advice · grad school · teaching

Comps, Quals, Areas: Advice for writing exams?

A bird pooped on my pants that sunny October Monday as I walked up 109 Street, near the High Level Diner. As the white streak dried on my black cargo pants, I took it as a good sign–I was walking into campus to write my first departmental candidacy exam. At the U of A, in English, doctoral students write three three-hour exams, usually M-W-F, then participate in a two-hour oral exam on the contents of the written exams, about a week after that. The three written exams, at least when I wrote them, were based on reading lists of the student’s own devising (in consultation with, and approved by, the dissertation committee) on topics related to the proposed dissertation, and to the broader literary field in which that dissertation would situate itself.

Here at Waterloo, in English, our doctoral students write two four-hour Area Exams, from set lists, the first in November and the second in May of their second year of study. One exam is from a literary area, the other from a rhetorical one. One of these areas will be deemed ‘primary’ and has an extra, oral exam component within two weeks of the sitting.

I imagine the case is different at your institution. I always love the hear the gory details of exams from my friends and colleagues–the wide variety of timelines, reading lists, numbers and types of exam situations, rubrics, etc, is fascinating. A recent first-person article in the Chronicle, though, caught me up short: the author of that piece, a new-minted ABD historian, seemed to go into his exams with very little idea at all, not simply of the mechanics of the process, but also of the point.


I’m leading a workshop for our PhD students in a couple of weeks, on the topic of “how to study for your area exams.” I think I’ll start with some discussion of the point of them, before moving into specifics. Without understanding the ‘why’, I don’t really think there’s much basis for thinking about ‘how’ or ‘what.’

Maybe I’m not the right person to ask: I LOVE exams, love studying for them, love the boundedness of a format where you go into a room and you just type away for x number of hours and then it’s OVER. I write really well under those conditions, and much prefer exam writing to most other kinds of writing, actually.

So I’d love any advice you could offer on studying for the exams. I’d really like to gather as many tips as possible, from those of you who’ve been there, maybe especially if you’re not so supremely exam positive as I happen to be.

I’ll start: I treated studying for my exams as a full time job–I kept worksheets of how many hours (I aimed for 7 a day, five days a week, but I wasn’t teaching) I read and took notes, and the sheer accumulated bulk of these comforted me with the idea that at least I was putting in the effort, no matter how inadequate all that reading sometimes made me feel.


8 thoughts on “Comps, Quals, Areas: Advice for writing exams?

  1. Since I wrote the same kind of exam you did, I “studied” by working on the disseration. I tried (with moderate success) to make research notes and summaries for everything I read with an eye to the final diss, seeing the exams as a hoop in the middle. For area exams, I'd suggest treating every text as a potential teaching resource. Make notes of how to approach a given text in a class, or how a text might contribute ideas or approaches for teaching other texts. Focusing on how the readings apply to the career rather than the exam gives reading them purpose.


  2. I, too, took the same exams that Aimée and SC did. And I, too, loved them, for some of the reasons that Aimée mentions, but also because of the habit created by my exam-heavy undergrad. More than anything, however, I loved them because they allowed me to explore, and look in different directions, an activity which I'm not sure remains possible when one has to write a 25-page proposal in preparation for the candidacy.
    As for advice, I think it's important to remember the “why.” It's not that one's examining committee is out to expose one as a fraud. Rather, I think it's about the student educating and explaining his/her project to the committee, by knowledgeably integrating it into the larger field, existing debates and conversations in the area, etc. I think this way of looking at exams integrates both the research and the teaching aspect of the scholarly profession: do your research well and you'll be able to “teach” your examining committee about your project or your areas.
    I'm afraid, though, my advice is rather restricted to the kind of exams with a self-directed reading list, rather than to comps.


  3. My comps involved two exams, equally weighted, in two separate fields. They were done sequentially (aka all of the reading for one, then the exam for that field, then start over – so the exams themselves were separated by a number of months). Each field had a set list of about 100 texts, with a limited number of substitutions allowed. Each exam involved an eight-hour written exam spread over two consecutive days followed by a two hour oral exam within the next week.

    I too am someone who likes exam writing for its own sake, so I can't really give an idea of what might give one a useful sense of purpose if one doesn't enjoy exam writing. However, I can say that the two comps did make me feel more like a qualified teacher. Coming out of it, I felt like I had a broad sense of a couple of fields in which I could construct a number of viable syllabi.

    In terms of studying, I read pretty much every day, with a page goal per day rather than a set number of hours of reading. I did much of my reading in a cafe, using a positive reinforcement system: after a certain number of pages, I could get a muffin, after the next installment, I could get another coffee, etc. I didn't take notes either time, which is not a strategy I would advise, although I did pass both exams without condition. The major prep. strategy that I used that I would suggest to others was that I identified a number of texts from each list that were broadly useful (aka they were versatile enough to answer a wide variety of possible questions) and appealing to me, somewhat in excess of the total number of texts about which I would be required to write. I reread these specific texts in the week or two preceding the exam so that they would be fresh in my mind.


  4. My doctoral exam had two Comprehensive Exams (one pre 1800 and one post 1800) and a Special Fields Exam (both written and oral). The Comps required breadth in terms of genre and era for each response and was based on a set list (with, of course, the option to substitute comparable texts; for instance, I chose to write about “The Color Purple” instead of “The Invisible Man” and “The Scarlet Letter” instead of “Moby Dick.”). The Fields exam was based on a list I came up with and had approved by my supervisor and committee.

    Now onto some of my tips:
    -make one-page summary sheets for each of the text studied with basic information (dates, character names, themes, plot points) etc. because in reading the volume of texts, you'd be surprised what you end up forgetting about specific details
    -if you're a visual learner, consider posting these one-page summary sheets in a chart/graph/map on a blank wall somewhere so that you can see the texts in their genre/chronological context in a visual way
    -practice, practice, practice: set your timer, use old exams, and write practice exams
    -make a sheet of important quotations that you'd like to remember and read them over before you go to bed each night so that you can memorize them
    -plan how you'd like to write about each text in advance
    -choose a few “uber texts” that you know you can write about no matter what the topic is; for instance, I knew that no matter what the question was, there'd be a good chance that I could write about “Beowulf”. It was one of my “uber texts” (good for writing about genre, gender, language, textual history, etc., like the broadly useful texts Jordana mentions above)
    -find things that are interesting/intriguing/enjoyable/frustrating about a number of texts that you WANT to write about, and follow those thoughts through to their logical conclusions (you're more likely to remember that sort of stuff)
    -get a study group; we had Comps study groups that meet weekly and discussed each text. My group (5 people) was made up of a group of people with widely different specializations (I'm a Canadianist, we had a Modern Brit/Law & Lit guy, a couple of Early Modernists etc.) and what each of us brought to the table was really helpful for the others

    Anyway, those are the thoughts that I can remember at the moment. Good luck to anyone out there writing these sorts of exams. Just like anything in grad school, if you take ownership over the process (the “whys” discussed in Aimée's post and above in the comments), then it all makes sense.


  5. Digitize whatever notes you make, because if you become a professor, you will be amazed to realize how often you refer to those notes. And if you don't become a professor, you will probably not want those boxes of index cards cluttering your life!


  6. I find myself to be the complete opposite of the Aimée Morrison in that I do my worst writing in exams and much prefer end of the term essays or papers. I am a Kinesthetic learner and thus find cue cards to be the only way I truly retain the information I study. However, I agree with Heather on the clutter aspect. Four and a half years of creative writing has resulted in unending piles of paper around my tiny apartment. Critiques, reviews, scenes, scribbled bits and pieces. I don't need any more paper hanging around.

    If I may ask, as professors do you find exams to be more effective or essays? Which do you prefer to use as a teaching method?


  7. @Kat: When I first started teaching I used exams because they were what I knew as a student. I realized quickly that as a professor–and this is personal–I prefer using final essays as a mode of assessment.

    I agree with Heather as well: digitization is the way to go! I had three exams (major field, minor field, and area of specialization). I opted to write them in a timed format because I also like/do much better in an exam setting (all those years in the US writing PSAT, SAT, and GRE maybe?) But most of my cohort did the essay version (over a period of several weeks) and came out with material that was well-crafted and reusable. Whatever works for you, I say!


  8. I did comprehensives, which consisted of two area exams, one on theory/criticism and one on primary texts. Heather is right about digitizing note pages and keeping them in a format you'll be able to read for years to come. You can also make an “idea cloud” which takes the different readings and organizes them thematically so that you can see how readings and ideas connect to each other.


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