5 Tips for Surviving and Succeeding Your Comprehensive Exams

Last week, I was invited to give a guest talk on my experience with comprehensive exams (comps, for short) for the graduate students who are currently taking “MLCS 798 Comprehensive Exams Colloquium” and who will be writing their comps later this year. The colloquium is taught by Dr. Victoria Ruetalo who kindly invited me to share my tips on surviving and succeeding your comprehensive exams. This blog post is an overview of my talk and you can have a look at the original slides in the slideshow just below.

1. READ STRATEGICALLY

When I started reading, I wanted to read everything in detail. After all, there were many exciting and interesting texts on my reading list. And, as I thought at first, you never know what they might ask (not entirely true, but I’ll come back to this below). Your lists are long, so you very likely will not have the time to read and understand everything in detail – nor do you need to. Often your committee members will focus on the headlines when they craft their questions; so, so should you! If you can answer the following questions for each text, you got a good grasp of them:

  • In one sentence, what is the author trying to show or prove?
  • What main arguments do they use to support their claim/hypothesis?
  • Do you agree with the author(s)? What are the strengths and weaknesses of their argument?
  • How does this text relate to other texts on your reading list?

The last question I found to be especially helpful while I was reading. It is not very likely, in my experience, that committee members will ask you questions about one text or author only (unless maybe they are extremely important and unique in the field). Rather they will ask you to comment on a key term, a tendency, discussion, or a general idea by using multiple readings from your list. Compare and contrast, thinking about similarities and differences between the texts while you read (and take notes) will come in very handy when writing your comps. The comps week is busy enough as it is, so you’ll thank yourself for having thought about these connections beforehand!

Once you understand the main arguments of a text and have thought about connections or disconnects with other texts, move on! Don’t get stuck on the details, the footnotes, or detailed analyses of novels, poems, video games, films the author elaborates on. I know it can be scary to stop reading before you’ve grasped every detail or read the full text (yes, it’s okay to not read the complete full-length monographs from start to finish); in the end, however, it is way more fruitful to have read everything decently than half of it perfectly. If there are texts you are unsure about when you ‘finish’ reading them, you could get back to them in your study period (see tip 3).

2. TAKE NOTES

Take notes while you read! And take lots of them. The more and better notes you write while you are working your way through the readings, the less you will have to write during your comprehensive exams.

When I started working on my reading list, I spent some time thinking about what note taking system would work for me. I’d recommend you to give it some thought too, pick one system and stick to it. Usually, I am a huge fan of pen and paper, but I thought that for comps it might come in handy to have the notes digitally, so I could copy paste easily. So, I chose to use Evernote – I liked this one, but there are many other note taking systems out there that might fit your needs. In Evernote I created one note for each reading, and I divided it into the following sections:

  1. Title, author, date read, and the list it appeared on (since my reading list was made up of two separate sublists)
  2. Main question/goal of article (in one sentence)
  3. Abstract/summary (either copy-pasted if available or a few lines in my own words)
  4. Key arguments (in bullet points; and in case of complete books divided by chapter)
  5. Important quotes (limit it to a few for each text)
  6. Keywords (Evernote has a tag function which helped me tremendously in filtering my notes by key term)
  7. Cross-references (for compare and contrast purposes; e.g. contrasts with, builds on, resonates with, applies to, etc)
  8. MLA reference
  9. Miscellaneous (for any random questions or thoughts that popped up during my reading)

I admit that it takes time and effort to create notes for each text like this, but it definitely paid of! During comps week, I was able to copy and paste sentences and even whole segments from my notes to work them into my answers. That saved me a lot of headaches during that already intense week. An added bonus to taking extensive notes: you might be able to use them again even after comps! I find myself referring to them pretty regularly – for my research proposal and candidacy, for example. So no need to throw them out of the window once you’re done your comps, save them and use them wisely.

3. TAKE TIME TO STUDY

One of the most helpful phases of comps prep for me was study time. I finished reading a few weeks before the exams which gave me time to study. Obviously, you don’t need to learn anything by heart since you’re allowed to use all your notes, articles, books, and scribbles during the exam, but study nonetheless. Go over your notes (especially the ones that you worked on longest ago); return briefly to the texts that you felt unsure about and give them a second glance/read, and think some more about connections between the texts.

In addition to going over my notes again, there were a few other study strategies/practices that proved very useful to me. First of all, try to come up with potential questions and ‘answer’ them. Meet with your committee members if you can: talk to them about your readings and listen carefully to what and how they respond. From there, you might get clues as to what questions they might ask. If you can’t meet with your committee members, do some research and find out where there research interests lie (you probably know this already); there is a good chance they will ask questions related to their interests. One of my committee members, for example, was finishing a book manuscript on Indigenous feminisms and intersectionality at the time I was reading, and on my exam I got a question precisely about that – and I was ready to answer it. If you want and have time take this a step further: ‘write’ answers to the potential questions you thought of. I made a note for each potential question and then copy-pasted relevant sections from my reading notes. This way I had plenty of material to work with when they popped a question I had predicted.

Second, think about the key terms that make up the core of your reading list. Make sure you can define them and talk about controversies around them. I made my own “comprehensive exams dictionary” that included main terms with short definitions and references to which texts talked about it in more detail. Even though your committee members might not ask you to define a term, I found this really helpful for clarity in my mind – and it came in handy when I was writing my research proposal for candidacy too.

Third, and this is a rather small thing you can do, prep your bibliography in advance. There is nothing more annoying than having to worry about your bibliography when you’re stressing out for a deadline. To avoid unnecessary added stress during your comprehensive exams, make sure your bibliography is all good to go; during your exam all you’ll have to do is copy and paste the references you ended up using.

If you’re short on time towards the start of the exams, prioritize! Focus on the things that will probably save you most time and energy during your exams.

4. WRITE STATEGICALLY

As you have probably noticed, preparing for your comprehensive exams is all about strategy: work smarter not harder. The same applies to writing your comprehensive exams. The most important thing to keep in mind is: it does not have to be perfect! You only have limited time to answer the questions, and your committee members know this. They will not be expecting perfect essays. However, they do expect you to answer the question. So my advice is stick to the point, keep it short (no need to go into extensive details), and write clearly. Each of my answers started with a super short (like 2 or 3 line) introduction stating my answer in a nutshell and signaling the plan of the essay; this was followed by a logically structured exposé of the main arguments/components of the answer; and I ended each essay with a short (again, a few lines will do) conclusion restating the answer.

“Stick to the point, keep it short, and write clearly”

There are multiple strategies to tackling the writing. Many of my fellow students wrote one essay a day, and this worked well for them. I took a slightly different approach which suited me very well. The first day of my comps I devoted to drawing up a plan/outline for each of the questions. I wrote the short intros for each question, created a rough structure with headline sentences and ideas for answering the question, and copy-pasted bits and pieces from my notes into each outline. This gave me a good idea of where I was at: I realized I was comfortable enough with six questions, and rather unsure about the seventh. The next days I worked on transforming the outlines and bits and pieces into well-structured, flowing essays. I started with one of the easier questions to get in the flow, tackled the most difficult one next, and then the remaining questions, leaving the ‘easiest’ for last. This strategy meant that some days I worked on two questions, but I didn’t mind that. I reserved the last day for edits: I went over each answer, made some minor changes, added the works cited, and ran a spell check. Making a plan for the comps week will set you up for success. But be flexible with the plan! If you’re in the flow one day, work a bit longer and write some more; if you have a bad day, take care of yourself!

5. YOU DO YOU

Throughout this blog I have shared the strategies that have worked for me and I hope they will help you too. However, I know that students have very different ways of working, so what worked for me, might not work for you. So, you do you!

When and where are you most productive? I realize that with this pandemic we don’t always get a say in where and when we work, but if you do have some flexibility and options, think about when and where you work best, and use that to your advantage, during preparations as well as during your exams. I’m a morning person, so I did the bulk of my reading and writing between 8.30 and 13.00 and left the lighter and easier texts for ‘lazy afternoons’. If you’re a night owl, don’t try to replicate my schedule. You have a lot of reading and writing to do, so keeping up motivation and momentum is key. I can guarantee you that you’ll have bad reading days, and that’s totally okay. Step away for a bit, refresh your mind, and come back the next day.

During the preparations, take time for yourself! Step away from your readings regularly, eat yummy (and healthy), treat yourself to a massage, go see a movie, go for a walk, get out into nature, or do whatever makes you happy and helps you relax. As for the exam week, do some meal prep up front so you’ll have back up meals in the freezer (in case you don’t have time or don’t feel like cooking), secure support from family and friends, and again, you know best what you need to survive and succeed that week. Some people thrive on cocooning that week focusing completely on the exams; I’m not that kind of person so I went for daily walks (even if it was just half an hour) and even met up with friends once or twice (also rather short, but it helped me refresh my mind and stay motivated). At the end of the week, when you’re done your comps, don’t forget to take a break and celebrate!

BONUS: ENJOY

There aren’t many times in your life when you can devote all (or, at least, almost all) your attention to just reading. Plus, you picked your topic and most readings, so I assume you’re interested and excited about your material. So… ENJOY! Comprehensive exams, both prep and the actual exams, can be daunting and overwhelming at times, but overall I immensely enjoyed my readings. It has almost been a year since I successfully passed my comps and I’m still inspired by many texts and authors I read for comps.

In general, your committee members want to see you succeed and if you have done your readings and preparation, you will do fine on your comprehensive exams. You got this!

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