Qualifying Exams


Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided hereafter should by no means be considered exhaustive and should not be misconstrued as sufficient and necessary to prepare/pass the qualifying exam. Remember every exam is going to be different and the helpful hints provided forthwith are suggestions only. For any information beyond what is provided below, please feel free to contact members of BGA with your concerns or questions.

There are two essential components we feel should be helpful in preparing for the qualifying exam:

  • Participating in “mock quals”
    Most people that have passed the exam in the past have found this to be one of the most useful ways to prepare for the quals environment. One good way to ingrain the exam philosophy in your preparation is to get some senior grad students to conduct mock exams for you. Please show them your appreciation (i.e. feed them) if they help you!
  • Good ol’ fashioned studying
    Of course there is no substitute for studying and knowing your stuff. But the question arises what should you study? The answer lies in the exam philoshophy. The exam emphasizes the student’s ability to integrate bioscience and engineering concepts to solve bioengineering problems". Students in the past have often reviewed the class coursework they have taken over the years. Your committee will have your entire transcript in front of them and everything on it is considered free game. It may be helpful to form groups to review whole classes worth of material.

Holding “Mock Quals”

When considering how to conduct your own mock quals, read and understand the exam philosophy. Understand that the committee is interested in finding out what you know, but they are even more interested in finding out how you answer questions that you don’t know. Try to approach your mock quals with this in mind.

Generally the committee will ask a couple of questions specifically related to your field of research (though this is not always true), but often will quickly move on from there. The rest of the exam will be on whatever the committee wants it to be on! Many of the questions will be based upon applying your understanding of basic engineering principles to biological situations, but you should expect a fair number of questions solely on basic engineering principles as well as purely biological and science fundamentals.

A word of caution is necessary. It has been found that some students, even though they went through mock quals, still ended up not passing the exam. Many revealed that the questions their friends asked them in the mock exam were not as hard as the real questions. So make sure that whomever you choose for conducting your mock exams asks you tough questions. This does not mean that mock exam holders must start picking on you, but you need to make sure that you are benefiting from the exercise.

You should feel free to contact them in order to arrange their assistance in your mock qual. Please be respectful of their time and recognize that they are strictly volunteers, assisting as their time permits. It sometimes helps to offer some sort of incentive to get that time from them. To make the qual exam as effective as possible, you should provide them with your academic background (just a short statement.not an entire transcript!) and a short description of your field of research.

General tips for taking the exam:

  1. Use the board! The committee is trying to assess how you think. The more you write on the board, the more they understand how you are thinking your way through a problem. It also can prove useful when the committee starts asking questions on different aspects of the same problem/scenario. Also, it helps in killing a little time...
  2. Avoid the phrase “I don’t know.” This is especially true if your background suggests that you should know the answer to that question. Begin by discussing ideas that you know are related to the question that you are answering, and hope for a little help/guidance from the committee. Generally they can tell if you are struggling with a question and will try to guide you to the answer. Many times, they will actually be asking you questions that they know you don’t know the answer to. In these cases, they definitely don’t want you to say “I don’t know,” but to hypothesize based on what you do know.
  3. Sometimes it might be helpful to repeat the question. This helps especially if you are nervous (which most people are). It helps to make sure that you understand what is being asked of you. Also, it helps the committee know that you understood the question. The biggest help, though, is that it helps you get started. Many find it to be a comfort to use this as a way of setting their rhythm.
  4. Try to avoid long pauses. See points 1, 2 and 3.
  5. Know your committee. You will be given a list of your committee members ahead of time. Many students find it helpful to find out what their field of expertise is, their current research, and their own academic background. It makes sense that many of their questions will be delivered from these areas. We must stress that this is not a good strategy overall, as committee members can be changed at any time...right up to just before your exam! Of course, many students find it comforting just knowing about the members.