Six Strategies for Sailing through Comprehensive Exams

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:13 AM | Amina Abdullah, PhD (Administrator)

Six Strategies for Sailing through Comprehensive Exams

~by Amina Abdullah-Winstead, PhD
   Author/Founder (IPSA)



1. Follow the Comprehensive Exam Manual

As learners, we naturally have questions and concerns about taking any exam let alone the “dreaded” comprehensive exam! However, schools offering a doctoral program want to see you pass the exam and move into the dissertation phase of your program. They are not out to get you.J With this in mind, many colleges and universities provide an instructional guide to follow for the comprehensive exam process. This guide contains ample information about writing the exam, rubrics for grading and scoring as well as sample exam questions, time-frames, and goal statements. The comprehensive exam guide provides answers to the most common questions regarding policy and process for successful completion of the comprehensive exam. As a first step, thoroughly read this guide and make your own notes of important deadlines and other useful information.

2. Demonstrate Bloom’s Taxonomy

At this point in your program, you should have a fresh recollection of Bloom'sTaxonomy from writing assignments in your research classes. Not only will you need to have an understanding, but also you must be able to demonstrate through your writing the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy. These principles consist of a higher level of knowledge and intellectual skill, which includes the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. There are certain action words that are associated with this higher level of thinking. Many times the wording of the questions on the comprehensive exam provides language that serves as a direct link to one of the top three levels of Bloom’s (hint, hint). Being able to recognize which level the question targets will assist you in forming the direction of your answer.

3. Get Organized 

Read your exam questions. Okay now really read your exam questions. For the finale, read them one more time! The point here is to dissect each question systematically while identifying and highlighting key words and phrases regarding what you need to answer. Much of the weight for grading the comprehensive exam centers on answering every part of the question. From these words and phrases, you can create an outline to make certain that you address each piece of the question. Start searching for scholarly articles and other sources to cite in support of your answers. If you have not done this already, set preferences in Microsoft Word to check your spelling, grammar, style, and readability statistics as well as to do automatic saves of your work. Choosing to answer the hardest question first is one approach that students found helpful in staying motivated by knowing that they can get through the remaining questions. ALWAYS backup your work on a separate USB drive, in cloud storage, or email a copy to yourself.

4. Manage Your Time

There are typically set time limits associated with the completion of your comprehensive exam. Periods can range from one to six weeks. No matter how much time you have, the following points represent tips for creating a good time management schedule:

  • Estimate a specific time frame for each question ~ For example: one question per week
  • Clear your schedule for the scheduled writing times  ~ This includes no phone calls or personal interruptions except for emergencies
  •  Leave time at the end for editing and rewrites
  •  Use all allotted time provided by the school ~ Most schools will not review until the due date
  •  No clock watching ~ Set alarms for when you want to take a break
  • Be flexible with your writing times ~ Try not to let unexpected disruptions throw you off-track. Adhere to Murphy's Law and plan accordingly.

5. Proofread and Edit

Proofreading and editing your work are important components of the exam process. Besides finding common errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling you may also find misused words, improper citations, American Psychological Association (APA) formatting mistakes, and redundancy in your writing. Scholars highly recommend the APA Publication Manual as a resource to follow. Proofreading and editing will not only reveal flaws but also help you improve your overall writing for your future publications. To avoid ethical issues, check with your school about having an outside source proofread or edit your exam. Many schools do not allow assistance or review of the exam from outside sources. Therefore, you will most likely be on your own when it comes to reviewing your work. Another recommended resource for APA formatting and style is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

6. Take Care of You

Finally yet importantly, do not forget about YOU. While passing the exam is a significant milestone in your Ph.D. journey, avoid losing yourself in the process.  Remember to take breaks on a regular basis, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, and celebrate your accomplishments as you answer each question and while waiting for feedback about your exam. If asked to do re-writes, know this is part of the process and do not stress about it. You are not the first nor will you be the last to have to do re-writes. Look at the re-write as an opportunity to polish your writing prior to entering into your dissertation phase. Ask family members to pitch-in and pickup additional responsibilities at home. You can also join the PhD Sisters Group on Facebook at any point in your doctoral journey for support and encouragement from our sisterhood. For those who are spiritual and find solace in prayer, by all means, pray.  

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