Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Advice for Comps

I have a friend who is spending the summer reading/studying for comps, and I told her that I'd help.
This got my thinking about the advice, help I'd give her. So here it is.
This applies to English, and here in our program we choose three fields to comp in, create reading lists, then we take one exam per week in either September or February, four hours per exam, three weeks in a row.
Initial Reading
  • Print each reading list out. Our lists are generally 30 primary readings and 15 secondary. Mine were longer. This was a mistake and only made my life harder.

  • Assign a month for each list. I read over the summer, so methodology and folklore was May, early modern was June, and middle English was July. I saved August for the exam prep (below).
  • Choose the hardest list first. I did this because I thought it would take me longer, and everything else would seem easier after. It did, and it was.
  • Figure out how many books you can reasonably read and take notes on in a week. I read superfast, it's my super power, but I generally had 10-15 books per week. If your list is 45 books, divide by amount of time, and work at your own pace.
  • Set weekly library days. Go, get the first books on your list, go home, read, take notes. Next week, choose next X number of books, repeat. I had a routine- Monday I took my bag of books to the library with my list and got the next set. Loaded up, came home, lined up that week's readings. I just started at one end and worked my way through. The routine helped me get through weeks I wasn't feeling great about my progress.


  • I color coded each reading list so I could readily identify the notes by looking at them. I took hand written notes. I also bought a lot of books so I could annotate in the book. I chose which books I'd buy by deciding if I'd use it past the dissertation (for teaching or research). I know a lot of people prefer to take electronic notes. One Note is good for this, Zotero is too, and has the benefit of being there when you write the dissertation. I had three three inch three ring binders that were color coded.

Once Reading is Done, Onto Studying
  • I made color coded flashcards for each area.
  • Front had title and author as well as webs of main ideas. Back had additional details like character names and such.
  • I also took old copies of exams my department has on file and created flashcards from this. This was more helpful for middle English which was term based and passage IDs. Early modern this was helpful for remembering all the character names for plays and such. This was not as helpful for my methodology and folklore.
  • Once I felt like I had the material on the cards memorized I started sorting according to larger themes- feminist issues, folklore, national identity, etc. I spread the cards out on the floor and "saw" the connections between texts. I then wrote on Post-Its these larger themes and studied the cards in that order.
Practice Exams
  • Only one of my professors gave me a practice exam, met with me on my answers, and talked me through how to improve. This was very helpful.
  • Each of my exams was radically different. My second exam was similar in format to the midterm and final exams that professor gave, so I studied those, and the PhD comprehensive exams on file.
  • My third professor gave me a practice question that was not on any topic I read on. I received feedback on how I responded to writing under a deadline and style. This was the area I continued to be the most nervous about, all the way up through taking the exam.
Right Before the Exam
  • Meet with each professor. Go in prepared to discuss the major themes you noticed in reading.
  • Ask for specifics about what the format of their exam will be: short answer, passage IDs, essays. Get specifics about whether or not they want you to cite secondary sources, and how long they want essays/answers.
  • Take advantage if they're willing to give you practice exams. Complete them in conditions as close to the test as possible.
  • If your department keeps old exams, get a hold of them, and ask professors how close their exams will be to that.
 Other Random Advice
  • I had friends tell me not to stress about writing 15-20 pages in four hours. And they were right. I had one area that I was stressed about, and freaked out, but the rest all came out just fine.
  • I'm a visual person, so I drew out organizers for each area. These visuals stuck with me as I sat down to take the test.
  •  Create a mojo routine. Mine was to go in with Cherry Coke, a bag of Twizzlers, and color coded pen and highlighter for that area. It was my personal cheerleading packet.
  • Ask what conditions are for test- if it's on a laptop, be sure you're comfortable typing for four hours. If you need an external mouse or keyboard, ask for it.
  • You will have days where you feel PHENOMENAL about your progress. Then you'll have days where you feel like you will NEVER learn it. This is where your routine will help get you through. Recognize small setbacks will happen. And keep moving.
 
  • Take breaks. I had a summer schedule that was Monday through Friday. Weekends were off. I read other books, went to a movie, just off. You need the mental break.
So that's my advice.
What about you Internet Hivemind? What tips or tricks did you use to get through comps?





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