Saturday, June 13, 2020

Comps success strategies

    Comprehensive exams, or comps, as we lovingly refer to them, have a way to make some students feel anxious and inadequate.  I keep getting frantic phone calls as comps gets near. The questions go something like this: What are professors looking for? What are the expectations from our answers? What should we expect? As with every one of my posts, this does not apply across the board.  Other professors and other programs have different expectations, but here are a few things you can do to make sure you have done your absolute best when you show up on comps day. 

1) Check your policies
    First and foremost you need to know what comps are and if they are required for your degree. Here is a hint for M. S, Sport Administration students, unless you are doing a thesis, comps are required.  The graduate bulletin will give you general guidelines, but each program will have specific requirements. 
    After checking your undergraduate bulletin, get in touch with your program coordinator and/or advisor about the procedure to sign up or register for comps.  Some require up to 2-3 months notice to allow you to register, so plan ahead and follow their steps thoroughly to ensure registration.  Ask nicely for written documentation of your registration in case you require proof or clarification at a later time.  One of the issues I have seen students face over the years is being unaware all together that they had to take comps to complete their degrees, trying to register too late, or missing them all together on the semester they plan to graduate because they were unaware of the protocol. 

2) Read your study guide thoroughly 
    It does not hurt to ask for a study guide. Some professors may provide one, some may not, but you can always ask.  The earlier you do this in anticipation of your exam, the better.  Think a month or two in advance, not years, as questions are likely to change between semesters.  Here is a study guide I have given out in the past.  Still reach out before comps as this may not be the my most updated copy, but it will give you an idea of what my study guides look like. 
    Once you have obtained a study guide from a professor, read it thoroughly.  You may have to read it more than once for it to truly sink in.  At this stage you are not studying yet (because you still have a couple of months before comps, remember?). You are just making sure you understand what the guide says.  This is your roadmap to answering those common questions I mentioned earlier by yourself.  It tells you what is expected of you, and exactly what the professor is looking for.  Take the time between the first time you read your study guide and subsequent readings to reflect about your courses content and how you may answer questions. 
    I really mean read it thoroughly.  One of the most common mistakes I see students making time and time again is answering the question incompletely.  This happens when you do not read the study guide thoroughly.  Many times, we present you with a question that has multiple layers, and you must answer all of them thoroughly and accurately.  What happens sometimes is a student will start answering a question, get half the way through, and move on to the next question because they do not thoroughly read the question. 

3) Ask clarifying questions
    While you are thoroughly reading your study guide the first time make notes on questions, or sections of questions, you do not entirely understand.  These may become clearer on subsequent readings of your study guide, or as you are reflecting on your course content.  They may even become clearer as you let the questions and possible ways to answer them marinate in your head a few days.  If they do not, shoot your professor an email or give them a call and ask them those specific clarifying questions.  The more specific the question the more help and direction you are likely to get. The broader the question the more likely you will be redirected to the study guide.   In my many years as teachers I have seen a couple of students answer the wrong question.  This could be avoided completely if you ask clarifying questions at the appropriate time. 

4) Join a study group
    A lot of my students have found success joining a study group for support, clarification, and accountability.  Some of them meet in person if they are able, and some of them meet online using WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, zoom or google hangouts.  I have even joined some of them when they have those clarifying questions I just wrote about.  I join professor groups myself when I have big, intimidating projects that need support, bouncing ideas off, and accountability. I highly recommend them.  
    This is not a substitute for picking up your notes and making time to study by yourself, I am recommending it as a supplement.  However, it can help you stay motivated and engaged.  It can also be helpful if you are missing some notes, need quick clarification, or need to commiserate about how your professors are trying to make your life miserable even when you are done with all your courses ;P 

5) Relax
    I cannot overstate this.  If you have done all the steps above, there really is not much more you can do.  Stressing about it the day of the exam or the days or weeks leading up to it is not going to work in your favor.  Find a healthy way to relax that works for you.  Some people like yoga, meditation, or nature walks.  I personally like CrossFit.  I do not endorse nor support the racist and inappropriate statements and behavior made by their founder and CEO lately, but throwing heavy weights around and screaming to loud music during workouts works like magic at reducing my anxiety.  Go ahead quiet lifters, roll your eyes. 

    I hope this post stripped away some layers of anxiety for you.  I will be expecting your specific questions when you are preparing for your own comps if you are in my program.  If you have any other useful suggestions I would love if you add them to the comments below.  Good luck. Go get'em!



  1. These five tips for taking a comprehensive exam are beyond helpful. It's amazing because these tips are great for individuals who have already taken an exam or those who are preparing for their first one. Out of these tips, there are two that really stick out to me and that I believe have helped me a lot. They are study groups and relaxing. Study groups are ideal in my opinion because doing this can help you gain more knowledge and ideas that you never thought about on the topic you're studying. Study groups helps you and other bounce ideas off of each other and open each other's eyes to more answers. The other tip that stuck out to me is relaxing. Relaxing helps because you won't be stressed or anxious about what's coming up. Finding something healthy that will relax you is important as you stated earlier. For me, I enjoy lifting weights and working out so I find myself doing more of that whenever I feel that I'm stressing or anxious.

  2. Hey there! Thank you for commenting and letting other students know what tips are most helpful to you. I appreciate your feedback and interaction in the blog so other students see what is works for folx.