Qual Problem Binder

Jonathan's suggestions on how to create a useful Qual Problem Binder (or spiral)..

The process of making the binder is almost as useful as having the completed binder at the end.

Get several spirals, or a few multi-subject spirals. Each spiral/section should have a dedicated subject.

Designate at least one section for each of the E&M, Mech, Math, Stat Mech, Quantum, Misc. subjects and one for "general equations/knowledge". I wouldn't recommend too many more dedicated sections unless you wanted to break a subject up into two — E&M into "E&M Boundary Value Problems" and "E&M Other" for example.

Make yourself solve and write 3 good, clear, and detailed solutions per day into your binder.

I recommend having a calendar on your wall that you put a large red X on the days you wrote the 3 solutions into your spiral.

Each problem gets it own page.

Here's the process:

The spiral is for pristine solutions only. You write the solutions into the binder only once you've already worked them completely and accurately.

So, you've worked a good problem on scratch paper. Did it completely on your own, or with help from others, or looking up equations in a book, or after checking with the solution.

On the top line of the page write out the problem prompt, date, qual year and season, prob #.

Below that, write up the solution in clear and neat handwriting. Making full use of the space — this is the only problem going on this page. Write the solution out again with all the needed steps, and all the equations you needed to look up at each step. Write out a sentence or two if a particular spot was tricky about how you work past it.

Here's an important tip!

In the blank space at the top of the page write any equation that you had to look up, or any part of the problem that you found tricky, or really, anything specific that you think you need to remember.

If you miss a day, or only get 2 problems done one day, don't try to make it up the next day, just get 3 down the next day.

If you ever feel like doing more in a particular day, go ahead, but you don't get to count any excesses you do for any other days.

If you hit 3 each day, you'll have a solid base of problems solved so that in the week before the qual, you can leisurely flip through your spiral and immediately see the spots that gave you trouble, as well as how you worked through each part of each problem.

Don't feel bad about putting in a few really short problems to count toward your 3. Not every problem gets to be some masterpiece of physics insight.

Even if you start this only 1 month before the qual, you'll have 90 problems in your spiral come test day.

Why do this?

It helps solidify the solution when you rewrite the problems out. Also, explaining the hard steps will help you remember those thought processes. Especially if you're writing the explanation for your future self to understand what you were doing when looking back over the particular problem. And finally, it is very useful in the week before the exam itself.

The week before the exam you'll probably ease up on the number of brand new problems that you're trying to solve. In any case, you'll be able to go through your spirals and quickly note a number of things.

First, you'll probably remember most of each problem that you wrote, but importantly, you can glance at the top of the page and be reminded of exactly which equations (if any) you had to look up, or a definition that you needed to memorize.

You can read through your solution and should be able to follow the logic of the solution in the words and ideas that YOU found to be useful.

Now here are scans of a few pages from my Qual Problem Spirals… to show a rough example of what I mean. My spiral sort of evolved into the final idea that I presented on this page.

One semi-cheesy thing to consider is to use different colors when writing up the solutions. Even just between the problem prompt and the solution.

The scans are in color, but it's surprisingly hard to see that I sometimes used different colors.

Here's a link to a pdf of the pages that I scanned in.









These last two show pages from the "General Knowledge/memorize this" section.

Take some time to lay out the things you need to memorize in a sensible way…


"Sensible way" is whatever is best for you, obviously, but here's a quick example of something that worked for me:


Notice that the equations at the bottom are written out such that they have the same form. This means that the 'curly letters' (D and B) are on the same side of the equations. Same with the boundary conditions, they are grouped by what's similar: D and B both get perpendicular, E and H get parallel…

If you can keep the physics behind what D, H, B and E stand for, then memorizing them in the easiest form is often the fastest.

Links to images of the other pages scanned:

pg 4

pg 6

pg 7

pg 8

pg 9

pg 10

pg 11

pg 12

pg 15

pg 18

pg 19

pg 20

pg 21

pg 22

pg 23

pg 24

pg 25

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