How to Pass Your Writtens!

Successfully passing your comprehensive exams will involve a fair bit of organization beforehand on your part. As always, the best way to get a grip on these exams is to talk to people. Talk to the grad students to hear what the exams are actually like. We're all more than willing to help you out.

Written Qualifying Exam

As of the 2013-14 academic year, the requirements for the Planetary Science Ph. D. include a written comprehensive exam, to be completed before attempting the oral comprehensive exam. As of 2022, only a manuscript-style written exam is offered. The manuscript can be a draft of a research paper, a literature review for the student's topic, or an instrument development paper. All papers are expected to be 12-25 publication units (similar to AGU papers), where 1 PU = 500 words or 1 figure.

A two-page summary of the paper is due by the 3rd semester and the first draft must be submitted no later than your 5th semester. Note that you must complete the written exam before you can do the oral exam though, so it is beneficial to submit early. After the first draft is submitted to your written exam committee, you will either pass or you will receive feedback and comments on the draft. After the first draft, you get two chances to make edits and re-submit for the paper to be approved and pass the exam. 

You can always check the latest versions of the Ph. D. Requirements and Procedures posted on LPL's official website. A timeline more detailed timeline and requirements are also posted there:

Ph. D. Degree Requirements

Advice from grads who passed the manuscript-style written comps (i.e., post-2021):

Galen Bergsten

  • In your first committee meeting or email thread, work to set some clear expectations. I'd recommend having an introductory meeting before the two-page summary is due, where you set an explicit end goal of (a) the kind of paper you'll write, (b) the timeline and (c) the vibe you'll try to capture in your writing (i.e., what's the audience). One pitfall of the written process is that, if communication is stale, different committee members can want different things that will pull you in too many directions. Once everyone's expectations are focussed onto one point, the process and your experience will go a lot smoother. The standing member can be a great help here, since it's partly their job to standardize the exam process across all grads.
  • Make the product of this exam something that will benefit you as a person, not just an academic trying to pass their quals. This process can be rewarding if your end goal is something that fulfills you. If you feel like doing a literature deep dive and making a comprehensive review will further you or your interests/projects/career, then maybe a literature review would fit for you. If you want practice writing a research manuscript or get your research on people's radars, maybe a draft research paper is the right fit. The same goes for an instrumentation proposal if that's what fits your vision of you. Many difficulties (including emotional) that folks face with this exam come about when their heart's not in it, especially when their committee shoeboxes them into a writeup that doesn't feel right. In the same vein, you don't have to implement everything your committee asks (provided you've got a good reason), and defending your decisions is good practice for your orals. It's your exam that's designed to further your career along your path -- and it's okay to fight for what you want.
  • If you're struggling, don't reinvent the wheel. Enough grads have gone through this process that a support network now exists, and you should absolutely ask for help at any stage. Hit people up for templates or examples, ask people to review your writing before sending it to your committees, and reach out to peers (or even the standing member) if you feel stuck. 


  • Tips and advice



OLD Advice from grads who passed the test-style written comps (i.e., the one offered pre-2022). This test format is no longer offered, but the info is archived here for now.

Jess Vriesema

  • Know what to study
    • Know which classes will be covered: (4 physics, 2 geology, 2 chemistry), and what topics are covered by each course. 
      • For the courses you have taken, study the exams first. Then the homework and any general material from projects. Then course notes. This is your chance to really learn the material — which some say is the real purpose of the written comps. 
      • For the courses you have not taken, get a copy of somebody's notes, the homework and the exams. You'll likely know some of the material, but try to generally learn as much as you can in a little time. 
      • For courses with a list of covered topics, try to spend some time on each of those — if only to gain familiarity. 
    • Know who is on the faculty committee designing the exam. They may choose questions more related to their field of expertise. 
    • Be able to anticipate "likelier" questions
      • In my experience, most questions were based on major topics or concepts — things covered by several in-class examples and/or a few lectures. 
      • During lecture some instructors have said, "This would make a good comps [or exam] question!" Keep track of these somewhere. 
    • Know your weaknesses
      • For the courses you've taken, what topics were 
  • Know how to study
    • Review the biggest concepts first, and work your way to the more specific stuff. 
    • Broaden your knowledge/abilities: you do not need to know everything.
      • For areas you are more than proficient in (~10% of things), just keep it fresh. Don't study these topics unless you have a reason to do so. Any questions in this area will likely be geared at a more general audience than you, so you stand a good chance to solve it without additional studying. 
      • For topics you are quite familiar with (~40–50% of things), take a little more time. Make sure you know how to solve problems. Study terminology, equations, diagrams, special cases, and so on so that you can reproduce them. Work through in-class derivations. Review key minerals/chemicals. 
      • For things you aren't very familiar with (~30–40% of things), take the most time to review. You know enough to know what you don't know, so fill in the gaps. This is likely where your studying will make the biggest difference. 
      • For things you know almost nothing about (~20% of things), definitely take some time to familiarize yourself, but cut your losses and don't spend too much time. Study the general idea and maybe a few special topics you expect to make good headway with. Be realistic and learn what you can, but don't worry about learning an entire course of material in a week...from scratch. Hope there's only one or two questions that fall under this category. You can pass the course without knowing everything. Focus your skills elsewhere. 
  • Possible schedule:
    • 3 months prior: organize yourself.
      • Make a plan/schedule. Organize your class notes. Obtain copies of notes/homeworks/exams from other students for things you missed. 
      • Briefly look at everything. Make note of what you need to come back to later. 
      • Talk with your advisor to see how much time off they're willing to give you to study. Try to get a few weeks off. (After all, if you don't pass, it'll take time from your research in the future.) 
      • Aim for familiarity with everything. 
    • 2 months prior: evaluate
      • What topics do you need to focus on? What topics will you probably not make much progress with? 
      • Practice exam questions for each course, just to see how well you can do. 
      • Organize your knowledge. I made a "cheat sheet" for each course and filled it with useful information. I then referred to these papers while reviewing homework and exam questions. 
      • Identify "likely" questions (see above). 
      • Spend 2-4 days for each course, focusing on the important stuff. 
      • If there are any areas you are in dire need of help with, make sure to seek out another grad to help you study. 
      • Aim for a working knowledge of 80% of all topics — if you were asked a question, you'd at least know where to start. 
    • 1 month prior: practice
      • Go through the questions you need practice with. Focus on the ones you're less confident about. Challenge yourself with follow-up questions, if that helps. 
      • Review the things you need to memorize. 
      • Meet with other grads taking the exam to see what they think might be likely questions. See if they need help, and if so, try to help them. Be willing to ask for help, though perhaps of other grads who aren't taking the exam. 
      • Aim to be able to solve most homework/exam questions. Aim for confidence.
    • 2 weeks prior: memorize and prepare
      • Practice and/or memorize the most likely questions or topics several times over: not for familiarity, but for mastery. The more important they are, the more you should memorize them. 
      • Take care of your health. 
    • 1 week prior: dedicate yourself
      • If current events, social media, email (etc.) stress you out, block yourself off from them for several days. 
      • Make sure you sleep really well. Avoid overeating or drinking if they interfere with your sleep.
      • Plan a time (perhaps the night before?) to go out for dinner and celebrate with the other grads. 
    • 2 days prior:
      • Do whatever it takes to sleep well: you don't have any time left to cram, so don't stay up late cramming. At this point, all your efforts hinge on your ability to recall all the stuff you've been cramming the past 2-3 months. 

Good luck!