A Daunting Reality: Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Surreal and unbelievable are words that describe how I perceive my current place in doctoral work. It is hard to believe I am experiencing this 3rd-year reality, as it seems like a recent memory that I was receiving the good news that I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program. That was well over 2 years ago.

As I slowly realize this unfathomable truth, I am forced to reflect upon a more daunting reality of approaching comprehensive exams (referred to as “comps”).At my university, comps are answered throughout one week of excessive writing with a follow-up verbal defense of those written answers.  Thank God they changed the process within the last few years: the old process involved hand-written bursts in a classroom and everything was taken from memory.  Currently, students are typically given 4 questions, sometimes 5.   However, multiple questions exist within each individual complex question, and different categories include Counseling Theory, Professional Ethics, Research, and Cognate (area of specialty).  Sometimes an optional question can include any of the aforementioned categories as well as counselor supervision.

Comprehensive exams are a daunting challenge.  Blogs and graduates speak of the grueling process, which often includes hallmark symptoms of significant insomnia, poor eating, and anxiety.  Food is reduced to meals that can be either delivered (i.e. pizza) or quickly microwaved.  Some students write between 150 and 500 pages.  Work and personal schedules are cleared for the week.  Relationships suffer.  These exams represent a rite of passage and transition from coursework and being a doctoral student to becoming a doctoral candidate and obtaining permission to begin the dissertation process.

Having never participated in comps, I knew that in order to write a blog about this experience I must rely on others’ strategies.  Therefore, I began questioning other doctoral candidates and program graduates who had been recently successful in passing them.  I talked to five doctoral candidates and two recent graduates about their experience. My questions and the main points taken from their answers follow below.

What things did you do in preparing for comps?

  • I began by reading articles and taking notes about 3-4 months from my comps date.
  • I organized my seminal texts, journal articles, and other resources according to the comp question categories.
  • I prepared an APA-reference list of some important works in advance.
  • I talked to others who recently completed the process.
  • I skimmed the comps reading list and made organized notes and filed them corresponding to each question category (i.e. theory, ethics, etc.).

What advice do you have for me as I prepare for comps in January?  What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?

Make a strategic plan to manage your anxiety. Remind yourself that many others have done this, and you are fully prepared to accomplish this. Take small walks outside for breaks every day.  Remind yourself that you deserve to be here. Remind yourself that you will do this. Lots of deep breathing.

Answer your “easiest” question first and then work towards the most difficult question.  I made the mistake of trying to knock out the hardest question, and three days later I was completely overwhelmed with fear because I had not yet answered any questions.  There is a psychological reward to building momentum as you complete questions.

Clear your schedule and plan each meal.  Think through every day and make sure you have enough food available either in your house or that can be delivered.  Have snacks ready if you need a quick boost.

Operationally define everything as you write.  Every term, every concept!  Even if you think that the term is common in the counseling field, this strategy really helps to think through your answer while assisting you in structuring your paper.

Make notes for every step of the process.  Make notes in the margins as you read through the questions, and then make notes about how you think you would answer each question upon first glance.  Develop an outline for each question in order to help you decide which question to tackle first.

Pace yourself carefully.  If you receive 4 questions, then you should have around 1.5 days per question and that leaves you with ½ day or so to walk away from it momentarily and ½ day to complete revisions/final edits.  If you find yourself taking more than 1.5 days on a question, set it aside and continue to the next question.  By answering other questions, you may gain insight in answering the difficult one.

Celebrate successes.  Take 5-10 minutes and celebrate the completion of a question before moving on to the next one.  Mentally reward yourself by marking your momentum.  Listen to your favorite song or eat your favorite snack.

No matter where you are in your doctoral program, I hope this list helps you as you approach one of the last hurdles of the PhD. I will return here in the spring to report on my experience once exams are complete.  Stay tuned.


3 thoughts on “A Daunting Reality: Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

  1. Thanks!!! I am right where you are. Taking comps at end of month and working on Chapter 1 now!!! Yes, I am a little out of sequence because I transfered to a new university after a year and summer of commuting 2 hours one way to school. SO, my third year is quite eventful!!!

    I wish you the best! Maybe I will see you at ACES!!!


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