Tools and Advice for Confronting the Core Candidacy Exam

When I joined Texts & Technology, the Ph.D. candidacy exams seemed to me like they’d be the most nerve-wracking aspect of the journey. When I was a first-year student balancing the demands of courses, teaching, and professional development, the exams seemed hazy and far in future. Suddenly, they weren’t.

For those unfamiliar with the T&T exam process, each student takes three exams: one core candidacy exam and two specialized exams. Each exam covers a reading list of about 30 different texts. The core exam is a proctored five-hour exam with no access to books or notes, while the specialized exams take place over 48 hours, and are open-book. Like many students I’ve spoken with, I was most nervous about the core candidacy exam, for which the memorization of the main ideas in 30 theory-heavy texts seems like a daunting task at best. When you consider that you have to form two coherent arguments from that information, it feels impossible.

With that in mind, I’d like to share six studying tools that helped build my confidence as I prepared for the core candidacy exam. It takes a lot to get mentally ready for a test as major as the core exam, but in the end it helped me manage the process like I would any academic or professional project. I started seriously studying when classes ended in May with the intention of learning 3-5 texts per week, and took my first exam in September.

  1. Create a workflow. For every text, I would first read and take notes, then turn those notes into an annotation. I used free project management software, Trello, to keep track of my process. For those familiar with Project Management strategies, Trello mimics a kanban board. As someone who likes to check things off and create lists, it was satisfying for me to move the cards into different columns, and it made sure I thoughtfully completed each step of my workflow with each text. You can also color-code your cards to correspond to your different reading lists.1
  2. Take notes, revisit them, and write annotations. Since beginning T&T, I have been taking notes using the free version of Evernote. Since it’s cloud-based, you can access it from 2anywhere, and your notes are taggable and searchable. I was able to easily revisit these notes to write annotations, which I then shared with my committee. Annotations were key to my success, because they included a paragraph on why a text was important to my research. By writing down the main points of my arguments about a text before I got in the exam room, I already had those thoughts formulated and didn’t have to waste time wondering how I could best use a text. Even though I didn’t have notes with me, the process of writing and re-reading annotations helped me remember the parts of a text that were most important to me. I shared them with my committee and with a small group of T&T students who were studying for exams at the same time. We used our annotations as a discussion starting point, the discussions we had helped clarify ideas I missed when reading, and also kept me accountable.
  3. Go back to basics. Memorizing 30 texts was the most daunting part of the studying process. I used flashcards, to remember brief thesis statements for each text and author. Memorizing these simple statements ended up serving as a sort of “gateway” to accessing important points from the rest of the text in my memory. The flashcards were also an easy way to quickly study between sets at the gym and right before the exam when I was too nervous to do much else.
  4. Create connections. One of the most helpful pieces of advice my committee gave me was to think about connections between texts. For example, which authors would agree and disagree on a particular point? To visualize some of those connections, I used free mind-mapping software called Creately. Mind maps don’t work for everyone, but I found the process of making one helped me with recalling details about the texts and how they interact with each other. It was also a document that was simple and high-level enough that I could look at it the night before the exam without feeling overwhelmed.
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  5. Finally, I took timed practice exams, which greatly reduced my anxiety about the five-hour time limit and helped me pinpoint the fuzzy spots in my memory. T&T will be able to provide you sample questions. To simulate the actual test, I didn’t look at the questions until I started my timer, then I outlined and wrote for five hours at home without looking at books or notes. Five hours seems like a long time, until you start writing. Even though I prepared for the time limit and felt I budgeted my time well, I felt rushed at the end of the actual exam—and it was noted in my feedback that my conclusion to the second response seemed brief.

These study strategies, along with some great advice my committee and other T&T students gave me, helped me approach the core exam (and the specialized exams) with confidence. For me, the four best pieces of test-day advice were:

  • Don’t cram. Lightly study the night before to keep everything in your mind. Just like an athlete, you should have been training for months, and you don’t want to wear yourself out the day before you have to perform.
  • Don’t use too many texts in your responses. The temptation is to dump the vast knowledge you’ve acquired over months of studying on the page, but take time to build an argument and engage thoughtfully with only the texts necessary to address the question. Deepen your argument by putting the texts you do use in conversation with each other and with your own position as a researcher.
  • Budget time to choose questions, outline your responses, and revise. Don’t expect to be able to write for five straight hours. I examined the time I needed during the practice tests and allowed myself 15 minutes to choose which questions I’d answer, 45 minutes to outline, 1.5 hours per question to write, and an hour to revise.
  • When reading through the questions for the first time, you may want to jot down author names and ideas on the actual question sheet as they pop into your head. You can use some in your outline, and you won’t need to spend extra time remembering these if you need them later.

Whether you’re just starting the T&T program or the exams are quickly approaching, good luck! 


Sara Raffel is a Ph.D. student and instructor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Her research interests include storytelling with interactive digital tools, and the empowerment of overlooked and marginalized voices. Sara contributes to and manages a wide breadth of projects including theoretical research papers, mobile locative narratives, and experimentally curated exhibits. As a graduate teaching associate in the English department, Sara works on literature and technical communication classes, and is assistant managing editor for The Florida Review, an internationally distributed literary journal.

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