I feel I should apologize for the size of this post. What started as one post is now a series, but hopefully this expansion is just a sign of how much wisdom I have to impart. Or maybe I’ve converted my tendency to ramble into written form. Regardless, I’ve finally arrived at the meat of this post - workflow and resources for your exams.

An efficient workflow is key to productivity, and if you are unfamiliar with the concept I would recommend checking out Gradhacker’s numerous posts on productivity here. One of gradhacker’s most apropos posts is on note taking for comps here

For my comprehensive exams, I used a combination of DEVONThink Pro, Evernote, and Scrivener. If you are unfamiliar with these programs, I won’t repeat what others have said but point you to the following posts. *For more about DEVONThink, check out this gradhacker post (though the price of the program is cheaper as a student/educator then listed in the post), this Cliotropic post on OCRing archival material , and this Idlethink post on devonthink and historical research *For more about Evernote and exams, check out Cameron Blevins’ posts on surviving exams here. *For more about Scrivener, see Ryan Cordell’s post on Profhacker here

So now you know about these programs, and perhaps bit the bullet and purchased them. Don’t worry I can guarantee these programs will help. First thing to do is create a database in DEVONThink. In this database put everything remotely related to your exams. Old papers, colleagues’ papers, research notes, etc… I imagine my database like a giant moving box, where I could throw everything and use the search tool to find relevant material. Also if you have any images, DEVONThink will OCR them which lets you edit and search the images. To begin preparing for the exams, I started with searching what other graduate students’ posted reading summaries, since in my opinion there’s no need to invent the wheel twice. The most useful sites I found are:

All of these summaries are for US history, and I have yet to find equivalents for US in the World or Arab/Islamic Worlds. I may over the next few months post my reading summaries, but they are in pretty rough shape at the moment so it will be some time before I share them.

After this step, I started searching for book reviews. H-net is a godsend. I usually tried to find at least three reviews for each book. This strategy was to make sure any crummy reviews or overly critical reviewers would not skew my own sense of the book. Now I started off trying to read the introduction to each book and a bit of the chapters. If I had started a year in advance preparing I might have stuck with this strategy, but as noted earlier I’m a procrastinator and so I quickly turned to published book reviews. This strategy is not infallible and sometimes you do need the original book. However, the benefit of using book reviews is that you can add them to DEVONThink and keep your workspace tidy, instead of being crowded with books (which will all be due the day your exam starts because karma). After compiling everything in my database, I started moving and organizing material in Scrivener.

After making the switch about a year ago, I now swear by Scrivener for all my projects. I split my exams by fields, creating one Scrivener project for each field. With the split screen feature in Scrivener, I was able to take notes easily from the reviews, crafting entries for each book and article. I used two templates: an ambitious one and a bare bones one. The ambitious template I used in Scrivener and comprised of the following:

  • Title:
  • Author:
  • Year:
  • Categories:
  • Place:
  • Time Period:
  • Argument Synopsis:
  • Key Themes and Concepts/Structure:
  • Historical Problem and Larger Questions:
  • Similar Books:
  • Notes:
  • Historiographical Points:
  • Review Articles:

This template was helpful for organizing the large amount of info I had for each book entry. I then would parse down the entry in Evernote using the following outline:


While using both Evernote and Scrivener is a bit of overkill, I really liked the set up for a few reasons. First, the Scrivener entries tended to be longer then necessary, as I was scared of cutting out pertinent information. So instead of having a duplicate Scrivener project, I used Evernote to clean things up. Also Evernote’s remote backup feature gave me piece of mind in case something should happen to my hard drive. You could probably use one or the other, but I liked using both. In addition to the book entries, I also wrote a historiographical trends entry for each section.

For example, for my section on Missions in my US in the World list, I had the following:


  • Ryan Dunch, “Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Cultural Theory, Christian Missions, and Global Modernity,” History and Theory, Vol. 41 (Oct. 2002), pp. 301-325.
  • Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)
  • Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010)
  • Lian Xi, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)
  • Lawrence S. Little, Disciples of Liberty: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Age of Imperialism, 1884-1916 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000).
  • Ussama Makdisi, The Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).
  • Critique of cultural imperialism - missionaries as intermediaries of modernity?
  • How did missionaries shape America’s moral empire? Women missionaries and influence domestically
  • Moves towards cultural exchange/entanglement models - how to define missionary activity? differs at global and local levels
  • What is the agency of host cultures or converts? Complicating methodological nationalism in national historiographies
  • What is success or failure for missionaries? Intellectual/Religious shifts
  • Strong resonances of Americanization - similar on how to think about missionaries
  • Distinctions - metrocentric vs. pericentric perceptions - origins, flow of influences - missionary networks -inclusion of European, European descended or non-European converts into missions
  • What level are missionary encounters happening? conversions?
  • How you define missions in the first place? How historians define these organizations?
  • Where is the role of the host state? national status of missionaries / missionary status of nations

As you can see these write ups are informal and bullet form but trust me, these trends will be helpful when you are writing your exam paper and trying to squeeze the last drop of analysis into your paper.

These three posts pretty much sum up how I survived my exams, as well as my thoughts on the entire ordeal. Feel free to use any of this information or disregard completely. One last point I want to stress is to ASK FOR HELP. Graduate students, especially in the humanities, seem to have an especially strong aversion to collaboration and asking for help. My most successful field was the one I collaborated on with a fellow graduate student. We split up the readings, shared write-ups, and helped one another work through areas where we were particularly weak. While these exams are a test of your own intellectual merit, collaborating does not equate to plagiarizing or somehow slacking on the work. Even if I had collaborated on every field, all the ideas and interpretations are ultimately my own. Working with someone helps make the exams more manageable and means that you end up with better book summaries. In fact, I think collaborating is probably the best way to survive exams, if for the only to not feel so alone.

So go forth and conquer your exams!