This is a guest post by Stephanie Hedge, a PhD Candidate at Ball State University in Rhetoric and Composition. You can follow her on twitter @slhedge 
This past August, I sat my doctoral comprehensive exams. It was a grueling, exhausting process, and the months leading up to the exams were some of the most stressful of my life. I don’t think that I have ever cried so much in my life; from exhaustion, stress, fear, and from the worst bout of impostor syndrome  I had felt since beginning grad school.
Comprehensive exams are a massive, daunting undertaking, one that marks the transition from coursework and being a student to dissertating and being a candidate.
But I got through them, and so can you. Here are some tips for effectively studying for exams—without wanting to tear your hair out.
Write. Every day. Write lots.
Writing is the cornerstone of learning and cognitive development, and is an invaluable tool when studying for exams. Writing constantly, every day, can do several things.
- Writing allows you to make connections between ideas, texts, and concepts.
- Writing gives you materials to go back and study. Instead of re-reading texts, make sure your notes are comprehensive enough to study from.
- Writing provides evidence of what you’ve done that day. Taking notes, writing out connections, writing practice questions, all act as physical evidence that you are learning. Being able to look back at the volume of what you have done can help motivate you to keep studying, and help to avoid the feeling of not knowing anything.
- Writing helps to keep you focused. A goal of 2 pages or 750 words per day can help you keep on track with your reading and studying.
- Writing allows you to be introspective about your feelings. You don’t have to just write about what you study; you can write about how you feel. Articulating feelings of stress, frustration or inadequacy can help you deal with those feelings and move towards a more positive outlook.
There are lots of tools to help you keep writing (see here  and here  for example). For my notes, I used a spiral notebook, with a page for each text. I copied down important quotes, key terminology, and connections between ideas into one portable book that became my study bible. Also invaluable was the site 750word s. The badges and daily reminder emails encouraged me to keep writing every day, and I could fill the space with both writing that engaged the exams, and writing about my own feelings about studying.
Read previous exams and write practice questions
If you only do one kind of writing, the most helpful thing to do is practice questions. Writing practice questions, especially timed, can give you a sense of the things you do well, the things you still need to work on, and what the exam situation is going to be like. Knowing what you’re up against can help prepare you mentally for the task ahead. These questions can be sent to committee members for feedback, who will help you see what you’re doing well, and where you need work.
Take study breaks—long ones.
This can be hard to do when you are studying. I felt an incredible amount of guilt, particularly as my exam date drew closer, whenever I would leave the house for something “fun”. But taking time for yourself is important. Taking small breaks while studying will help allow the concepts you’ve learned to cohere and give your brain time to solidify connections. Good studying always includes small breaks—do the laundry, make a snack, go for a walk.
But big breaks are important too. Take an entire day off to do something you enjoy. Try to de-stress, guilt free. Spend time with your family. Go see a movie or a play. Go to a sports event and cheer on your favorite team. Go hiking. Build a snowman. In short, take some time to do things that you enjoy, so you’ll feel more refreshed and relaxed when you do hit those books again.
Set small, attainable goals (and rewards!)
Setting goals for the day or week is an important part of keeping yourself motivated, and making sure that you are tackling all the material. But it is important that these goals are realistic and attainable. Know your limits, and work within them. Instead of saying “I will read ten books by the end of the week!”, have a goal of 40 pages of reading per day, and 2 pages of writing. Daily goals give you something to work towards, and meeting them gives you a sense of accomplishment and momentum that can help you stay motivated.
And make sure that you have a reward system for reaching goals, even if it is something small. Read a book for pleasure when you’ve reached your weekly goals. Eat a piece of chocolate after finishing a text. Promise yourself new shoes, or a trip to a new restaurant when you finish a chunk of readings.
A network of people who are encouraging and supportive can help get you that final mile. Find a study partner. Enlist family members or spouses to encourage you to reach your writing goal for the day. Ask friends to quiz you or read over practice exams. Talk to a colleague about your study process. Ask other students about their exam experiences. It is easy to feel isolated and alone when studying, but including others in your study plan can help make studying easier (and more fun!)
Focus on what you do know
It is all too easy to think about all the things that you haven’t learned yet, or all the books you haven’t read, or all the questions you can’t answer yet. It’s easy to panic, and focus on the negative. But there are lots of things that you know already, and focusing on that can help ease your mind. Write a practice question that you know you can answer. Get a friend to ask you trivia questions about a text you know well. Read back over your notes to see how far you have come. Read a paper from a year ago to remind yourself what you’ve read. Focus on what you know, not what you don’t.
Exams can be hugely intimidating, but it is absolutely possible to study for them without driving yourself insane.
[Image by Flickr user johncohen  and used under Creative Commons license]