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This is a GradHacker post by Stephanie Hedge, a PhD candidate at Ball State University in Rhetoric and Composition, @slhedge

A few months ago, I wrote a GradHacker post on studying for comprehensive exams. This post is a follow-up, with suggestions on how to successfully write the exams themselves.

Image by flickr user tonyhall

So you’ve finished studying for your comprehensive exams, and now it’s time to sit down and actually write them. I know, it’s terrifying. But I did it, and so can you! Here are some tips for writing, whether you’ve got 2 months or 2 hours.

Before the Exam:

Organize Your Notes

If you are able to use notes when you write, make sure that they are organized using a system that makes sense to you. I used colour codes to tie together key concepts, themes, and authors, but you can use whatever system makes sense to you. But make sure that all of your notes are at your fingertips, so that you can find information quickly. Even if you are writing without notes (as I did), thinking of where certain information was stored in your notes can jog your memory. When I was writing my research essay, for example, all I had to do was think of the notes coded yellow to help find the information in my brain. Even if you feel like you have lots of time to write, it’s better to spend that time writing than looking for the information you need.

Make Sure What You Need is On Hand

If you are sitting the exam somewhere you don’t usually work, make sure you have everything you need: notes, writing tools, snacks, water, a sweater in case it gets cold. Standard exam things. But if you are able to write at home, you can create a comfortable atmosphere that mimics an exam structure to keep you focused. Get rid of distractions like the TV. If you work with music, make sure you have a playlist picked out ahead of time so you don’t waste time finding songs. Make sure you have tea or coffee or water close to hand. Put your books and notes nearby so you can access them quickly.

During the Exam:

Take a Deep Breath

You’ll be fine. You’ve got this. Take a moment before you start writing to remind yourself that you are awesome, you are prepared, and you can do this.

Jot Down Key Terms, Concepts, Dates, and Authors

This is especially important if you are writing the exam without notes, but is a helpful exercise for any kind of exam writing. Before you even look at the questions, take the time to jot down things that you are trying to keep at the front of your mind, like dates and names. Let the paper do the remembering for you, which can free up your brain to think about other things. In addition to helping your memory, taking 5 minutes to write down some of what you know can help boost your confidence, and remind you of all the things you know.

Read the Whole Exam Carefully, and Take Notes

This step is especially important if you have a choice between questions, or if you have a number of prompts to write. As you read, make sure you underline key terms, and that you fully understand what the question is asking of you. Often, the key question will be in the last couple of lines in the prompt, so make sure you read the whole thing. You should be familiar with the structure of your questions from reading previous exams.

As you read, think about how you would answer each question. Make notes in the margins about the kinds of sources you would use, or what theories or concepts would be central to your response. This is important, because it can help you find gaps. Is there an important author you are missing somewhere? Do two of your answers sound too similar? Having a sense of where you are going to go for the whole exam, instead of just one question at a time, can help you make sure you are covering all the ground you need. As well, it can help you allocate your time effectively. How long do you need to spend on each response?

Brainstorm and Draft Your Answers

Before you start writing in earnest, take a few moments to walk through how you are going to answer the prompt. Jot down a thesis statement and arguments. Spend time sketching out where your answer is going to go. This will help you stay focused when it comes time to write your response.

Be as Meta-Cognitive as Possible, and Sign-Post Your Responses

Now it’s time to draft your response, and this is where the dreaded 5-paragraph structure will help you. Not that you need to use 5 paragraphs, but that kind of rigid structure can help you focus on content over form.

Start by writing an introductory paragraph that speaks directly to the prompt. Answer the question immediately. Then, sketch how where the rest of your answer is going to go. Be as meta-cognitive as possible, and use lots of sign-posting. Talk about what each paragraph or section is going to do, and why. This will help your scorers to know what and why you are writing immediately, and will help keep you on track. You can go back and edit this paragraph once you are done, if your thoughts have changed slightly, but use this as a road map. This will also help you if you run out of time, as it will let your readers know where you were going with your thoughts.

Then, write a beginning sentence to each paragraph that acts as a mini-introduction. Tie the paragraph back to your thesis, and outline what you are going to do in the paragraph. Again, this works as a road-map for you and your readers, and can help keep you on topic, and can act as a stand-in paragraph if you run out of time.

Proofread and Edit

Make sure that you build in time at the end to take a second pass over your responses. Catch typos, mixed up dates, and make sure that your responses are as cohesive and comprehensive as possible.

A Few General Tips:

  • Remember: Everyone wants you to pass. You likely won’t get trick questions, or prompts designed to trip you up. People are rooting for you, and your exam will be full of things you can answer.
  • Move on from questions you can’t answer. That said, there may be questions you can’t answer, or don’t feel prepared to. In an exam where you have choices, move on quickly; don’t dwell on the response. If you can’t skip a challenging question altogether, leave that question for last. Answer what you know you can, then come back to that one and do your best; maybe you can answer part of what they are asking for. Just remember not to panic.
  • Ask questions if you need to. There should be someone around who you can ask for clarification on questions or protocol. Don’t hesitate to ask.
  • Pay attention to your time management. Most exams are timed, whether that’s 6 hours, 72 hours, or 2 weeks, so make a schedule and stick with it. Remember to cut yourself off when you need to, to ensure you get everything done.
  • Take a break. If you can, take a short break to recharge. In a timed exam, this might mean going to the bathroom, or scooting your chair over and doodling a dinosaur to give your brain a rest. If you’re writing at home, stop and make dinner, or go for a short walk.
  • Relax. You’re awesome. It’ll be great.

Do you have any tips on writing exams you can share? Post them in the comments! 


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