How to “Rock” your Prelims*

Figure 1: Cats are not a useful prelim aid.

I have a number of friends in grad school who are taking  prelim exams this month. Also called “comps” or “quals”, these comprehensive exams are a notorious crucible during students’ early years in the program. Depending on your department and subfield, prelims can range from a full day, closed-book onslaught that forces you to simultaneously remember the type of currency used in the Achaemenid empire, the evidence for language capacity in neanderthals and the intellectual history of middle range theory, to an open-book extravaganza lasting ten days and requiring you to write upwards of a hundred pages.  I remember little of my prelim semester except for barricading myself into my apartment, consuming vast quantities of yogurt-covered pretzels and Coke Zero, and clinging desperately to other members of my cohort whenever I saw them; their fatigued, shell-shocked countenances were the only expressions that mirrored my own sense of impending disaster. That entire autumn I felt like a character in an H.P. Lovecraft story – the sense of nauseating dread gradually increased over the course of the semester, becoming less and less bearable until it culminated in….a ferocious attack of unspeakably horrible trans-dimensional entities. By which I mean, that tricky question about chiefdoms we’d all been rather hoping to avoid.

I’ve shared this before elsewhere, but this is the playlist I made that semester to musically represent my overall prelim experience. It’s actually a pretty defensible set on its own, and could, I think, be profitably used during any period that your adrenalin and cortisol levels are seriously spiking.


Figure 2: Music IS a useful prelim aid. See also: “Pretzel M&Ms”.

Years later, with far more knowledge and experience under my belt (Editor’s Note: purportedly…), I think that this is really the only song the playlist was missing.

* If you thought this was going to be a helpful post providing useful hints on how to DO WELL on your prelims, my apologies – you have come to the wrong place. Though I do strongly encourage the use of your favorite snacks as an inspirational tool, a strategy my friend Alice Wright has aptly termed “motif-food”. This is also a useful strategy when grading.

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