Tips for Answering Qualifying Exam Questions

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Tips for Answering Qualifying Exam QuestionsTalking to some of the management faculty at my university about qualifying exams I received a few tips and feedback on previous qualifying exam answers  that might be worth documenting and sharing. While those are somewhat subjective, and perhaps subject, context or culture bound, they do make general sense to me. Many of those are also true for any research proposal paper of article publication submission. So, if you’re up for a qualifying exam, you might want to quickly browse through the following :

  1. Structure
    1. The structure of the answer should correspond to the structure of the question.
    2. The structure should be clear and easy to follow. The reviewers should not be made to search for the answer.
    3. Make sure that for each part of the question (which could be reflected in a single word like “why”) there is an equivalent part in the answer.
    4. The structure should be clear and easy to browse through. Use headings, bold and borderlines. Name the sub-sections of your answer.
    5. For each general answer, start off by explaining the structure of your answer.
    6. One professor commented that each point deserves a paragraph but not more than a paragraph. So make sure your point is important enough to deserve a paragraph or embed it with some other point that’s more dominant.
  2. Content
    1. Assumptions – if you follow some assumptions, lay those out before you begin arguing.
    2. Logic – the logic underlying the answer should be consistent & clear. In a time-limited exam, it’s more important to be consistent and clear than it is to be exhaustive.
    3. Citations –
      1. cite as much as possible, but make sure you know that the cite is really arguing what you say it does.
      2. make sure you atleast include the main leading papers or theorists of the domain you’re discussing.
    4. One professor suggested to try and avoid personal statements, “feelings” or “beliefs”. Those should be reflected in the flow citing actual work.
    5. Use examples to clarify your points.
    6. Integration of two theories – sometimes tricky to approach, most times this would be easiest with forming a moderating or mediating model.
    7. Limitations & contributions – best to include those at some point.
  3. Hypothesis/proposition building
    1. Hypotheses should, naturally, be novel. There’s a chance that something you’re hypothesizing about has been mentioned before – so it’s perhaps advisable to stay away from the “obvious” and lean towards the more counter-intuition, gap bridging, or theory integration type of hyptoheses.
    2. Hypotheses should be testable, or atleast is should be generally clear how they might be approached.
    3. Make sure the constructs you’re referring to are clear enough. IVs and DVs are best articulated explicitly and the relationship made clear (positive/negative/curvilinear & moderated how).
    4. Beware of null-hypotheses.
    5. If you’re hypothesizing using a basic hypotheses from an already published paper or dominant theory as a starting point, clearly state that.
    6. Context – if context or phenomenon is defined, make your hypotheses about the context/phenomenon.
  4. Criticizing a paper (research methods)
    1. Try and dedicate atleast 1/3 of the critique to good interesting points and how to build and refine on top of those. Point out strengths and contributions, it shouldn’t all be negative.
    2. Just like in a review – if you’re criticizing, you should also offer someway to solve the issue or advance the paper.


Good luck on your exams.

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