Comprehensive Exam Preparation

Comprehensive Exam Preparation

Tips offered by students who survived the experience.

How long should I spend studying?

  • Start working on your reading lists about three to four months before you plan to take comps.
  • First and foremost, stop freaking out! No, seriously. The truth of the matter is that if nothing else, you’ve proved your test-taking mettle over the past, oh, 20 some years of education. If there’s one thing you should be able to do at this point in your life, it is TAKE A TEST. Also, you are being asked questions about material you’ve been reading, studying, thinking and writing about for the past two or more years: It’s not totally unfamiliar to you. You do not have to bury yourself in the library with only water and a stale biscuit for the next six months. Frankly, I studied for just two (albeit pretty intense) weeks for comps, plus in between each of the individual exams, and things went fine! In fact, dare I say it…comps are kind of fun. You’ve never felt – and probably never will – smarter than you will after you are done.

How should I study?

  • For each topic, create a document (I use Excel), which connects the theories/studies/concepts/developments in the field from the various readings.
  • Create a document for each topic area with a list of the authors and the years of each study.
  • The Whiteboard Trick. I got me a big old whiteboard and lots of fun colored markers at Office Depot and put it up in my office at home. Before each of the exams, I basically summarized all of the key points from the reading list at hand on the whiteboard. This proved an excellent way of concisely collecting and organizing my thoughts, and made it easy for me to remember everything when I was in the hot seat.
  • Talk to your committee. MU’s comps are much more fair, in my book, than other schools where they don’t give you a reading list – seriously, you are just supposed to know “everything” about journalism and mass communications. As far as I know, all Mizzou professors will work with you to develop a reading list so you will know what is fair game and what to study. Also, while they won’t give you the question, most of the time they will give you some general idea of what they might ask – and presumably you know them well enough at this point that you have a sense for what kinds of things are most important to them.
  • Talk to your friends. You probably won’t have the same committee and you won’t have the same questions, but some of your smartest, most accessible and best resources are your fellow doc students. You can brainstorm together about what kinds of questions might be asked and how you can answer them; share relevant articles or notes, etc. Talking things out also helps gets your brain rolling as to how to make connections between ideas. This also can be a pleasurable activity occurring during the consumption of frosty beverages.
  • Keep your reading lists concise. Don’t put every book you can think of on the list. Have a reason for each book’s inclusion and run that list by each professor.
  • Communicate with your committee members. Talk about the parameters of the question. Don’t expect anyone to give you the question beforehand, of course, but you should communicate enough so that there are no surprises when you get in that little room. I said to each professor a month beforehand: “This is what I am thinking about in studying for your question. Am I thinking about what you would like me to be thinking about?” That way they know what’s going on in your head – they should know that.
  • Summarize in about 10-12 pages a study guide for each question. I looked over my study guides quite a bit, and it really helped me the last couple of weeks.
  • Plan a time to take a mini-test before your actual comps; an hour’s worth of writing about each topic will help you see what you need to study more.
  • Consider preparing 8-10 page mock comps essays to study from. Fair amount of work on the front end, but it helps to have a narrative already in your brain when you do the real thing. Right before exams, use super short outlines from those essays to study from primarily.
  • Sketch an overall framework for your dissertation idea. How does each set of readings relate to the framework? It will help you focus on which theories and readings you need for your lists.
  • Think big picture. Try not to get bogged down in the minutiae of each reading. How does the finding of the study in question match with your other readings? What is similar and different with other theories and studies you’ve looked at? Can you succinctly cite what the meaning of the reading is and what it means for your research/ideas?
  • Take notes as you are studying and jot down even the craziest of thoughts. Each time my mind wandered to another study while reading, I would write it down and try to think of possible connections, differences, etc. I would also test myself as I proceeded; when I read a citation in a new reading, I would try to recall what the findings of the cited study were.
  • Try to explain your understanding of the ideas and their connections to friends, family members and colleagues. Everyone I know has been exposed to my blathering; it helped me work through my thinking on a number of topics (especially when those ideas were strongly challenged!).
  • Gather a mix of industry and academic research. This suggestion, from one of my committee members, helped me connect the theories of academia with the boots-on-the-ground reality of the workplace.
  • Nerves are the only thing that will kill your performance. Go in with an attitude that YOU ARE READY AND CAN DO THIS. If you’re calm, you’ll find the exercise provocative, even cathartic.

How should I schedule the individual questions?

  • Take the exams every other day. I know that some true whizzes can rock their exams back to back, but I found it really helpful to have one day in between to freshen up my (admittedly rapidly flagging as I age) memory before each exam. No, this is not a regurgitation-style exam, but let’s face it, to a certain extent, yeah, part of what you are doing is memorizing the top conclusions of a bunch of studies and theorists. Got to get them top of the mind.
  • I preferred taking comps every other day, starting with the easiest one first. You have a nice rest in between and plenty of time to review before the next question. And when the tougher questions came toward the end, I wasn’t so nervous since the process was old hat!

And what about the test itself? Can I bring things into the exam room with me?

  • When taking comps, use some time to do an outline before answering each question.
  • Bring earplugs, no matter where you might be taking the exams. Tuning everything out is critical.
  • Bring some bottled water, maybe a granola bar, a security blanket, a back pillow or whatever you need to make yourself comfy.
  • Bring a dictionary or thesaurus if you normally use them when you write.