Saturday, March 28, 2009

10 Tips for Acing Comprehensive Exams

It’s time to reiterate everything you’ve learned, and you have to do it straight from memory in an organized, well-written fashion.

That’s right, it’s time for your comprehensive exams, known by most as comps or prelims. Depending on your graduate program, you may or may not have to take comps. Some programs require all graduate students to take comps, while others waive the testing in lieu of a thesis defense. The exact format of a degree candidate’s comps will likely vary by department and university, but the testing generally consists of the student writing an essay response to questions based on a reading list or area of literature specified by the student’s graduate committee and overseen by the committee chair.

My own comps were based on the core courses of study I had during my two years of study in communication, most specifically in the area of public relations. I was given questions about crisis communication, research methods, communication theory, PR theory and mass media theory, for example. I was timed writing a response to each question for either 30 minutes or one hour each. The comps requirement is part of my M.A. degree plan in conjunction with an internship (completed last summer) and an internship paper and presentation (completed last fall). Through this plan of study, I was able to gain work experience, along with the research and writing experience gained during a thesis project, in addition to the demonstration of proficiency with the literature in the field through my comps.

I originally planned to write a blog post about how to succeed at comps and what to expect only if I felt confident about my results (don’t want to lead anyone astray). Luckily, my adviser said my responses were among the best my committee had seen before, so I am of course very glad that I put as much hard work into preparing as I did, and I feel I should pass along the techniques I used. Of course, what works for one student might not work as well for everyone else, but here are my tips for you future takers of comps out there if you so desire to use them:

1) Start the process early. Most graduate programs will require you to have a committee formed well before you begin thinking about comps, so that part is likely out of the way already. However, find out when the latest date you can schedule your comps is from the graduate school or other governing body, then schedule the exam well before that date. There is likely paperwork that needs to be filled out and signed by your committee members, so find out and get the process started. You should also schedule individual meetings with your committee members to get an idea of what to study. Some professors will outright give you the questions you need to be prepared to answer, while others will at least specify an area of literature upon which to focus. Of course, some will be prepared the second you meet with them, while others will be unprepared for your initial meeting and want to finalize the details with you later. That’s fine, but make sure you get a date set in stone by which to have everything down you need to study, and don’t feel bad about pestering professors who are slow — this is your future, after all! Try to make sure you have everything you need to sit down and start the studying process at least one month prior to your exam date. I personally had about three weeks by the time I got all of my questions and would have liked one more. Burnout is really easy when studying this much information and doing so much memorization, so the more time you have to take a day off here and there the better.

2) Make a packet. You’ll want to have all of this information you’re gathering in one easily accessible place. I recommend making a Word document with an official-looking cover page. Then, copy/paste one question per page. If you don’t have exact questions from your committee members, make up a question for each area you’ve been told to study that is broad enough that you’ll be able to apply the answer to more specific questions in that area. (For example, if you’re told you are going to have a question on crisis communication, you would make sure to include literature about issues management, legitimacy, image restoration, etc.) In between each question, allow pages on which to type responses. Then make a reference page at the end of each question to list all of the sources that you wish to cite in the response. I recommend also putting a blank outlining page at the end of each response to draw relevant diagrams and outline responses. You want a concise, well-organized response prepared because time is going to go much faster than you think during the actual exam. Once your packet is complete, you can formulate your answers to questions.

3) Answer the questions. Take it one question at a time. There’s really no order to worry about here, but I liked going easiest to most difficult. For some questions, I already knew where my cited sources were going to come from without having to do much new research, and I knew how I would answer those questions. I got these out of the way first so I could have a sense of accomplishment on paper before starting the larger project of researching for the more difficult questions. (Note: finding a single book that covers the topic of a question is usually easy to do and a big time saver. For example, if you have a question on research methods in your field, it's likely there is a book that lists pros and cons and how to implement various methods in a step-by-step, easy-to-read and easy-to-remember format.) Now, it’s likely that if you pay close attention, the questions aren’t as difficult as you think. In fact, you should have saved all of the PDFs of journal articles and the returned exams and papers you’ve received during your time in graduate school. If not, this might be tougher and shame on you. If so, go back and take a look. Professors need to save time out of their busy days, so it’s likely you’ll get an eerily similar question to one you’ve already had on a mid-term or final exam for a class. Or, maybe you’ll get a question that covers an area that you spent a week on in a class, so go back and see what readings you had that week in the class. Remember, there should be a page of references at the end of each question in your packet, so use bold type or parenthetical citations in your answer pages so you know what journal articles, etc., to refer to on your reference page for each question.

4) Read and edit your answers. This sounds like a logical next step, but people write stuff all the time that they don’t edit before using. No one is likely to see your study packet other than you, so the stuff in it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, but just read your answers to make sure they make sense and that you didn’t leave out any important concepts that might make your answer better. As you read through, you’ll likely come to the realization that you want to arrange the sources on your reference page a little differently. Most students probably will not get to use anything but a list of sources with no text on their comps, so the order that the sources appear in on your reference sheet could help you remember how you wanted to organize your answer. In some cases, you may not be allowed even a reference page and have to memorize all of your sources for questions from a professor, which was the case with two of my questions. If this happens, don’t sweat it, just place the citations within your answer in the packet and use mnemonics or whatever method works best for you to start memorizing them. Once you have your answers and sources properly arranged and edited, the difficult part is finished.

5) Practice. I recommend practicing the old-fashioned way with pen and notebook paper. I know, it sounds like a pain, especially if you’re going to be allowed to take your comps on a computer, but I promise you’ll be glad you went the handwritten route in the long run. You really process what you’re writing and learn the answer more thoroughly this way. Actually use a stopwatch to time yourself and test yourself on each question just as if it were the real deal. For your first practice round with the questions, feel free to make yourself an outline ahead of time to follow, perhaps even pairing keywords with references. You’re just working the bugs out in your answers at this point and trying to memorize the order of your arguments and citations.

6) Practice again. I know, it seems tedious, but this is the biggest test of your life, y’know! You do want that degree, right? By this point, you should be able to read your question and make an outline from memory to work with. You should know where your citations go. You might still need some keywords on your reference list (or your outline if the question doesn’t allow a reference list) to help you remember what you wanted to quote from that source. Just run through the entire comps exam now, making it as realistic and as much from memory as possible.

7) Polish. Do any final polishing at this point that you need for your answers and sources. Hopefully by this point you are very comfortable with your responses and sources, perhaps just needing some final touches on your source memorization. If you know your committee members well, you might know of something special you can include to make the responses better. For example, my adviser is much like myself and likes visual learning such as charts, diagrams, graphs, models, etc. So, I made sure to come up with at least one original figure to draw as time allowed to attach to my responses. Being able to visually create models of how steps within a concept work or how concepts are interrelated demonstrates a stronger understanding of the material, so keep that in mind. Make sure everything is exactly as you’d want it to be on the actual exam before going any further.

8) Memorization. You’d probably be really lucky if your committee allows anything more than a page of citations only (that’s author name, article name, etc., with no text). Some won’t even allow that. So here’s where you need to be able to either pull directly from memory or look at your reference list and know what you want to quote from that source. Paraphrasing is probably OK, so don’t worry about direct quotes. Just make sure you are able to convey what the source said well enough that it doesn’t sound like you just attributed something to a source for the sake of having another citation. This will take a little bit of work, but it’s worth it because the writing will flow much more quickly for you if the source usage comes naturally during the exam.

9) Talk through it. Either with a friend or just to yourself, talk through each question. Just say it out loud. Answer the question as if your comps were oral (in some departments they might be) and you had to describe your answer in detail to your professor(s). Be sure to include your citations. The more you can do from memory the better. Keep talking through until what’s in your head and coming out of your mouth very closely matches what you have on paper in your packet.

10) Be mentally and physically prepared. Now that you can cite your sources backward and forward, write and converse about your responses quickly and coherently, and you are fully confident, there doesn’t seem to be much left to do. There isn’t! You’ve made it! Sure, comps seem big and scary, but overcoming it is part of the test. Don’t get stressed out. This is nothing more than a really long series of small written exams that you’ve taken before. You’ve had the classes, you’ve done the reading, you’ve done the writing and speaking through your responses — you’ve prepared in every way. So, there’s absolutely no reason to doubt yourself or worry at this point. So, relax, and mentally prepare yourself for a few hours of tedious, but what will now be easy, work. However, you need to physically prepare as well. The day before your exams, review your sources and skim through your responses in just a few quick seconds in your mind. See? You know it. Now put it down and spend the whole day relaxing. Try not to read or study anything else. You don’t want overlapping information. Do something mindless. Watch TV. Play video games. Just chill out. Go to bed early, and wake up relatively early. I recommend scheduling your comps for 9 a.m. or so. Get up by 6:30 a.m. and eat a balanced, but not heavy, breakfast. Drink some coffee if you want, but be sure to take plenty of plain, refreshing water with you to the exam and stay hydrated. Don’t chew gum, just go in hydrated and refreshed, and keep at it until you’re finished. You might want a healthful snack in between a set of questions, but I actually kept at them (once I get in a writing groove I find it best not to stop) and used lunch as a reward at the end.

Hopefully these 10 tips will help you attack your comprehensive exams in an effective and less-stressed manner. Just stay organized, and schedule specific times and dates to work on your comps. Don’t get distracted and let the exam date come up and bite you when you least expect it. Make a plan and stick to it. Also, I recommend scheduling a testing room for you alone if possible, and it’s even better if it’s a room with which you are already familiar. Best of luck!

If you'd like more tips in this area or have questions, feel free to let me know in the comments section for this post!


.des fleurs. said...

i take my communication comps this saturday! thanks for the tips!

JD said...

Great! I hope this helps! Spread the word. :)

Let me know how you do!

flit said...

thanks for this! Comps are the scariest part of the doctorate program I'm starting in the fall - for me, anyway.

Adding this post to the resource links on Back to School for Grownups - sorry for the link - my google account goes to the wrong blog.

JD said...

Awesome! Thanks for the link, and thanks for reading.

Jonsmith Jonsmith said...

Students, inevitably, have to confront an examination at some stage during their course of study. Therefore, an understating of examination demands, requirements and techniques, is crucial in order to achieve top grade in the exam. comps exam