Degree In Sight

Like many graduate students, Meghan Duff faced her comprehensive exam-a hurdle doctoral students must jump before embarking on their dissertation projects-with trepidation. As a third-year applied psychology student at Antioch New England Graduate School in New Hampshire, Duff needed to pass a two-part exam consisting of an essay question and an oral presentation of a clinical case.

To quell her anxiety, Duff picked up some study habits that may have puzzled her pets.

"I walked around my kitchen and kept on talking about this case," she says. "No one was there, but I talked and talked and talked until I was nearly hoarse."

The essay question, which students get a week to write, worried Duff a little less.

"At Antioch, the idea is that as long as you have kept up with your class reading, you can pass the exam without much extra studying," she notes. "But you will have to review your notes and formulate your ideas."

However, no two universities have exactly identical comprehensive exams, says Dolores Albarracin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. Still, one thing most do have in common is the nightmares they can provoke in graduate students.

For example, Albarracin's students take a seven-question exam in a computer lab, where they have eight hours to write essays with no outside resources. Other universities, such as Yale University, give students an entire semester to work on large literature review papers. And most universities, says Albarracin, allow students to retake the exam if they do not pass the first time around.

But regardless of the exam format, she notes, students who prepare rarely fail. Here's some advice from Albarracin, Duff and others to maximize your preparation time and tackle your comprehensive exam:


  • Read strategically
    While some departments disseminate a suggested reading list to graduate students, many require students to create their own. Students who write their own reading list, which typically includes journal articles and review papers, should make sure to organize it by topic and have a professor review it, says Jodi Gresack, a third-year graduate student in Yale University's behavioral neuroscience program. Students can more readily synthesize and recall information if they read journal articles in a logical order, organized chronologically and by topic, she says.

  • Keep abreast of your field
    Professors often get ideas for questions from reading the latest research and controversies, says Fiona Lee, PhD, an organizational psychology professor at the University of Michigan. When studying for the exams, graduate students should take time to peruse the latest journals in their field, she says.

  • Take detailed notes
    After reading an article, Amy Trahan, a fourth-year organizational psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan, writes down the main points of the article—a practice that forces her to think critically as she reads and provides material to study later. Gresack, who read over 100 papers while writing her qualifying exam paper, agrees.

"You need to really make sure that you try to find the importance of every paper that you read," she explains.

  • Get organized
    Though she didn't do much extra reading to prepare for her take-home written comprehensive exam, Duff spent the weeks before the test getting her filing cabinet in order.

"My way of prepping was to know where all my references were," says Duff.

This allowed her to inventory what information she had on hand and then easily find articles to support her exam responses, says Duff.

Additionally, Trahan recommends students use citation software, such as Endnote or Procite, to keep track of their notes. These programs allow students to download citations directly from PsycINFO and other databases, and create an index of articles organized by topic and author.

  • Seek advice from older students
    Students who have already passed their comprehensive exams make great resources, says Gresack. Don't shy away from asking them for advice, or even for copies of their graded essays, she explains. Some colleges even keep past exams on file, students say.

  • Ask questions
    When Trahan received her exam questions, she realized that she was not quite sure what one of them was asking. So she took a guess, and she guessed wrong, resulting in the faculty asking her to rewrite part of her answer.

"I should have asked the faculty for clarification," says Trahan. "I would have avoided doing a rewrite if I had sought clarification at the outset."

Trahan notes that some students may feel they are admitting ignorance if they ask a question, but it is better to risk looking uninformed than to write four pages on the wrong topic.

That's good advice, says Rodger Peterson, PhD, an applied psychology professor at Antioch New England Graduate School, who notes that professors know what kinds of clarifications they are permitted to offer.

  • Read the directions
    This advice may seem obvious, but even normally meticulous students might fail to notice formatting details while under pressure, says Duff. Test-takers should note the number of pages allotted to a question and the formatting requirements of the comprehensive exam, she explains. Most importantly, students need to double check that they have answered all the parts of each essay question, says Duff.

  • Be thorough, not encyclopedic
    Packing in too many citations is an all too common mistake, says Arran Caza, a fourth-year organizational psychology and business graduate student at the University of Michigan.

"You can spend a lot of [unnecessary] time in the library, finding every article remotely relevant to the question," says Caza. "You need to be aware of the major trends, but you don't have to write an anthology."

While the intensive preparation can be exhausting, it pays, says Duff: She passed both parts of her exam with flying colors. In fact, she even enjoyed the experience.

"I didn't get any of those curveball questions I was worried about," she says. "At the end of the oral, the professors ended up asking about my professional development. That part was wonderful—that felt validating."