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How to Survive Your Comprehensive Exam

Okay, I have been on hiatus.  I have to be honest with you, I have been SWAMPED.  I also decided that I wanted to begin posting again with next phase of my doctoral journey:  the comprehensive exam. One of the last things I discussed was the “I’ve finished my coursework, now what?!!”—you know what it is, COMPREHENSIVE EXAMS.  I have to admit that this has been the most challenging of the program for me. I know others have had different experiences, but I definitely struggled here.  So, if you are in a position where your comps are coming, then be sure to take a gander at this post….

First, what are the comps?   

I know a lot of people who are either in doctoral programs or are Ed.Ds/Ph.Ds already (How is this a thing, I do not know.).  After conferring with those folks, I’ve realized that comps come in many shapes and sizes. For those of you who are unaware, the comprehensive exam, commonly referred to as the "comps", is an exam that tests your content knowledge.  As I mentioned, I actually have not spoken to anyone whose comps were the exact same yet. Comps can be a series of actual timed exams or they can be a response to a series of questions.  The one commonality that I’ve noticed from everyone’s experiences is that you will have to write about your content area (this includes theory) and you will have to engage with research in some way.

In terms of scoring, this also varies.  Some comps are scored on point range and you have to get a certain amount of points in order to pass, while some comps are all or nothing rubrics.  Some schools offer feedback on your exam, while some do not. Some schools offer study guides and writing templates, and others do not. If you are feeling anxious, don’t worry, I’ll explain how to navigate this later in the blog.

Now, how do you survive your comps, read on….

#1. Pay attention!  I mentioned in a previous blog, that you really need to organize your classes and coursework—this is when it comes in handy.  Pay attention to content in classes that are heavy hitters. Heavy hitters are classes that dive heavily into content, deal with philosophical or theoretical foundations, and discuss research methods. These classes will require close attention.  There will be some classes that are useful, but will not necessarily provide information that you will need for your actual exam.

#2: Mentally prepare yourself.  Be prepared for the grind that is the comps.  It was an extremely stressful time for me.  I described my time working on comps as every finals week I’ve ever had rolled into one 3-week period of time.  It was rough, I was in a working haze throughout the entire time. I pulled my first all-nighter since undergrad (as an adult, this is miserable by the way).  You have to realize that this will be a stressful time, but is also a short period of time. You’ll get through it!

#3: Review your requirements.  Every school has a space where they house information regarding expectations, form submissions, due dates, etc.  Look over it with a fine tooth comb. You DO NOT want to miss a key date or key information because you were lax.  In addition, when you get your study guide or questions, review those carefully and create a plan of action in order to address the info.  You want to make sure you have either outlined the key info highlighted in your study guide or you have outlined the response to your questions that also addresses your rubric.

#4: Secure work time and space. This is crucial.  You have to create a strict schedule and stick to it.  Remember, this will not be a permanent schedule, but you have to create a grinding work schedule to best prepare.  You need to look to see how much time you have before you have to take/submit your exam and plan each day with work in mind—you cannot do your comps last minute.  I was lucky in that we had an arctic freeze in the midwest, so school was cancelled for several days. The unexpected weather gave me a lot of uninterrupted time to work, but this is not always the case (clearly).  I also had to take a PTO day and made a note of leaving work on time every day during the comps. I even, as you know, cut myself off of social media. I haven’t checked Facebook in MONTHS (I kind of like it actually) and just posted a new IG pic a couple of day ago.  Think about what work time and space looks like for you and create it ASAP! 

#5: Be vocal.  I let everyone know what I was up to.  I never want anyone to think I am neglecting tasks or work, so I had to inform everyone that I would be out for the next month or so working on my comps.  Everyone was pretty helpful and understanding. I explained that I would resurface after everything was submitted, but needed the time to work. Everyone respected my request.

#6: Find a buddy who’s been there, done that.  I always say that you need a buddy, and this is definitely a time that you will.  Find a buddy in your school who has successfully completed the comps. This person will be able to give you useful advice for the best plan of attack.  As I mentioned before, each school is different, so, although you may know other Ed.Ds and Ph.Ds from other schools, their experiences will probably be different from yours.  

#7: APA is your friend.  It’s not. No one likes it.  But you’ll need to really understand it in order to be successful.  I would recommend, if you still have a while to go before your comps, seeking out your writing center before you submit papers and having them work through APA with you.  It’ll make life A LOT easier for you if you have it engrained by the time your comps arrive. If you don’t, be sure to get your copy of the APA publication manual and check out this APA Blog.

Before I end this, I have to address the question that is floating around your head—what if I don’t pass, then what?  There is also a plan for that. I didn’t pass my comps after my first submission and had to submit edits—it happens, you can survive it!

#1: Look at your ”what if” options.  A lot of us don’t pass the first time around, so it happens.  You have to understand your retake options. Do you get an unlimited amount of retests? Do you get to submit edits?  What kind of feedback will you receive moving forward. Some people don’t get any feedback, some get very vague feedback, some get great feedback.  I feel very lucky in that I received great feedback, and it gave me great direction to take in my edits.

#2: Approach your retakes as additional tries/options.  I read another blog in which the author said that you should approach each retake as an additional option. If I had to retake the comps completely, I would have taken that first experience and feedback and put it to good use the second time around.

Well, these are a few nuggets of wisdom that I can share about the comps.  I passed! I did it! I’m excited to move forward. I believe in all of you, and you can do it, too!  Remember, your journey is unique to you and your success won’t necessarily look like someone else’s.

Good luck to all of you as you move forward and keep me updated on your results!

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