A 5-step guide to passing your comprehensive exams in grad school
Estimated reading time: 22 mins (4349 words)
One of the great joys of grad school is that exams are not just restricted to coursework.
Nope, PhD students get to go through the fun of taking an exam that determines whether they actually get to stay in grad school. Yay!
Since a few of my very close friends in grad school are preparing to go through this cruel, yet inescapable, rite of passage, I’ve decided to write up all the tips I can think of to help them out on their journey.
In my exceedingly finite wisdom, I have conjured up a list of 5-ish steps to passing comprehensive exams in grad school.
Since I just took these a year ago, the (painful) experience is still very much a recent memory, so this seems as good a time as any to pass on the knowledge I have gained to the next batch of students.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this so dramatically. If you are, you’re probably not taking these exams any time soon. Because if you were… YOU’D BE FREAKING OUT TOO!
One of the things I hate most is when I’m panicking and someone tells me to ‘calm down’
Or, even worst, when they tell me “there’s nothing to worry about”…
With all due respect, I am perfectly able to decide what is and what is not worth worrying about. As is every other grad student.
And if you’re about to do some exam that’s going to decide whether you do or don’t get to stay in grad school, then you, my friend, have a perfectly valid reason to freak out.
So, to all my fellow grad students about to go through this ordeal:
YOU’RE FREAKING OUT!
I’M FREAKING OUT!
BUT WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS TOGETHER!!!!
You’ll have moments when you feel totally fine and in control of the situation.
You’ll have moments when you don’t feel okay at all.
These moments will come and go, but they are not an accurate reflection of how prepared you are, or your ability to be a good student.
Accept whatever way you feel right now, whether it is good or bad. It will pass.
The most important thing is that you keep going and keep doing whatever is best for you.
Note that I say 5 steps, not 5 tips/pointers/points. The order is important and intentional here.
I realize that not everything will be relevant to all grad students everywhere, but hopefully, there will be something useful in here for anyone who is in grad school or is considering this in the future.
1. Figure out the basics: when, where, what are your exams?
The most important thing you need to do is figure out exactly what it is you’re actually doing. Don’t assume anything here.
Do you have a graduate handbook? Check it.
When is your exam?
- Does it tell you a specific date for your exams?
- Does it tell you what semester you are expected to have completed it?
Where is your exam?
- Where will it be held?
- How big is the room?
- How many people are taking it at once?
Do you have to organize the time/date/venue yourself?
Is there a Head of Graduate studies (or equivalent) that is in charge of this?
And last, but not least:
What is your exam?
- Is it a written exam, or is it oral?
- Is it typed or handwritten?
- Do you know the questions in advance?
- Is it a take-home?
- What is the format/how many questions must you answer?
- How is it graded?
These are basic questions that are very important and should be sorted out as early as possible.
Your graduate handbook may be a little vague, so speak to staff and previous cohorts to figure out how it’s been done before.
2. Look at past exams (questions/answers) & talk to previous cohorts
Past exams are the best resource for preparing yourself. Normally, these will be available through the department, so get access to them whenever you can.
Looking at past exam questions (over a period of 5-10 years) will give you an idea of the kinds of questions that keep coming up over and over again.
It will also give you an idea of how questions are asked.
What concepts are linked/contrasted?
What level of detailed knowledge do you need to answer a question?
Ideally, you would also have access to past answers.
The department may not make past answers available to students, but it is possible that previous cohorts still have their exam answers.
If you’re super lucky like me, you’ll be in a department where students decided to start collecting past exam answers to pass them on to future generations! (Consider starting this tradition if it doesn’t exist at your university.)
Past exam answers (especially when you know the grade received) are super useful because they give you a great idea of what you need to aim for to pass your exam.
If you have past exams available to you, READ THEM! And the more of them you read, the better.
Reading a lot of past exams will show you what good answers have in common, as well as the ways in which you can be different and still successful.
Once you read a number of these, you’ll also get a feel for what does and does not work. This allows you to get a glimpse of the perspective the faculty will have (who are grading this).
And talk to previous cohorts! They have a wealth of knowledge about how your specific graduate program works and their advice will likely be a little more relevant than the advice of faculty who have taken their comprehensives 10+ years ago.
So, I’d like to take this moment to thank all the students in the years above me who have helped me:
3. Assess how much time you have to prepare and plan accordingly
Before you dive into studying, you need to take stock of how much time you have to prepare. Since you already know when you’re taking the exams thanks to Step 1, this shouldn’t be too hard.
This is important because if you are starting to study 1 year before your exams, you’ll have a different you’ll have a different approach to preparing than if you’re starting 2 months in advance.
Based off of my experience, people are usually busy with coursework and other things before they take their comprehensives, so you likely won’t start (seriously) studying for these until the semester before, or the start of the semester in which you’re taking the exams.
Considering this kind of timeline, I like to think in weeks. In other words, how many weeks until you have to take your exams?
Thinking in weeks will allow you to divide up your remaining time into the as many chunks as you have topics.
For example, this is what my preparation schedule looked like:
Make sure that the time spent on each topic is proportional to its representation in your exams (based on past years).
Some people like to start with the most difficult thing, others like to start with the easiest.
Personally, I go somewhere in between. My reasoning is that, if you start with the most difficult thing, you’ll get discouraged because you’re not making progress quickly.
Conversely, if you leave the most difficult things last, you’ll be too stressed to work on something you already find difficult.
So, I like to do things in the order:
- Neither hard nor easy.
- Really hard.
That way, you can use the momentum of the first few tasks to motivate you for the difficult stuff and by the end, you have something pretty simple to work on before your big day.
Have I overthought this? Yes, I absolutely have.
And a final note on planning: stay on track, but be flexible.
I’m not just doing this to be annoying, I swear.
What I mean is that you shouldn’t consistently work on a topic for longer than you planned to; you can’t sacrifice one topic for the sake of another. It really is better to know a little about everything that will be on your exams, than to be an expert on 1 topic and know nothing about the rest.
Once you’ve understood the basics of a topic and you’ve run out of time, move on, and come back to it if you have time later.
That said, if you have to switch stuff around, that’s no problem.
In terms of the pitfalls of overscheduling for your candidacies, point 2 of my first blog post full of wisdom may be useful.
4. Understand diminishing returns: doing the most will hurt you
Within each topic that you study, you have to prioritize the information that requires the least effort to gather and provides you with the highest payoff.
Remember, you are not writing a thesis in each of these topics, you just need to write enough to show that you know what you are talking about.
Based on the past exams, you should have a good idea of the breadth and depth that is expected of you.
Usually, you need to know the most important concepts, authors, and examples for each of the topics.
You then need to be able to discuss how these are related to each other and how they are relevant to whatever question was asked.
- You do NOT need to be able to regurgitate the title and date of every single article that was ever written by some important person.
- You do NOT need to know the details of every method that was discussed in the relevant papers.
One of the biggest mistakes students make is getting caught up in the details. This is either by going into too much breadth or into too much depth.
This is a prime example of a case in which doing the most will hurt you!
You have a finite amount of time to study for this and any time spent studying one topic is time taken away from studying another topic.
It’s a comprehensive exam, which suggests you should learn ALL THE THINGS.
But you CANNOT learn ALL the things. So, don’t try.
Do what you can, and that will be enough!
5. Learn how to write exam essays
(Note: if you don’t need to write essays, you may want to skip to the last section)
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge, which is a weird place for many reasons.
It’s really old.
People there wear gowns at an unnecessarily high frequency.
It has many weird traditions (like a graduation ceremony completely in Latin…).
But the weirdest, in my opinion, was the fact that you only had exams once a year.
These exams consisted of a few days of spending 3 hours in some giant old hall writing essays about everything you had learnt that year, citations included, no notes allowed.
It also didn’t help that the professors who proctored those exams wore long gowns that made them look just like dementors…
But back to the essay exams.
Your entire grade for the year (and your degree, during the final year) depended on whether you did well on those few days where you had to sit down for 3 hours and write 3 essays answering 3 questions that could be on any topic you had learnt for a class that year.
I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever.
When are you ever going to be locked up in a room for 3 hours and have to write a coherent commentary (with citations) with no notes????
And then I came to grad school…………………………
So, luckily, this was the one thing I felt kind of prepared for when I had to take my comprehensive exams last year.
The most important thing I learnt during my time at Cambridge is that preparing for such exams requires learning and practicing how to write exam essays.
You may have written essays before, but an exam essay is a whole other beast.
With that in mind, I have some tips specifically for writing exam essays.
Read the question, re-read the question, then read it again.
This is pretty straightforward, but frequently overlooked. I’ve known people who’ve gotten poor marks for writing a great essay that answered a question they wished they’d gotten, rather than the question they were supposed to answer.
Always make sure you are answering the question that was asked.
Write an outline
Never just start writing, you need an outline. Concept maps may be a good start.
When you write your outline:
- Read the question carefully.
- Extract the main points from the question.
- Brainstorm everything that is relevant to those points and vomit it out on a piece of paper.
- Collect your word vomit and organize it into groups of related ideas.
- Organize those ideas into paragraphs.
- Frame those paragraphs by adding an introduction and a conclusion that answers the question.
So your final outline will look something like this:
- A direct answer to the question.
- An explanation of how you will answer the question in this essay.
- Your first main point
- Your second main point
- Your third main point
- (Potentially a 4th main point, but you likely won’t have time for this)
- Recap how you have answered the question with your points.
In brief, follow the classic essay-writing advice:
Say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you have said.
When you are writing this outline, realize that you will not be able to write everything ever written about the topic. You probably won’t even be able to write everything you know about the topic.
These essays are not a test of who can write the most, so don’t try to do that.
Prioritize the most important information. How do you know what’s important? Think about what your professors have been emphasizing when talking about this – writing about this will show you’ve paid attention.
Also, consider your answer to the question. What pieces of evidence are most relevant to the answer you are giving?
You have to strike a balance between showing you have a good amount of knowledge and show that you can answer a question concisely. It’s not easy, but there are some tricks.
One thing I like to do is make my point and then add a little “of course, there are other considerations, but these are beyond the scope of this essay.” This shows that you know these other things exist, but you are consciously choosing not to discuss them.
Remember that what you want to avoid here is a listing effect, i.e. “A said X, B said Y, C said Z etc.”
Synthesize, don’t list. This means you have to show you have thought about the question and can do more than regurgitate “facts” about it.
The best way to do this is to ‘pick a side’. Usually, the prompts to an essay question will give you the opportunity to argue one thing or another.
You do not have to necessarily believe 100% in the side you are picking, but it will make writing the essay a whole lot easier if you don’t try to argue both sides, because that’s like trying to sing both parts to “The Boy Is Mine” – it comes across as muddled and rushed, and you do not sound good at all.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
If you have a timed exam, you need to make sure you know how to write under time pressure.
If you know when you’re exam is going to be, you should also know how long your exam will take.
So, for example, my undergraduate exams were 3 hours long and I had to answer three questions, so I had about 1 hour per essay.
For my comprehensives in grad school, the exams were 6 hours each for 3 questions, so that was 2 hours per essay.
That does not mean I had 2 hours to write because I had to factor in time for writing the outline beforehand and time to re-read what I wrote afterwards.
For a two hour essay, this looks like:
- 10-15 mins brainstorming an outline
- 90 mins actually writing
- 10-15 mins re-reading and correcting
Now, this may be controversial, but I would advise that you write ALL of your outlines at the beginning and do all of your re-reading at the end.
For me, that meant spending 30 mins at the beginning of my 6-hour exam “just” brainstorming and outlining what I was going to write later on.
It may seem like a lot of time to sacrifice, and you may want to start writing immediately, but trust me, it’s worth it!
When you enter the last 1-2 hours of your exam and you’re stressed out staring at a blank page in front of you, you may not write the most coherent essay. And writing something coherent is much more important than writing a lot!
If you spend this time making a detailed outline, you can just switch your brain off afterwards and write nonstop. (Switching your brain off a little too much, is also why it may be worthwhile to spend some time re-reading at the end, though…)
Practice writing under time pressure
These things are like a marathon. You can’t expect to do it without any practice.
Getting an idea of what you are capable of writing under similar circumstances will make you feel more prepared for the day of the exam.
In the last few weeks before your exam, schedule in a couple of sessions where you practice writing under time pressure. If your exam is 6 hours long, that may be a bit much, but doing a 2-hour stint to write 1 essay would be a good idea at least once or twice. Then practice writing outlines in under 10 minutes, and you’ll be golden.
PEEL: recipe for easy paragraphs
As you’re writing each paragraph, you don’t want to be thinking about how to have the best possible flow. To avoid this, I use a little ‘recipe’ for writing paragraphs that will clearly communicate to those grading the exam what I am trying to argue:
Point: What is the point you want to make in this paragraph.
- A brief sentence (or two) stating the main argument/point of this paragraph.
Explanation: Why are you talking about this, what is the relevance?
- Elaborate what you mean by your previous statement.
Example: What is an example of this?
- Throw in a couple examples of the point your making. This is where you show off that you know the main authors and dates of important publications.
Link: How does this relate to the question you are answering.
- Always make sure you synthesize and answer the question, so explain how this point is related to your main argument (and perhaps other paragraphs).
Standard phrases (introductions, transitions, conclusions)
You have no time to waste on ‘phrasing’, so prepare some standard introductions, transitions, and conclusions beforehand.
- ‘In this essay, I will explain how X and Y appear to be related but are actually completely separate and independent phenomena’
- “Alternatively, however, nevertheless, albeit”
- “To sum up, all in all, in conclusion”
Going the extra mile: originality
I remember reading the grading rubrics when I was in undergrad and thinking that they were hella vague. Especially looking at what distinguished a ‘passing’ grade from an ‘excellent’ grade was confusing to me because they would always talk about ‘originality’.
What is originality in an exam essay, even???
After a few years of jumping the hoop of exam essays, I think I sort of understand what they’re looking for.
What you need is just a little flair. JUST A LITTLE.
Remember that this is the cherry on top, and it cannot come at the expense of the other requirements, such as ‘having a good grasp of the topic’, ‘adequate breadth and depth’ etc.
In my opinion, the best (and safest) way to show a bit of originality is throwing in a few ‘unexpected’ citations. This shows you’ve gone beyond the required reading and are able to see how ‘new’ material relates to what you’ve already been taught.
These may be very new articles or very old ones. These could also be references drawn from another subject/discipline.
You can also impress those grading your exam by going against the grain and arguing something that is unorthodox for this particular subject (but make sure you’re able to support your points with good evidence).
My standard approach to adding in the flare is throwing in a little somethin’ somethin’ in the 3rd or 4th paragraph:
“While it is widely accepted that X is related to Y by Z, new evidence from the field of Industrial Unicorn Fabrication Theory suggests that we should consider….”
This is a great opportunity to use your specific knowledge about something that may be relatively niche and give the faculty a chance to read something interesting that may set you apart from the dozens of other essays they’ve read answering the exact same question.
But, honestly, as far as originality goes, make sure you don’t go overboard because it can be a huge timesuck that makes your essay super confusing if you go off on a weird tangent.
(In undergrad, I had the brilliant idea of trying to do some kind of innovative analysis involving obscure French philosophers during a timed essay exam. Don’t do that. Trust me, it’s a mistake.)
A note on mental health and wellbeing
While preparing for the essay writing is important, your mental (and physical) health during this stressful time should not be overlooked.
When I was preparing for my comprehensives last year, I got into a great routine. I was doing pretty well. I was eating regularly, even exercising a bit. I was making good progress on my revision for the exams and I even managed to do a few timed essay sessions. On top of all of that, I had done this kind of exam before, so I had every reason to be calm and relaxed.
But the night before my first exam, I could not fall asleep. And knowing how important it is to get a good night’s sleep before big events, this frustrated me even more. My heart rate was so high and it felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. No amount of melatonin or other ‘calming’ supplements would help. I kept trying to sleep but it wasn’t until 5 or 6 in the morning that I managed to finally drift off and my exam was at 9am.
I was so nauseous in the morning, I couldn’t stand to eat anything.
When I got to my office, I tried to have more coffee because I thought it could compensate for my lack of sleep. My hands were shaking so hard that I dropped my mug and broke it before I could even fill it with coffee.
I somehow managed to get through the exam (even though one of my essays was horrible, in my opinion).
Two days later, I had to take the second part of the written exam and I still couldn’t relax or sleep.
After the second part of the written exam, my heart was still beating like crazy and it seemed like there was nothing I could do to calm myself down.
I was so angry at myself. Why was my body doing this? Was I having some kind of reaction to something? What was wrong?
There was nothing I could do to beat my body into submission. I even tried running myself into exhaustion in the hopes that I could sleep better, but even that didn’t help.
After the second exam, I ended up going to the doctor who explained to me that I was having panic attacks.
I refused to believe it. I had no rational reason to have a panic attack. I was convinced that it had to be something else that was stopping me from sleeping and making my heart go crazy. But, unfortunately for me, she explained that panic attacks were not something you could rationalize away.
Luckily, with her help, I managed to get things under control somewhat by the time I had the oral part of my examination the week after. And luckily, I did pretty okay on my exams, despite all of this.
But, in hindsight, I did not do a great job of taking care of myself.
I had a good idea of what I had to do, but I thought if I just pushed harder and harder, I could force myself to do better.
I was taking enough melatonin to put a horse to sleep (and more is not better, in this case), and in the mornings I was taking enough caffeine to bring the dead back to life. And this is not taking into account the 20 other supplements I ordered from Amazon in the hopes of improving my memory and sleep.
So why am I (over)sharing this with you?
I just want to emphasize that exam preparation involves self care as well. This may mean different things for different people, but it’s important for everyone.
Spend time with the people you love.
Get some fresh air.
Speak with a therapist (honestly, not a bad investment for grad school).
Be consistent with your medications, if you are taking any.
Watch something that makes you laugh.
Cuddle with something fluffy.
Reach out and ask for help when you need it.
To everyone preparing for these exams, I wish you the best of luck. You are awesome and you’re a superhero. This won’t be the most fun part of this PhD, but remember that you started this because you love what you do and you have an insatiable sense of curiosity and wonder. There will be great times ahead once you finish these exams, I promise.