Keeping it Basic: How I Studied for Comps and Passed with Distinction

While it’s been a while since I passed my comprehensive exam, I guess I’m not done with the process, and it’s not done with me either.  In hopes that my experience would be helpful to someone else, I thought that I’d outline my comp studying strategy below outlining how I prepared, what I’d highly recommend and what I’d do differently.

How I prepared

Typed annotated bibliography Annotated bibliographies are a pretty standard practice, but since I knew I had a little bit of time to read a lot of texts it was important for me to read with intention.  So as I read, I tried to keep an eye out for these 4 key issues:

  1. What is the major argument that the author is making?
  2. What gap in the literature does this text fill/address?
  3. What were the research methods?
  4. What were the findings?

After writing this up, my annotations were generally 250 words at minimum and a bit lengthier for texts that really excited me.  I would then go on to make a note of any interesting references that I didn’t have time to read or that were slightly tangential to my bibliography.  Finally, I’d write down a few key words (ex: real vs ideal, early childhood socialization etc.) to summarize the reading.  This helped me to notice and to keep track of reoccurring themes.

I printed this off and used this as a study resource when I was ready.

Poster board graphic organizer I used this to serve as a visual representation of my thinking. Each of my bibliography sub sections had a designated square, and in each square, I placed two sticky notes one to answer. “How does this section change/illuminate/broaden the particular subfield?” and the other “What are the over arching themes in this section?”  The last question just required me to synthesize the keywords that I’d already written for each of the entries.

Admittedly, when I tried to use additional sticky notes to articulate the connections between different sections, things got confusing and disorganized. (pictured below-tech problems).

A spiral bound notebook I had to prepare two bibliographies (Labor in the Caribbean; Social Reproduction in Education), so I divided the notebook to address the two sections broadly and then one section specifically on theorizations of social reproduction since I needed to know this in particular.  I used the notebook, to affix maps, construct timelines, create venn diagrams, etc.  I think theres a lot of value to physically writing things down, so that’s what purpose this served for me.  I also just get tired of looking at things on a computer screen, and I just need a different medium to stay engaged.

The day to day In practice, my plan was just to study in some way every day. Whether that was reading, writing or filling out a sticky note, I just wanted to “touch” the texts in some way. So what did this look like? I would read and annotate and then write a summary the next day. This way I would have exposure to the text at least twice making it easier to encode in my brain and to make connections. I found that if I read any more than 3 or 4 texts without writing a summary, I would forget and then have to re-read/review.

With that said, this was my plan and this did not happen every day.

What I’d highly recommend


Forest app.   Downloading this app early on was honestly one of the best decisions I made during this whole exam prep.  I needed to humble myself and just be honest that I needed motivation to read and help focusing for longer than five minutes.  It uses a Pomodoro technique to track the amount of time you work.  You are rewarded with a plant that corresponds in size to the amount of time you were focused.  10 minutes for a shrub, 30 minutes for a tree, etc.  It worked!  If you use your phone during the time you are supposed to be focused, your plant is turned into a brown twig that you have to see for the rest of the week.  Needless to say, I got really competitive about tending my forest. The encouraging little slogans like ‘start planting today’ and ‘don’t look at me’ kept me honest.  You can even customize the phrases to your liking. You can also donate the points that you accumulate to plant actual trees in areas in need.

Practice with someone.  I was really blessed to have three people offer to help me prep by simulating the oral question and answer section.  Just the experience of responding to someone made me notice my quirks and the places where I was unclear.  One really helpful suggestion I received was to consider each of the committee member’s expertise/area of interest and then to anticipate what questions they would ask.  These were the questions I provided to my practice partner.  This was useful because the person helping you practice didn’t’ need to be in your discipline or even in grad school to help, they could just go off of what you’ve already written. Also, I just talked my ideas out with myself A LOT.

What I’d do differently

Chill out I’d like to say that I shouldn’t have stressed out so much but I think that’s what motivated me to put in the work that I did.  In a lot of ways, the exam wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be but had I not prepared in the way that I did, my reflections in the difficulty would likely be different.

More sophisticated organizer I think it’s really important to consider how the various subsections speak to each other, and it doesn’t seem that my graphic organizer as I’d designed it, could do that kind of comparative work.  Maybe this is where I needed to use a multi-venn diagram or take the time to learn some type of computer software.  I’m not sure.

So, that was my comprehensive exam experience in a nutshell.  You can see that I’m a pretty basic pen and paper kind of person; however, I found this really insightful resource on how another student used various computer software to prep for her second exam.  I might try to incorporate some of this when writing my dissertation.  It’s crazy that something I’d been preparing for for nearly 3/4 months, is over and I’m moving forward in my grad school journey.  I’d be extremely happy to hear how you all went about this process, and how it panned out for you.

What strategies worked well for you? What would you do differently? 

posterboard mentioned above