I’m studying for my written comprehensive exam that will take place next month. I understand that the doctoral program has different rules as to how the exam process goes (mine is 5 days and open book). However, I’ve psyched myself out sometimes thinking about the exam while simultaneously studying for the exam. I feel like I’m getting better at not psyching myself out. So my question: what did you do to mentally prepare for taking your exam?

Comprehensive exams are a massive, intimidating undertaking (for everyone) that marks the transition from coursework and being a student to dissertating and being a candidate. Everyone handles the anxiety of their exam differently (obviously). I was someone who thought about it constantly so it became harder to focus on other things, like taking care of myself and effective studying. Remembering to take breaks to eat and sleep was a struggle more and more as my exam neared. You have to fight it the best that you can; however, there are specific strategies you can take to help yourself!

Don’t sell yourself short! Think about other things you are good at—aside from the topic(s) on hand—before you study and right before the exam. Research shows thinking about other positive examples decreases anxiety about doing poorly on a test or task.

Make a plan.  Break study topics into chunks and create a comprehensive list of what you need to study. Rate each topic with how well you know the topic (strong, moderate, weak). Then create a study calendar with your available blocks of study time and be sure to include breaks. Fill in your study topics allotting more time for the topics you feel weak in, but also refreshing the things you feel strong in. Rotate your topic list around. Generally, you don’t have to study the topics in order.  

Decompress. Remember that breaks are important too, big and little, so include in this calendar your breaks and days off. Every now and then, take an entire day off to do something you enjoy; and try to de-stress, guilt-free (I know, it’s hard!). Take time to do things you enjoy, you’ll feel more refreshed and relaxed when you hit the books again.

Say no.  While breaks are important. Stick to your schedule. It’s hard to say no to important and fun activities, but this is important. It’s easy to lose large chunks of your study time with other distractions. Remember, it’s not forever so the short-term sacrifice will be worth it!

Take care of yourself. Sleep and a proper diet are key. Make sure the first day of your exam you are well-rested (don’t stay up all night stressing—which, I know is very hard to do) and eat well. By taking care of yourself, you ensure that you have the highest probability for success. You are prepared and ready for this. 

Remember that this is your field of expertise. Know that you know your stuff, and this exam is your chance to prove it. Give yourself a few minutes of silence and rest before heading in to start. Take these moments to recognize whatever you’re feeling and breath, and then roll up your sleeves and get in there. You’ve got this!

-Rene Paulson, PhD


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