Steps to Passing the Comps
Chris Vogt - 18 Jan 1996
These steps are primarily for those attempting a Ph.D. pass, but all comps takers should find something useful here. Steps 1-4 you should do RIGHT NOW! Not later. They aren't hard but they are necessary.
- Get copies of the comps syllabi and old comps. The front office makes these available (in the lounge usually), and older grads are often a good source for even more antiquated comps.
- Evaluate your grasp of the material.
- Carefully look over the topics in the comps syllabi.
- Look over old comps, placing emphasis on most recent ones. This is important because it gives you more information about both the types of questions and the topics covered. Although the syllabi are supposed to cover all the topics, you may notice some things which are only peripherally mentioned in a syllabus and yet still show up on the test.
- Take an old comps without studying, for time. This may be frustrating, but it will give you a good idea what you're up against (it will also make you feel good when you retake the same test later and are actually able to answer the questions).
- Know that all tests have both undergrad and grad material on them, so you'll probably have to do some review and possibly learn new material if you missed it as an undergrad.
- Understand the grading system. Realize that:
- You can partial pass, so one strategy might be to emphasize only three subjects in your studying.
- You have three attempts, and you have to pass by the beginning of your 3rd year.
- Borderline cases go before the whole faculty, so be don't be "the unknown grad student."
- Make a plan of study.
- In light of the above, decide when you will first take the comps and what your goal is. If you decide to take them in the spring, you may want to consider going for the partial pass in light of your winter courseload, but be aware that aiming for a partial pass is a risky proposition.
- Be prepared to sacrifice the summer. This may not be pleasant, but it may be necessary depending on how well you feel you get the material. Many students before you, including a "comps award" winner, have done this.
- Gather your materials.
- Get copies of all the syllabus material, and maybe some other books (you might feel more comfortable with a text you had as an undergrad, just realize it might not cover all the material). These are available from the lounge library, the real library, the bookstore, and of course your own personal library and those of fellow students. Don't feel shy about asking to borrow an older grad's book - chances are s/he won't be using it. Another thrifty strategy which you might consider is to buy the book but return it to the store for a refund before the refund time is up.
- Study! Everyone has their own personal technique, so I won't try to tell you how. All I can do tell you what I did:
- I made a schedule. Roughly, I assigned a book a week, with two or three slack weeks at the end for review and test practicing.
- Every day, I tried to study for about 7 or 8 hours. This consisted of:
- Reading a chapter, taking notes.
- Doing a goodly portion of the exercises for that chapter.
- Reviewing my notes for the chapter.
- Clearly, some amount of time was also spent planning my next goal.
- During the last weeks, I started studying more and more with others. We would compare answers, take old comps, quiz each other.
- During the last week, I practiced taking the test for time. This is crucial, since it won't do you any good to know the answers if you can't write them out very quickly.
- Manage your stress. You will be stressed, so realize that fact and make a conscious effort to deal with it. Hopefully you learned how to do this as an undergrad, but if not, I'm sure a quick search of the Web will provide plenty of advice.
Pitfalls to avoid:
- Don't wait until the last minute to study. You most probably will have to put in a lot of time, so start months early.
- Don't spend too much time trying to second guess the test writers. Realize that basically anything can be on the test, so you'll need to know everything.
- Don't take the test unless you plan to pass, otherwise you are mostly just wasting your time and sanity.
- Don't be afraid to ask professors questions. Most are very happy to try and help you.
- Don't underestimate how much effort this will be. On my third try, I put in over 450 hours of study time. You're probably smarter than me, but you aren't so smart that you can pass without some effort. Make that effort.
- Do what you can to figure out who will be writing the questions. Ask for the list of committee members, and realize who's actually in town. Use what you know about the profs and past comps to get a feeling for what the upcoming questions might be like. (But again, realize you must know everything!)
- Realize that there are some things you will need to gain an understanding of and some you will just have to memorize. I actually used flashcards for the memorization. Making them was a great way to review material, and they are also a handy reference. (You can look at mine for ideas, but you'll have to make your own.)
- Study with others, but know how working with others works best for you. It is a fine line between learning something from others' ideas and simply wasting time. Find where that line is for you and realize when you cross it.
- Find a "study-buddy" - someone else taking the test whom you get along with and who will help motivate you (and vice-versa) during the inevitable low points. This was my own saving grace. In fact, my study buddy was from another department, which was in some ways nice.
- When comps days finally come around, be physically prepared: get as much sleep as your nervousness will allow, eat well, bring food, comfortable clothing, painkillers/cold remedies if you need them, and of course pencils, erasers and a calculator.
- You can and will pass the comps. You wouldn't be a graduate student at UCSD if you couldn't. Don't convince yourself you can't, because then you never will. Whether you like it or not, this is something you have to do, so do it!