Testing, testing?
April 19, 2012 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm getting ready to take my comps in less than two weeks. Any advice?

I've been told repeatedly by my committee and my advisor that I am ready. I'm still terrified I'll embarrass myself. Any thoughts on how to not psych myself out and/or last-minute study tips? I'm in a doctoral program for literature. I've written a 50-page essay that they'll talk to me about for the first hour and the second hour is anything on my reading list (which is about 150 books, most of which I'm comfortable with, a few of which I'm scared of).
posted by mrfuga0 to Education (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure you've heard all this before, but -
1) Take a couple days off before your exam. See a stupid movie the night before.
2) Don't use up all your water and coffee in the first ten minutes :)
3) If your committee says you are ready, then you will pass.
4) Try to relax and have fun - I know this is not going to happen, but in retrospect, the time I spent studying for my comps was awesome and interesting. You'll never have to do it again, but you'll also never get to do it again.
5) You can't really do too much in the next two weeks - I mean, of course you'll study, but what you do between now and your exams is more about your own confidence than what you'll actually be able to talk about in your exams.
6) You've got the first hour nailed (mine (also in literature) were 3 hours of questions about my list followed by a 72 hour written exam!!) - you wrote the paper, you know it better than anybody on your committee; it's likely you know more about the 150 texts on your list right now than anybody on your committee. You're the best prepared person in the room.
7) Your committee has seen countless grad students go through this. They've also been there themselves. They know what you're going through. The exam's not confrontational - it's about figuring out what you know, not what you don't know, and they're all on your side. They understand your fear of embarrassing yourself, and it's everybody's fear. You've read the books--you're ready. Don't worry if you botch the first question, or can't answer a question--you're going to have plenty to talk about.
posted by drobot at 8:12 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's scary, but try also to trust your committee about your level of preparedness and think of it as an opportunity to sit around and chat about books and ideas that interest and excite you. It occurred to me that my committee probably didn't want to be sitting in that room any more than I did, so it was my job to be interesting and enthusiastic, to make eye contact and keep my sense of humor intact. Really do bring your enthusiasm for literature with you into the exam. Your committee members likely want to see you do well and aren't out to get you. Or, if one of them is, you'll probably still pass AND you'll have a great war story to tell later.

The few tips that really worked for me: create a big ol' stack of note cards with the names of books, themes, authors, key words, etc. Don't worry about being complete (that's near impossible), but having a lot of cards with lots of random words is great. Practice picking up a card out of the heap and talking about the topic for 30 seconds. You can even add "trigger" words and phrases to the card so that in the exam if someone mentions nature, say, you have the name of an eco-critic on the tip of your tongue. Include a few micro-level tidbits on some of the cards--reference, say, to a minor novella. Being able to reference something a bit off-beat occasionally proved an asset for me. Finally, practice redirection. Have a friend ask you some pointed, esoteric questions about specific works and practice adeptly moving the discussion to works that YOU want to talk about. I managed to get a high pass on my exam, and I used this BS technique a couple of times! Don't do it in quavering apologetic tones. Be direct ('That's certainly true of The Scarlet Letter, but I see that happening as well in The House of Seven Gables").

In terms of your first part, when you'll talk about your own work, just be sure you know your own essay back and forward. Highlight key passages and record them into your phone and ruminate over them as you take a walk. Your committee will probably ask you to apply the central idea(s) to a text, theory, or school of thought you didn't mention. They might ask if you if you've read a bunch of different works in which your idea bears out -- works you haven't read and that you really don't think pertain. Practice the gentle art of BS and redirection. I'd also go into the essay and highlight my top 3 or 4 key words (use Wordle can help you find your most repeated terms) and really bore down deep into those in the scholarship. What's being published on those themes lately, for instance?

Oh, the day of your exam, spend a lazy morning with someone near and dear to you, discussing happy things, like where you'll go to celebrate and what you'll drink. Focus on positive memories and hopes. Wear something to the exam that makes you feel confident and at ease -- nothing that cuts in tight at the waist band or gapes at the neck. Bring water (nothing with an open lid that could spill), an energy bar or piece of fruit, and try to scope out the room a few minutes beforehand just to reduce that element of uncertainty. And then walk in, breathe, make eye contact, smile, and be a badass.

Good luck!
posted by cymru_j at 8:21 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) Don't panic. People want you to pass, almost always.
2) Practice smart smooth delaying tactics--how to loiter and smile while thinking your way around a surprise, if it happens.
3) Remember--you're very likely the expert here. They've read the books a few years ago. You've read them lately. You're refreshing their rusty knowledge, not being grilled.
4) Don't over caffeinate.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:27 PM on April 19, 2012

The best pep talk I got about my comps was from my advisor who told me that my committee had already made up its mind about me. "If you choke, they won't think you're stupid -- they'll just think you choked."

That really took the pressure off.
posted by gerryblog at 8:39 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Attitude is everything! Especially if you have any "young bulldogs" on your committee... If they get the sense that a question has tripped you up, or that you're stumped or panicking, you risk losing control of the situation and it may well end in an intellectual bloodbath (it happened to me). So it's very important to project calm, competence, and control at all times; don't let them turn you into prey. If you have a problem with a question, don't act defeated or flail around trying to answer it; instead point out WHY the question is problematic, and recast it in terms that are more suitable to you, or go off on a tangent. Don't argue with them or get defensive, though. Don't be afraid to ask them to repeat a question (if they didn't present it clearly) or to repeat it back to them yourself (to buy time and make sure you heard them correctly). Consider making a handout with important quotes, points, etc. Analyze in advance what kinds of things each committee member is likely to bring up, and how you will address them. Smile. Above all, just stay in control and don't lose your composure. And remember that even if you don't pass, you will most likely get another chance.
posted by désoeuvrée at 12:18 AM on April 20, 2012

I did my comps in the sciences but it was a similar format. I found that thinking of it not as an interrogation but as a conversation helped me to get through it without being defensive or getting flustered. It helped to remember that I was in a room with people who were really into the subject at hand and that they would probably enjoy having a discussion about any question they asked.

Good luck in your comps.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:13 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

My experience is in the sciences as well, and I was terrified for the first 5 minutes or so (my advisor said I had a bit of the deer-in-the-headlights), but once the questions got detailed and into the nitty-gritty of my proposal and initial work, I concentrated more on the subject, and forgot to be nervous. After all, I really liked the research I was starting to do or I wouldn't have chosen that topic, and I loved talking about it. As sciencegeek says, it became a conversation. The committee members usually aren't out to "gotcha" you. Are your comps public? I asked my friends not to come, as it would make me too nervous. So besides my committee, it was just strangers. That helped.

I also scheduled my exam to be in the morning, so I didn't have all day to be nervous. A few days before the exam, I practiced talking about my proposal and supporting work with a few of my classmates. They might not ask the same questions the committee would, but it made me a bit more comfortable talking about the subjects with confidence.
posted by bluefly at 3:26 PM on April 20, 2012

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