Comprehensive Exam Hacks

Around this time last year I was deep in the process of studying for my PhD comprehensive exams or “comps.” Comps are arguably one of the most pressure filled experiences in all of academia. These pass or fail exams require that a student know a lot about well…A LOT. So, how do you prepare for an exam that will cover at least 3 years worth of doctoral level coursework?

Here are a few hacks that should help you prep for your exams:

  1. Don’t study /cram. Do review. The coursework prepared you for comps. So, a 4–8 week purposeful review of the primary texts of your coursework and the main theorists of your major will give you the platform you need to write your comps. If you scored well on the mock comps given during coursework phase, and if you took them with integrity (closed books, hard time limit, etc.), then you should do fine.
  2. Prepare your mind for familiarity. My mission during study phase was to not be caught by surprise. I wanted a name and a date to go with every theory that I could possibly have thrown at me. So, I studied. A lot. All 4 of my comp questions were shockingly familiar. Part of this came from the solid month of prep I did and part of it came from a slight recycling of the comp questions. That didn’t make writing them any easier, but it felt good to write from a knowledge base instead of “winging it.”
  3. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Practice your comps in distracting environments without the use of music. This was a game changer for my prep and it paid off because the only music allowed in my exams had to be played on a commercially produced CD and played through my assigned computer (with headphones). It’s 2017 bro. I’m not messing with a CD.
  4. Get ready for mental fatigue. This means that you MUST practice your comps when you are mentally tired. Remember, if you take long and timed exams like I did, then by the time you write question 3 you will have already spent 4 intense hours writing over 3000 words…from memory…with accurate citations…from memory…in a high stress environment. That my friends, is exhausting.
  5. Make every word count. I aimed for a 1500–2000 word response to each 2-hour question. My average responses were 1350–1450 words. Practice by trying to write as much as you can as fast as you can. During my practice comps I was able to write between 650–800 words within 40–45 minutes. That gave me time to think on the front end and time to review on the back end. Again, prepare to be mentally exhausted after question 2. Question 3 was not hard, but the wear and tear on my brain made it feel like a chore to complete. I finished questions 1 and 2 with 20–30 minutes to spare. I finished question 3 with 8 minutes to spare.
  6. Bonus for Regent University Org Leadership students: Study the Ivancevich et al. and the Yukl texts for question 1, the Hatch and Cunliffe, Gillette and McCollum, and Arrow et al. texts for question 2, the primary texts from your major for question 3, and be prepared to build a quant or qual research proposal for question 4. Again, practice writing as much as possible. Flash cards will help for muscle memory, but comps are all about chaining theories together in a 1200–1500 word response within the 2 hour time limit.
  7. Automate the important. I used the StudyBlue app to locate flash cards that were prepared by a Regent grad. This allowed me to take my virtual study guide with me EVERYWHERE. I also created TONS of my own cards based off of my course work materials. Don’t be cheap. Pay for the full version to access and create cards. Cancel when you are done. Trust me, this will speed up the review process and help you build the muscle memory needed to recall volumes of information on the spot.
  8. If you have to take oral comps…I’m sorry. However, I think you can mold these tips into your study program.

Don’t get caught by surprise on test day. Don’t stress yourself to death. Don’t spend months worrying and planning about how your are going to prepare for comps. Instead, remember that you have already been exposed to everything you need for a successful comp experience. Now, do the work.

I’m cheering for you…unless you are lazy and looking for a shortcut ; )

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