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In this article, Kristin Hynes describes her experience of comprehensive exams (required by some US universities.) With 5 tips, Kristin shares how other students can be successful in this part of the admissions process.
In some countries such as the United States, universities require graduate students to pass a ‘comprehensive exam’ before they are permitted to work on their doctoral theses. Studying for these exams is stressful since there are numerous readings to cover, and if you do not pass, you will be dismissed from the program. As I have passed my exam and am now working on my PhD research proposal, I wanted to share some tips so that other students may pass their exams as well. The format of the exam differs at each university, so my experience will not be the same for everyone, but it will hopefully give you an idea of what the exam is like.
​Depending on the university, some comprehensive exams involve an oral component, while others may involve writing a literature review or answering questions. In my program, our exam is taken over the course of two days. On the first day, we answer three questions, and on the second day, we answer another three. We are required to have five examiners, and these are the professors in our department who will give us the questions and grade our exam.
Here are some things I learned from taking the comprehensive exam.

1) Think about the exam early on

When starting the PhD program, approach each class as if the readings on the syllabus might be on the exam. For some of the classes I took, the professors instructed us to write mini literature reviews each week in case they were one of our examiners. This was beneficial because I now had a summary of the readings and did not need to reread the entire book or article while I was preparing for the exam. Using each class to prepare for the exam saves time later on.

2) Meet your examiners

At my university, we choose who our examiners will be. After selecting them, schedule a meeting with each professor so that you can discuss which areas you should focus on when you study. For my exam, the professors tailored the questions to my interests. A few of them based the questions off papers I had written for their classes, which made things less stressful since I was able to write about topics that I was already familiar with. Then, a week or two before the exam, schedule another meeting with them so they can answer any last-minute questions.

3) ​Form a study group

Form a study group with other students who will be taking the exam if possible. Even if the questions on the exam are tailored to your interests, you are still required to know the important theories from your field. Therefore, you may find it beneficial to study with others in your program.

4) Take it slow, and try not to panic

Before I took the exam, other students who had already passed theirs had told me that when they read the questions on the exam, they panicked. For this reason, they suggested that I take a few minutes to gather my thoughts at the beginning of the exam. Just as these other students had done, I also panicked, but realized I knew more than I thought I did. I spent some time drafting an outline for each question. By doing so, I knew what I would write about, which made answering the question more manageable

5) Focus on the bigger picture

With the number of readings that I needed to cover, it quickly became overwhelming. The more I studied, the less I felt I knew. As one of the examiners told me, “Don’t get caught in the weeds,” meaning that I should not be concerned with the small details. When taking the comprehensive exam, it is important to know the theories from your field, but make sure you see the larger picture and do not get bogged down with every little fact. It is impossible to study everything. While studying, I kept asking myself, “What if the examiners ask the one thing I didn’t study?”, but I now realize that I did not need to read as many books and articles as I did. It is better to focus on fewer things and understand them well, rather than attempting to read as much as you can.

The comprehensive exam, or “academic hazing,” as some of my friends jokingly referred to the exam as, is a stressful part of many PhD programs. These exams are given so that students can demonstrate that they have a command of their field. After passing, you are then able to start on your thesis and get to focus on a topic you have a lot of interest in.
Good luck!

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