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5 Strategies for Organizing Notes for Comprehensive Exams
February 18, 2014 - 9:02pm

Photograph of a pile of open notebooksEmily VanBuren is  PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

Preparing for comprehensive examinations is daunting. There is no way around it. Here at GradHacker, we’ve featured tips regarding studying for comps, tackling the written exam format, and surviving the oral exam. But for me, one of the biggest challenges when confronting qualifying exams is an organizational one: how to manage all of that information you’ve collected from those dozens and dozens (and dozens!) of books and articles you’ve dissected.

Here are a few methods for corralling all of those notes, so that you can make better use of that information you’ve taken so much care to compile during the reading process:

1.     Build a wiki: It can take a little effort to learn how, but building a wiki is a great way to organize your notes and to make them easy to navigate. This strategy is also excellent for synthesizing notes, because it enables you to quickly build connections between separate entries. You can use popular tools such as MediaWiki or bitweaver. For a comprehensive comparison of platforms and software, check out WikiMatrix.

2.     Blog your comps: If you are feeling brave, you might consider using a platform such as Tumblr or WordPress to make your notes visible to the public. Or you could adjust privacy settings so that only you can read your blog. Adding one entry per book is a simple way to make your notes easy to tag and search. Additionally, using a blogging interface allows you to measure the consistency of your preparation. You can set goals, such as adding three entries per week, in order to stay on track. And just like building a wiki, adopting a blogging strategy enables you to easily build links between entries.

3.     Compile a scrapbook: If you prefer a low-tech strategy, consider assembling your own exam book. For an exam I took last year, I decided that my basic computer folders teeming with a file of notes for each book weren’t quite cutting it when it came to reviewing and synthesizing information. So I printed out each set of notes, organized them alphabetically (by author), and pasted/stapled them into a big hardcover notebook that I snagged on clearance at the bookstore for $5. I left the first few pages empty. Then I numbered each of the pages. Finally, I put together a table of contents on the empty pages at the front. It worked really well, because I was already done writing all of my notes and didn’t need to insert anything after that. There was something about being able to quickly leaf through my book for notes that was a nice reprieve from the hours I was spending peering at my laptop screen. A binder would work just as well.

4.     Write simple notecards: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m also a fan of using basic flashcards in order to force myself to distill the most important takeaways for each book or article. This can be especially useful if you have a habit of taking too many notes. For my aforementioned exam, I did one notecard for each source, punched a hole in the corner, attached them to a key ring, and flipped through them for speedy review. I found it was most helpful to include only basic points such as: a very brief overview of the argument, a concise explanation of the methodology and evidence, a sentence explaining the title of the piece (more helpful than you might think!), and perhaps a critique or two. To make your notes even more portable, try a flashcard app such as Brainscape or iStudious.

5.     Construct a database: I’ve already written about how much I love using DEVONthink Pro Office to organize all of my archival finds and research materials. But the same features that I appreciate for that sort of task management translate really well for the purpose of preparing for qualifying exams. For example, I like tagging each item in my database with keywords that I can call up when writing about a very specific idea. If you add a text document of notes for each article or book, you could tag that entry based on the topics or questions you might use it to answer. Alternatively, you could add scans of articles or chapters to the database, annotate them directly in DTPO, and then add tags. Other popular choices for database and document management include EvernoteZoteroMendeley, and RefWorks. But no matter which tool you choose, taking a database-oriented approach could really pay off when constructing outlines for potential questions, or during the exam when you need to locate that one obscure article that you know you read somewhere but can’t remember the author or name of the collection of essays and you’ve been writing for several hours and feel like your brain might implode . . .

Whatever strategy you choose for organizing your exam notes, the trick is, of course, to be consistent. Take time to dabble, but then choose one approach and stick with it. By moving beyond notebooks filled with untidy scribbles or loose piles of printed notes, you’ll make it easier to review, locate, synthesize, and deploy all of that information you’ve so carefully extracted during the reading process. As a result, you’ll be able to focus on thinking through the exam questions, and you’ll make your notes more useful to yourself long after the exams are over.

What strategies do you use for compiling and organizing your reading notes? Share your ideas and tips in the comments section below.

[Image by Flickr user Dvortygirl used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

 

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