Three Things You Need for the Comprehensive Exam: Organization, Organization, Organization

By Erica Wirthlin

The comprehensive exam, sometimes comps for short, is a specific type of examination taken by graduate students in various disciplines. It’s not linked to any specific course, but tests your general knowledge of theory and competence within your chosen research area. Your comprehensive exams may seem semesters away, even years away if you’re in your undergraduate program. However, there will come a day when the date of your exam is in sight and, with it, some panic.

How do you prepare for a prompt you can’t see in advance? How will you know what to read? What should you be taking notes on? While these questions can’t be precisely answered, you can plan ahead to make your comps experience less fretful.

1) Organize Your Ideas

The best way to begin preparing for your comps is to anticipate prompts or questions. Typically, questions are written by advisers who know you and your research; the questions are designed to allow you to showcase your knowledge, not to trick you. Start with the main theories, themes, or ideas you have been working with. You can pick out reoccurring ideas while reading through your approved bibliography. For example, as an anthropologist who studies incarceration, the main concepts that appeared throughout my research were “marginalization,” “social death,” and “criminalization.” While there were numerous other avenues to explore, picking those three allowed me to keep my thoughts anchored while reading the 30+ resources for my comps. Researching ideas that are distinct and related will help you synthesize complex thoughts and will help you better understand your research in terms of what has already been written and what your perspective is.

2) Organize Your Notes

Organizing your notes is probably the easiest and most important step, but it’s also the most overlooked. Depending on your program, you may have 12 hours, a few days, or one week to turn in your completed exam. This means that time is a limited resource and one you don’t want to squander flipping through books or shuffling through notes. You should have, to the best of your ability, all the resources you need at your fingertips. This can be easy, even fun if you’re an organization fiend like me! While I appreciate the tactile element of books with little sticky notes scattered throughout, they may be a hassle when you’re writing. You may become distracted by other words on the page and may end up using valuable time rereading an entire section to no avail. I suggest using a free online note organizing tool, such as While typing quotes, paraphrases, related notes, and citation information may be laborious, it will save precious time when time matters most. The built-in search tool is also helpful for looking up notes fast. I organized notes by creating a file for each book or article and included sections within each file related to my main themes (marginalization, social death, criminalization, et al.). While Evernote was my tool of choice, many other resources allow you to organize your resources in a way that separates you from the trouble of dealing with stacks of books, scattered articles, and loose notes.

3) Organize Your Space

Lastly, make sure you prepare your working space. You may not have much control over the school library, a shared living space, or a coffee shop, but you should do as much organizing as possible. Don’t forget to make sure you have everything you need on hand, such as tissues, snacks, coffee, or scrap paper. I was really nervous to do anything aside from reading and note taking the weeks leading up to my exam, but a few days before I forced myself to close the book and the laptop to clean. I did all the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, straightened up the living-room, and meticulously placed every item in my bedroom. Having somewhere clean to go home to set a tone of productivity that I needed for the exam. Perhaps, too, it gave me a sense of control for a question that I had no real control over, which eased my mind and will hopefully ease yours too.

I’ll have you all know that I passed my comprehensive exam with flying colors. I hope these pieces of advice will aid you to your own future success!

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