| Apr 19, 2012
With only 23 days until graduation, and my self-disclosed senioritis infection, I’m pulling straws today to come up with a blog idea. A nod to Poetry Month? A sigh of relief that Tom Petty’s guitar was recovered just in time for the tour? A funny story about storming out of a job? (Just kidding. I haven’t done that…yet…)
I’ll just go with what I know – comprehensive exams.
They were last Friday. The mother of exams. Half the culmination of our master’s education (the other half is still to come…). Three questions in four hours standing between us all and graduation. We had been warned during orientation. Professors alluded to them in class. They said our final exams were practice. “You’ll do fine,” they cooed. We knew the Ph.D. students would have it even harder (written comps + oral comps + dissertation), but there was nothing anyone could do to release some of the pressure.
Needless to say, I haven’t felt so much stress over an exam in my life. The GRE had nothing on this. I passed up any and all manifestations of fun for weeks. Some people lost sleep. There were nightmares of missing the exams and not being able to graduate. The heat was on. At least I wasn’t alone in my plight – two friends and I formed a study group a month in advance. And that’s where the story turns into a moral.
As a high school student, I didn’t need to study much. Not really at all, in fact. Then, as an undergrad, I quickly learned I had to read a lot to stay on top of my classes. But again, studying for exams wasn’t a major concern. Well, the game changes in graduate level courses. Reading loads increase exponentially and exams turn into papers and presentations. Thus, comprehensive exams are designed as a way for you to draw upon everything you learned in a set of courses and apply it in an essay answer to one question per course.
When the two friends and I first got together, we knew we needed a game plan. We decided to devote one weekend to each of the three courses we were taking exams in. We also took a “divide and conquer” approach to the course themes, so we were each responsible for a part. When we met together each weekend, we reviewed content for a few hours. Then, abiding by the mantra “Study long, study wrong,” we broke for the afternoon and regrouped in the evening. By that time, we were ready to compose answers to practice questions. Other groups took different approaches – some wrote all-inclusive study guides, while others made flashcards for each major theme/author. Everybody did what he or she needed to.
The day before the exams, I knew I needed to relax and conserve energy, much like what athletes do to prepare for a competition. I took off work, slept in, and ate well throughout the day. I studied with my group in the morning to iron out last-minute doubts, and in the afternoon I went shopping (hey, it was for distraction purposes only). That night I had a good dinner, put on some relaxing music, and did some yoga stretches before bed.
It might sound a little crazy, doing all this just for exams, but in the morning, I felt great! When I sat down and saw my questions, I gave an enormous sigh of relief – I was ready to show those comps who was boss! Four hours later, my classmates and I regrouped to share our reactions. Everyone seemed satisfied with the outcome. We won’t have the results for another couple weeks, but I’m confident we’ll all be graduating.
Lessoned learned – prepare. And prepare in advance. This is true of exams, interviews, and work assignments. Good preparation has helped me perform well in countless situations; comps were probably just the most stressful. With that said, I’m going to get ready for next week’s presentation…!