Delivering the low down on comprehensive exams

Feb 26th, 2016

Francesca Boschetti

Delivering the low down on comprehensive exams

Comprehensive exams are a big milestone in a graduate student’s academic career. While the structure of comprehensive exams can be very different depending on the department in which a PhD student is enrolled (e.g. they may include one or more components, written and/or oral), what is shared by most students who need to undertake comps are feelings of stress and anxiety.

This article will provide a few suggestions on strategies and study techniques that can help students make their comprehensive exams preparation less stressful and more productive, as well as tips on where they can find support on campus during and after the comps preparation. Remember to try and live the comps preparation as a learning experience that can lead you to becoming one of the experts in your field.

Study Techniques/Strategies and Work-life Balance

-       Improve Your Organizational Skills

  • Using a planner can help you develop a study plan, reflect on your goals, and break them down into small tasks. This will help you minimize stress and give you confidence that you will be able to cover all the material you need to complete.
    • Write down monthly, weekly, and daily goals.
    • Set your tasks for each day of the week (e.g. books/articles/chapters you need to read on each day).
    • Schedule manageable study sessions, plan for study breaks, and be flexible. Some material may take longer to read than what you planned for, and your schedule will need re-evaluation.
    • Plan for small rewards at the completion of each goal.
  • Create a morning and an evening routine.
    • Having a morning routine can help you enhance your productivity and keep you on track. A productive start can motivate you for the rest of the day and help you feel refreshed.
    • An evening routine can help you prepare for the next day. For example, you can prepare your meals for the next day so that you do not need to cook in the morning, or clear your work station so that you do not waste time and can start your comps prep right away on the following day. Also, completing an evening routine can help you feel refreshed in the morning.

-       Sleep and Eating Habits

  • It is very important that you get a good night’s sleep if you want to be successful in your comprehensive exams and be able to concentrate and focus on the texts you need to study/revise. Research shows that sleep is essential to our functioning. Lack of sleep can cause memory problems, mood problems, and affect your immune system. Stimulants and sedatives (such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol) can also disrupt your sleep and affect your concentration. Try to create a sleep-friendly environment and avoid reading/studying/revising in your bed (a practice that is likely to affect your posture and result in back and neck pain). Disconnect your electronic devices as you go to bed, so that your sleep is not disrupted by any noise or notification. 
  • Even though the comps preparation is likely to take away most of your time, you should try and eat/drink healthy food and beverages to keep you energized.

-       Get Familiar with the Exam Format

  •  Consult the website of your department to learn what you need to know about the format of comps in your unit, and get familiar with any requirements/regulations you need to be aware of. Ask your supervisor and Graduate Coordinator for past exams (if they are available), so that you can get an idea of what your own exam might look like.
  • Talk with students in your department who have already taken their comprehensive exams. You might be surprised by how helpful some of them may be. Some students not only are happy to share suggestions and anecdotes about their experiences, but may also be willing to share their exam questions and/or answers with you, so that you can have a clearer idea of what the committee’s expectations may be.
  • You may want to write practice essay answers based on the major themes/ideas in your area (if your exam is written), or ask friends or other students in your cohort to ask you a round of questions (if your exam is oral). 

-       Study Techniques and Strategies

  • Read each text in your reading list and take meticulous notes, so that you do not need to go back and re-read every text when it is time to revise. Remember that your notes are not just for comps, but they will be extremely useful during your dissertation writing.
  • Keep track of common themes and ideas so that you can make links between texts, critics, and arguments. You can make mind maps to keep track of these links.
  • Ask your supervisor, your graduate coordinator, other professors, and other graduate students if they have any piece of advice on study techniques and strategies that have worked for them in the past when they were studying for comps. Not all suggestions will work for you, but you might find some of them extremely helpful.
  • Take breaks between study sessions in order to refresh your brain and do some stretching. The “Pomodoro Technique” can help you maximize your productivity. It entails working for the duration of 25 minute slots followed by five minute breaks. Each fourth slot is followed by a longer break of 15-20 minutes.

Resources on campus

There are many places on campus where you can find support if you are experiencing stress or need advice on study techniques.

-       Student Health Centre

  • You need to take care of yourself and your health while you prepare for your comprehensive exams. If you have any health issue or need any health related information, you can visit the Student Health Centre at MUN’s University Centre. To learn more about their services and hours of operation, please visit:

-       The Works

  • Access to the facilities is included in the recreational fee. This is a good place to go to when you need to recharge yourself and take a break from studying/revising. For schedules and information regarding the student membership visit:

-       Writing Centre

  • The Writing Centre can offer help if you need assistance with your writing (e.g. how to develop an argument, style, mechanics, and note-taking techniques).
  • Their website offers a list of resources:

-       Student Wellness and Counselling Centre

  • The Counselling Centre offers Academic Support Programs for students, such as the Study Skills Clinics and one-on-one appointments. Topics covered by the sessions may include: learning strategies, time management, stress management, strategies to improve concentration, advice on software you can use for note-taking techniques and mind maps, and how to revise properly.
  • Their website offers a list of Study Skills Links (see:
  • If you are dealing with stress or other personal issues, or need advice on relaxation techniques for stress relief, you can also book an appointment for Personal Counselling.

-       Student Support and Crisis Management

  • The Unit is a service for all students in crisis. The support and resources provided are customized depending on the type of distress experienced by the student (which can range from financial hardship to a conflict with a professor, etc.). The staff of the SSCM includes two Student Support and Crisis Management Coordinators, a Coordinator for the Student Code of Conduct, and the University Chaplains.
  • In particular, the Chaplaincy not only provides spiritual support and counselling, but also a “listening ear” for students who need to talk about their experiences. The Chaplaincy is also in charge of “The Oasis” (Thursdays, 10 am – 2 pm) at the UC, aimed at relieving students’ stress, where they have popcorn and hot beverages and are occasionally joined by the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs.