Second Language Studies/ESL PRELIMS

An introductory guide

Finishing up the coursework is just the first step in the PhD (or MA) degree seeking process. According to the Graduate Student Manual, there are 8 necessary steps for a successful completion of the PhD. So after you have finished (or close to finishing up) your coursework for both your primary and secondary areas, the next step to take in order to remain in the ring is to take the preliminary examination. This, however, only pertains to PhD students. M.A. requirements after the coursework can be found here.

24/7 OPTION (A.K.A. Sit-Down / Take Home Option)

What lies ahead of you when you finish your coursework? The Preliminary Examination.
This option resembles actual exams. It is composed of two separate parts: a 24-hour exam and a 7-day exam. You basically take both exams home and work on them at home, however in a much more shorter time period. A basic restriction of this type of examination is that you can only take it in two months of the year, either August or March. August can probably work very well with your schedule since many students do not teach in the summer semester, thus you can really focus only on the exam. I see no such advantage with the March date. Similarly to the four papers, the 24-hour part examines your knowledge in the four core areas: theory, curriculum, quantitative research and qualitative research. Studying for the exam seems pretty straightforward. You get a reading list of books and articles to prepare from. Then you will get four questions based on those four areas. The 7-day exam is similar to the four papers in respect that you get to choose the topic you want to write about. Basically, you suggest several topics that are related to you research interests and dissertation area, and then your professor picks one of them. Your job is to write an essay on the respective topic. Both 24-hour and 7-day exams are then evaluated and you need to get a “Pass” on both of them. The rest of the process is similar to the four-paper exam. The final result of your efforts will be announced to you by the English Graduate Office.

Set of three papers OPTION

Writing the papers is not just that: sitting down, doing the research, and writing three papers. A lot of bureaucracy is also involved with deadlines you don’t want to miss, and steps you want to follow.  After you decide on this option for your prelims, you need to figure out what is that is actually required from you. Here is what the “Graduate Study in ESL: A Guide for Students and Faculty” tells you:

  • Three 20-page (5000-word) papers written over a period of several months
  • Each paper topic corresponds to one of the core areas: theory, quantitative research, qualitative research, and curriculum
  • Students are encouraged to relate the focus of these papers to their particular areas of interest and research for the dissertation
  • The papers are new projects, not extensions or revisions of prior work (p. 10)

To begin, you need to meet the professor you took the respective course with (ENGL 516, 518, 565, and 618) and decide on the issues you could successfully discuss in the paper, also trying to figure out how the respective topic will later on fit into your dissertation. At this time you should also discuss when your professor expects you to hand in the possible drafts and/or the final paper, as well as any other special requirements your professor has.

The first important deadline for you in the paper process is the registration for the exam in the English Graduate Office, which should be done at the beginning of the semester you choose to be the first semester of you prelim. From this time on, and no later than the end of the fourth week of the semester, you also need to write a 250-word summary of each paper for the particular professor and give the professor a copy. Here are some samples of such summaries.

When all three summaries are completed, the Graduate Office secretary will mark down the official starting point (date) of your prelim exam period. At this point, you also need to submit to your major advisor the form: “Checklist for the Three-Paper Preliminary Examination” that can be found in the “Graduate Study in ESL: A Guide for Students and Faculty” or the “English Graduate Manual”. Both these manuals can be found online on the departmental website.

Now you have several months to successfully pass your prelim exam by writing and handing in the three papers. Successful completion of this process means a grade of “Pass” on each paper. However, not meeting the required deadlines may result in a “No Pass.”

What you need to keep in mind regarding deadlines is that the paper you consider the final version might not be the actual final version. Therefore, you need to submit it at least four weeks prior to the submission of the version considered final by your professor. This way you get the chance to revise or address any problems your professor might find in your paper.

Wow! You submitted all three papers? Great job! Now each professor will evaluate and comment on your papers in two weeks after receiving them. If your paper is in good shape and no more revisions are required, your professors will present the grade they assigned to your paper to the ESL program director, Prof. Margie Berns who will forward the final grade to the English Graduate Office.

Now, you still don’t know what is going on behind the scenes? No wonder. You are not supposed to be notified by any of your professors of where you stand. The English Graduate Office is the official party who can notify you of the final grade.

A tip to help you get by: When writing the three papers, you may think to give yourself one month for each paper. This could work, but in my experience, the first paper takes the longest, while the second and third papers take a little less time. The reason for this is because you need to read A LOT before starting on these papers. But, once you’ve done A LOT of reading for the first paper, you may be able to pull from those readings for the second and third papers as well; so the reading load becomes less. Also, plan on having a guilt-free low-productivity week in between each paper.

One more tip: Reward yourself! Writing these three papers will be stressful! (Understatement of the century). I recommend putting a reward at the end of each paper, whether that be drinks with co-prelimers, or a trip to the salon. You will need to relax periodically to make it through this process! And don’t forget to breathe! :)

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