The Definitive FYE Guide

I put in so much study time for this exam!

The First Year Exam is a big deal for PhD students at our department at UCSC. However, there’s not much transparency on what the test actually is and not enough guidance on how to study for it 1. It is in the best interest of our department for as many PhD students to pass as possible. So I decided to put together this guide to the FYE.

I’ve divided this guide into several parts:

  • Overview
  • Grading
  • Resources (Old Exams & Anki Flashcards)
  • Test-Taking Strategy
  • Advice

The views and opinions expressed here are my own and does not necessary reflect the views of the department.

Overview

The FYE has two parts:

  • In-class: a four-hour test, with 5 sections from all 1st yr classes except 204
  • Take-home: 48 hour take-home. Mostly focused on 204 and 207.

Here I focus on the in-class portion of the test here because more students fail this portion than the take-home. Also you will have chances to practice the take-home through your classes.

General Timeline is the following.

  • Finals Week Spring Quarter: First Attempt
  • Summer: Could be spent studying again for the retake.
  • Mid-September: Retake.

See advice section for more details.

Grading

So the in-class section of the FYE gives you 4 hours to solve 5 sections (sets of problems) from 203, 205B, 206, 207, and 208. Each set of 5 questions is graded by 2 faculty members. They grade very strictly. From what I can tell, each question is generally categorized into 3 categories: clear pass, borderline pass, and fail.

To get a clear pass on each question, you need to get the question almost completely right. Hence, it’s better to think of the test a measure of mastery, not competence. Partial credit is given but that can reduce your chances of passing if you make enough mistakes elsewhere.

This is a BIG contrast to the lenient nature of grading in your actual classes.

This mismatch lead to unexpected surprises for my cohort.

The criteria for passing the test overall seems to be situationally dependent.
Generally speaking, it seems that you cannot pass if you fail 2 of the 5 sections.

Resources

Old Exams

Here is a Google Drive link to all of the former exams that I have access to (need a UCSC account to access).

Important Note: The more recent exams are substantially more difficult than previous years. It’s okay to first take an easier exam to “warm up” but more of your attention should be dedicated to the more difficult exams. The difficult exams (in my opinion) are: 2022R, 2022, 2021, & 2015. Also good practice: 2020 and 2018.

Note that there is also this link provided by Jizhou Kang. You need to log-in to RStudio to view.

Flashcards

Flashcards are really painful to do. But meticulously and continuously doing them was extremely helpful. Here are links to my Anki Decks. Make sure you customize them to your needs because that will help you study as well. You’ll notice that the frequentist classes have a lot more to memorize.

Some professors de-emphasize the importance of memorization to discourage blind memorization. However, informed memorization was very helpful in increasing the speed and accuracy of my work. By informed memorization, I mean memorizing results AND being to derive it (if necessary).

These work on Anki, which is free to download on desktop.

Test-Taking Strategy

Pacing

The exam gives you 42 min/section with 30 minutes to check your work at the end. However, there’s a huge variance in terms of how long each section takes (ex: 207 tends to be the longest).

There simply is not enough time to be fully solving out problems.

For example, deriving the conjugate posteriors for MCMC should come natural enough for you to be able to skip steps. This can be achieved via a combination of repetition and memorization.

Ideally you should save at least 20 min at the end to check your answers (even if you haven’t completed everything). It is incredibly difficult to not make mistakes during a 4 hour test.

Stuck on a problem? Do everything else.

This is basic test-strategy but if you’re stuck on a problem, do everything else first (including checking your work). Given the grading, it is far better to get 4/5 sections perfectly than dwell on one problem/section at the expense of making easy to catch mistakes. I personally dwelled on a problem I couldn’t solve during my first attempt. This led to me forgo error checking and making a critical but easy to catch mistake.

Be Organized & Clear

Your solution should be organized and the notation should be clear. Certain professors are very formal. I got marked down for not fully explaining my MCMC algorithm (setting up iteration indices, initial values). Being organized also helps you check your work / trace back your thinking.

Prep Advice

In terms of prep, I would review almost everything (you can ask former students for specifics). You should be able to re-do examples from class, HW problems, and midterms (with less time) without looking anything up. Your HW and past exams from your instructors are a going to be the closest analog to what you will get on the exam.

I would take at least 5+ full-length practice tests to work up the stamina necessary for the exam.

WARNING: 203 (probability) seems basic so people do NOT review. But many people get stuck on the 203 section on their FYEs.

For those without substantial prior background

Your peers who have substantial prior background are naturally going to have an advantage. I personally did not have a masters degree coming in all of my other peers had ~2 years of Masters classes under their belt.

Specifically, there were people in my cohort who barely learned anything new their first year (even the Bayesian stuff). They only really studied a week or two before for the FYE. Not coincidentally, they were the only people in my year who passed the exam on their first attempt.

But if you’re not one of these people, it’s okay. You simply need to study more to close the gap! :)

The fact is, there is NOT enough time for the material for classes you’re taking during the spring quarter to sink in. Thus, it is very important to start studying early. I’d start studying during the fall by doing the following before winter quarter 2.

  1. Here is a list of suggested problems from CB
  2. Review Multivariate Normal Dist (see lec 5 & 6)
  3. Know how to complete the square (matrix version)
  4. Do the first HW for 206B see here for that content.

Setting Realistic Expectations

In the last two years (2021-2022), about half of PhD students have failed the first attempt but a huge majority of students have passed on the second attempt. Historically I think everyone with a previous Master’s degree have passed. The timing of the first attempt makes it difficult to pass, especially for students without substantial prior background. That’s ok if you don’t pass the first attempt. You will have the whole summer to review. Probably due to additional review, most students pass on their second attempt.

For those who need to retake the exam

For those who need to retake the exam, I’d generally keep your summer as open as possible. The pressures of a retake is stressful enough, there’s no need to over-complicate your life.
Specifically, I would TA the first half and then study intensively the second half. I don’t recommend doing an internship unless it is part-time or ends in mid-August.

I studied ~18 hours a week over 9 weeks. I thought this was overkill but I’m really glad I did that. I also did not seriously start doing flashcards until the summer, which boosted my knowledge a lot.

I personally think the fatigue from a fast-paced spring quarter leads to a less-than optimal mental/physical state for the first attempt. For that reason, I would make sure you’ve planned your summer so you’re not studying too hard close to the exam. Prioritize rest.

Failing the exam the first time and the summer that followed were extremely challenging for me mentally. Be easy on yourself. Best of luck! Contact my UCSC email if you wanna talk.


  1. This is especially true for students without substantial prior background. 

  2. I was out of school for a few years so I started in the summer before. I don’t regret this.