Section Editor: Aneesa A. Baboolal
7 Tips To Begin Preparing for Comprehensive/Qualifying Exams Over Summer Break
While summer provides a change of pace from the academic year, it is also an ideal time to begin preparing for comprehensive exams. Regardless of whether your qualifying exams are oral, written or a combination of both, organization, diligent preparation and practice are necessary to overcome this program requirement.
Ideally, students meticulously save coursework notes related to their areas of study as they progress through their programs however, some departments do not provide reading lists until the semester right before the exam making planning ahead a difficult task. Comprehensive exams may seem intimidating but can be conquered with adequate preparation, effective organization and implementing strategies that are best suited to your needs.
As a ‘Comps’ survivor, I hope the tips provided in this article helps you overcome the seemingly daunting task of preparing for your qualifying exams.
- Be kind to your future self through early preparation. Planning ahead means having your study materials ready and available for immediate reference. For me, this meant spending a week searching for required articles from the reading lists, requesting books from the library and also collecting book reviews from several perspectives. Knowing that some books would be unavailable, I also allotted time to asking advanced grad students about their books, as well as purchasing some online, making photocopies of chapters and requesting materials from other libraries. While this task seems time consuming, it will be worth it a few weeks down the road when everything you need is at your fingertips as you work!
- Develop a schedule for studying for your exams. I began preparing for my first exam in the summer time. I scheduled my days as a full-time work day with breaks including one for lunch. The rest of the day was allotted for reading and working on my notes. To have better flexibility with this type of schedule, it would be best to gather all of your study materials ahead of time and setting up daily, weekly, or even monthly goals to make adequate progress on your reading list(s).
- Checking in with the exam committee as well as talking to students who have taken comps are also helpful for determining the best strategies and practices. Everyone prepares differently for exams yet, obtaining an understanding of committee expectations and suggestions from advanced graduate students in your program will be helpful as you progress. For example, in my discussions with successful graduate students, I learned that comp responses should be more of an essay style of writing rather than a literature review, gained insight on acceptable formatting guidelines given the time limits and figured out best practices for citations.
- Creating a literature synthesis matrix helps to organize notes by theme and area. Various websites can provide tips on the best way to create literature matrices however, I would suggest using a Google sheet, Excel or even AirTable to create columns that will help you cite and memorize your work. For example, having columns for author/citation (especially if you are required to recall dates for your exam), title of article/book, summary (in your own words or an abstract), connection to other themes in the sub-area you’re studying and related works. Having foundational knowledge committed to memory also aids in developing your argument and perspective as you read other seminal works in your field. A matrix will also help you to identify shifts in theoretical frameworks over time especially if you plan to discuss historical and contemporary implications in your field.
- Be creative and flexible with your study methods. Creating a note-taking system that works effectively for you can easily translate into innovative methods of learning and memorization. For example, my matrix system was helpful for creating notecards for studying later however, this process was quite tedious. If you are more of a visual learner, I would recommend creating PowerPoint presentations of the sub-areas to ‘teach yourself’ main ideas and provide context for the readings. Additionally, this will also improve your public speaking skills as you practice your ‘comp lectures’. I also watched videos of scholars featured in my reading lists which can easily be found online and can range from symposiums to interviews on their recent publications. Furthermore, I listened to a few books on Audible as I did chores around my apartment. This helped break up long days of sitting in front of a computer but also made studying part of my everyday life rather than a daily task to be dreaded.
- Practice taking the exam! Give yourself the opportunity to take a practice exam by preparing a question in advance of the exam under similar conditions that you will experience on exam day. Some programs may encourage or even require a practice exam be taken. While it seems like another hurdle, it is a chance to work out logistical issues and give you a better sense of what you need to do to be successful under timed and sometimes stressful conditions. If your exam committee can review your practice exam, you should embrace this opportunity as this insight will provide clarification on exam expectations. In terms of preparation, I also liked creating a ‘citation outline’ for potential topic areas which I later implemented on exam day to outline all of my questions before I began writing. For example, ask yourself, if a particular question was presented to you on the exam, which seminal works/academics would you cite to answer it? If you have access to comprehensive exams from previous years in your department, you can use these as practice. Citation outline will also aid in your memorization of authors and dates but also tests your expertise in sub-areas and connectedness to broader topics.
- Take breaks as needed. Scheduling in breaks, including days off and away from studying will not only rejuvenate your body but will also help your mind process what you’ve read. Trying to juggle summer jobs along with my ‘full-time comp schedule’ meant that I also had to plan writing time on weekends however, I tried to limit this to just Saturdays (if needed) and only half a day. I also designated time off at the beginning of summer and again at least a few days off before the actual exam. (Don’t forget that cramming never works!) Comprehensive exams are stressful as it is, so remember to take care of yourself!
Regardless of the strategies you utilize to move beyond your comprehensive exams into doctoral candidacy, remember that organization, preparation, and implementing fitting strategies are key! Comprehensive exams are also an opportunity to learn more about your future area of expertise and you might even find a potential dissertation topic while sifting through all of the literature. Overall, enjoy the process as much as you can and soon enough, you will be on the other side!