Most universities (at least in North America) have the concept of "Qualification Exams" taken one year after the student joins the graduate course. These usually encompass all that was done in the first year and as undergraduate and might also test some other (research abilities) of the student by asking him to present papers (s)he found interesting.
Some universities treat this as a formality and everyone who attempts usually gets through while some universities take quals very seriously and won't allow the student to continue if he fails the quals (maybe, they will allow for 2nd attempt). These universities might subscribe reading lists consisting of textbooks and papers which comprises of "must-have" knowledge of the field. The latter might constitute as a difficult phase for students who find themselves ill prepared in a certain portion of the exam. (For instance, a pure math undergrad moving to a PhD in Fluid Mechanics and asked to attempt an exam on Fluid Machines)
Assuming STEM graduate course in a university which takes quals seriously (with a structure of written test > oral exam > interview/research proposal presentation),
How should a student approach these exams? Specifically,
- How is it any different from the undergraduate exams that students give?
- Do you really "prepare" for these exams or should you bank on the courses you have taken and the homework you solved to get you through?
- Repeatedly, I have been told by students (across departments and across institutes) that the faculty is only interested in the oral section of quals as a sanity check and to see whether you have the urge for learning something new; is this universally true?
At my university (in the US), the quals are a big deal -- both written and oral. The written quals are the tough ones because the oral quals, here, deal only with your research and as you should be reasonably well read in the literature in your field of research, no one really fails the orals.
The written quals need substantial preparation. For my quals (Fluids/Thermodyanics/Heat transfer) back in 2008, I had to work and study hard for about 10-12 hours a day for 3 months straight.
There were several students who didn't make it through the first attempt and had to go through it all over again the next year. Some (miniscule number) didn't make it the second time around and were discharged with a master's degree.
So to answer your question:
- It is very university and area of specialization, the difficulty level and importance given to written qualifiers.
- To be safe, study up hard like you never have before.
- You may have other responsibilities like grants, classes to teach, assignments to do and research but you just have to balance all these.
Good luck! It is just a matter of hard work, thats all!
-Will be getting my PhD in mechanical engineering at the end of Fall 2012.