In order to advance to doctoral candidacy almost all programs require that the student demonstrate his or her competence in the field of psychology in preliminary, comprehensive, or qualifying exams. Generally, there are two parts, the written portion and the oral portion.
The written exam may consist of essay and/or multiple choice questions. It may take one day or several days, depending on the school and the philosophy of the graduate program. The subject matter of the exam also varies. Some programs limit it to the students' major and minor; others require a broader more comprehensive knowledge base. Some departments provide a list of questions that will be asked, beforehand; others require students to take, in their core program, a series of courses designed to provide the knowledge they will need on the exams; some departments simply tell the students the range of subject areas in which they can be expected to be tested. Some departments set up the exam so that the student's preparation for it is also preparation for his or her dissertation proposal.
Generally, students prepare for these exams for several months by reviewing coursework that's been completed, by reading material related to the questions that will be asked, or by developing the dissertation proposal.
Once the written exam is graded, an oral exam is scheduled. A number (3-5) of faculty ask questions of the student, relating to various areas of psychology. This can be a second chance for the student; if some of the student's answers on the written portion were weak, he or she can expect to be asked about those areas in some detail.
Passing the written and oral portions of the qualifying exam advances the student to doctoral candidacy. The student is now ready to develop his or her dissertation proposal.