So here’s where I actually breakdown how to survive, and hopefully thrive, during your comprehensive exams. I’m going to breakdown my strategy into a suggested timeline for how to prepare for your exams; how I organized my workflow; and resources for your exams. However, full disclosure this is not the timeline I followed. Just the one I wish someone had given me on my first day of grad school. Also I’ve only done the exams once, so please take all recommendations with a giant grain of salt. Lastly, I’m a notorious procrastinator so if you are too then virtual high-five and don’t panic if you are a few weeks away from your exams. Just do what you can and it will be enough.


First Two Years of Coursework:

Are you a plucky first year grad student already thinking about your comps exams and some how stumbled here? If so, good for you.

If you’re not, all is not lost but one thing I wish I had done was use my courses wisely. By that I mean I wish I had taken the extra bit of time each week and made good notes from the readings and discussions. Even though I’m training to be a historian, I have a memory like a sieve, and so trying to remember two years later what we discussed in the weeks on Progressivism or the Vietnam War was a bit tough.

I’ll go into note taking templates later on but you can click here if you want to jump ahead. Besides taking notes, start thinking about your lists and compiling potential books. Making the lists for your exams actually takes a considerable amount of time and so start keeping track of books you read, or want to read that has recent reviews posted on h-net. One thing to be aware of is that if you pick books that were published in the last year, you’ll be lucky to find any reviews. Reviews are key for your exams, as trying to read all the books is in my opinion impossible and unnecessary. So just keep in mind that if half of your list comprises of books from the last year, you’ll need to allocate the time to read and take notes on the books.

Exams on the horizon (somewhere between 8-5 months before your exams):

Alright, time to get down to work and start kicking some proverbial academic butt. Number one thing to remember is to pace yourself. The exams are a marathon and if you burn out too early, you’ll never make it through the actual exams, let alone get through all the prep.

Start with making your lists.

I would recommend talking to your main advisor(s) about expectations and format of the exams. Also now is a good time to call in favors and ask other grad students in your department and fields to share lists. Weirdly enough, most people are very territorial about their lists and book summaries, which I find bizarre but hopefully someone will share. In that spirit, I’m sharing my lists here and feel free to use them. (Click for my major list on US in the World 1 and 2; minor list on Modern Middle Eastern and North African Histories; and minor list American History Since 1865 List). Your department will likely have their own distinct ways of doing things so be sure to clear everything with your advisor and DGS earlier than later.

Once your lists are approved is when the real fun begins. And by fun, I mean weeks of high anxiety torture.

Now that you have your road map time to start compiling notes. I go more into workflow stuff here, but suffice to say, this activity will take lots of time and energy so once again pace yourself.

Exams ahoy (a few weeks pre-exams):

Ok, just breathe. You can do this. You’re the academic version of [insert favorite Marvel superhero/heroine of choice]. You eat comprehensive exams for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ok, enough with the bravado. The fact is if at this point you aren’t experiencing some form of mental health issue, I applaud you and am deeply envious. I started developing migraines for the first time in my life a few weeks before my exams, so don’t feel like you’re alone if you are feeling overwhelmed/stress/depressed/etc… Just head on over to my rant post here, and feel free to vent in the comments.

Now depending on your ability to deal with stress, you can start moving towards meta-level prepping a few weeks or days before the exams start. One of the preparation activities that helped the most was writing meta overviews of each subsection of my readings. I would try to list trends, big questions/debates in the subsections, and my critiques. These mini meta-overviews saved me during the exams. Don’t be too detailed or you’ll just end up with too much bulk for your paper. At most I would recommend a paragraph or two, but ideally bullet points.

Stop! Exam Time:

My exams started with seven days to write four ten page essays, and then a week later I sat my two hour oral exam. By the time I started my written exams, I was pretty exhausted and so I decided to start with the question I felt was the hardest first. In hindsight, I would reverse this decision as I spent way too long on the harder paper and wrote my last two papers in a flurry at the end. Be sure to get lots of sleep and remember done is better than perfect when it comes to these papers. I tried to shoot for about forty references in each paper, whether through footnotes or listing titles in the paper. Ten pages is pretty short and so brevity is key. However, I would also recommend having a bit of fun with the writing. I made all my titles so form of pun, and used the pun as a framework for writing. Pretty much whatever strikes you at the moment of writing, go with it even if it feels silly or tangential. You can always revise or change tactic once you’ve put digital pen to paper.

For the oral exam, I would recommend preparing any questions you didn’t answer, as well as reviewing the papers you’ve submitted. My oral exam was intense but I just tried to remember that everyone on my committee had already been exposed to my brand of rambling answers, and that if I couldn’t answer a question well too bad! One area where I was told to improve was to be more specific in my answers (damn you sieve-like memory) but honestly, everyone wants you to pass so just try and do your best.

Post-Apocalypse (or after your exams):


I wish I had scheduled a week or two of nothing but relaxation time, instead of jetting off to do research. Remember also to celebrate your achievement. Passing your exams can be actually rather anti-climatic so make sure you plan to party and savor the feeling of freedom.