybe they should too. I remember finding that dynamic infuriating in my second year of grad school and then contributing to it in my third. In the spirit of helping people who are panicked about general exams (aka orals/quals/prelims), here is a guide I wrote for a friend shortly after passing them myself back in the day. Since my exams are a fading memory, I haven’t really changed the advice, which served me extremely well. The suggestions are based on the generals format I had in graduate school, where you prepare four exam “fields” (long lists of books) and must demonstrate mastery of them in an oral exam. However, these techniques work well for any exam in which you need to familiarize yourself with a huge academic literature.

1. Triage your books: Take your list for each field and divide it into three parts. The first category comprises the most important books. You might feel like they’re all in that category, but they’re not. This is probably the most important 15-20% of all the books/articles on the list. You’ll need to read these carefully, so be sure to allow time for that each week. Then there’s the books that are pretty important, but you won’t have time to read at normal speed. Allow time for either a slower skim or read introduction/conclusion and 1-2 chapters carefully. Finally there’s the books that matter least. You’ll be skimming these. Give yourself an hour (or so) with each. At first it’ll seem too difficult to understand a text in an hour, but you’ll get better with time. For all of the books, read reviews to supplement. Pro-tip: if you’re an Americanist, Reviews in American History is one of the best publications around/ever/of all time.

2. Take useful notes, NEVER longer than a page: When you finish reading (reviewing?) a book, write a one paragraph (sometimes two) summary of the text, providing an overview of the argument and any other key information. This is absolutely critical as it develops your ability to quickly identify an argument and it makes reviewing much easier.

3. Develop historiographic narratives: Come up with your own way to link books conceptually. If you can put the books into dialog you’ll be better able to think synthetically about the field and you’ll actually remember the specific arguments as well. For example, if you had to explain the linkages between books A, B, and C, you could say something like, “Book A established the earliest perspective on this subject, while B followed years later as a corrective. While B’s account was useful, C observed that a more nuanced account would adapt B to account for the critical parts of A.” You get the idea. Generals is all about historiographic narratives.

4. Review with a friend: Once you have useful summaries or notes, anybody can quiz you. In the month (or two) before the exam, get friends to quiz you incessantly. Have them flip through your notes asking you what the arguments of the various texts are. Write a list of sample generals questions and have a friend quiz you. They don’t need to know the answers. You’ll know if you’re getting them right. As the exam approaches, you can even do mock fields or mock exams. Get a list of ten questions and have a partner ask you questions for thirty minutes. Then you can switch and do the same for him or her. This is perhaps the most important principle. Generals is about understanding how to explain history and historiography out loud and you’ll only get good with practice.

Oh, and stay calm. I really enjoyed my generals prep and maybe you should too.

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