The Exam List Challenge

This year it was difficult for me to explain to friends and family what I was up to.  My shorthand was, “I’m studying.”  But preparing for doctoral qualifying exams seems like a lot more than just “studying.”  It was a challenge in time management, information synthesis, and really a wake-up call to the amount of literature that exists in a given field.  Most days I felt overwhelmed.  A good number of days I felt incredibly isolated and alone.  It isn’t fun, but when it is done it is incredibly rewarding.  I successfully finished the process last week!

Every program approaches the comprehensive exam process differently.  In my department, we are tested on all of our respective fields in the same two-hour timeframe.  We have to answer questions orally in front of our committee with on-the-spot questions.  The qualifying exam process is not a uniform one, and I suggest studying to fit the “performance” you must complete to pass the exam.  That said, for those scrambling to find good study strategies to absorb a copious amount of information (or, at the end of it all, to have a good archive-base to tap into at a later date) I wanted to share the five methods that *successfully* made me feel prepared for my exam.

  1. One book: one index card

An alumna of my program gave me this idea, and this was by far the most helpful study strategy I had in my back pocket.  It was a lot of work in the moment, and I ended up changing the strategy slightly in the middle of my first semester of reading.  But now I have almost 100 cards that represent about half of the books I read for my exam period.  If I did this strategy over again, I would commit to making sure each and every book I read had a card.  My timing (and exhaustion) prevented me from doing this, but the books that got one were the ones I remembered the best.

At first, I wrote very short summaries on each index card for each book, but I found that I was still getting caught up in the details of the texts.  In one meeting with my main advisor, I became frustrated when I learned that the information I was remembering wasn’t the information he wanted me to take away from the text.  He assured me that this was part of the process, and encouraged me to think about why I wanted to do the project I was doing, and ask the same question of the author I was reading in the 2-3 hour moment.  “What is the ‘bee in their bonnet’?  Why are they writing this in the first place? ” he asked me.


So, my cards became a little more point-oriented.  I wrote a “Bee in Bonnet” – which was really just the thesis statement of a given book – and provided three to five “points” made in the text that helped support or answer this bee.  This process immediately clicked for me.  When reviewing, I was not only able to describe a main point of a book but some bare-bones evidence that were detailed but streamlined so I didn’t get caught up in the tiny points of the text.  This strategy also helped me read more efficiently.  I looked for the evidence that best supported an author’s argument, and if I had trouble finding it, I knew this was something I could critique about the text.  With my four lists, I color coded my index cards.  If I had enough room on the back of the card, I would sometimes write an author or two of relevance who was cited and also on my list.  This helped illustrate who was in conversation with whom on my list.



  1. One book: one Tweet

At the very beginning of my studying, I thought that I needed to be super succinct with my understanding of the books.  After writing extensive notes while reading, I tried to limit the point of each book to 140 characters on my Twitter page with the hastag: #examlistchallenge.

Pros: The Twitter archive with this hashtag is helpful to pull up time and again.  I took pictures of the title pages of the books for reference.  I was able to distill the main points into a very tiny bite.  And, at times, fellow #twitterstorians saw my Tweets and engaged with them – letting me know which books their favorites were through likes and retweets.  It was fun, and it gave me a presence on the academic Twitter network flagging to others “hey, she is working on comps!”

Cons: The very tiny bites were at times too tiny.  I wasn’t able to remember what I tweeted as well as what I wrote down on the index cards, and this may have to do with kinesthetic or visual memory preferences on my part.  I also sometimes took way too long thinking through ag, tech, sci, and med emojis rather than the actual arguments in the books.

  1. Monthly write-ups for each list

With my committee, I was actually *required* to provide write-ups based on the books I read over a two to four week period.  When I initially compiled my lists, I created different sections to organize the lists thematically or chronologically, depending on the desires of my advisor for each list.  The way my department approaches the oral exam period is that it is a year-long endeavor.  The “courses” we complete over the year are actually independent studies with our committee based on the theme of each list.  I met with each advisor throughout the year and “checked in” for one hour each month, going over my thoughts on what I had read to the point of our meeting.  The list I made was basically my syllabus, and each meeting required some discussion about my write-up on a theme or set of themes for my list.

If you do not meet with your committee regularly, I feel these write-ups are incredibly useful for starting to synthesize how many books can be in conversation with one another in a given field.  These write-ups became the basis for my other study strategies as I continued to pare down ideas and books that correlated with these ideas.  I also started to write questions and comments related to my dissertation in these write-ups, which I have since been using for proposals and grant applications.

  1. One write-up: one to two index cards


You are probably wondering what is up with these index cards.  I even had a colleague come up to me while I was studying and explain that the last time she used index cards was for a biology exam in her undergraduate years.  But trust me, the actual making of index cards coupled with their transport-friendly size saved my butt for this exam.

After writing the synthetic (or, semi-synthetic) monthly write-ups, I condensed my thoughts even further onto a notecard in a “map” format.  What does this mean?  I basically provided a script for myself that locked in the main points of a particular theme and the books I read that helped support these points.   These were the most helpful study tools I made in my longer study process.  My last two days were spent mulling over these purple cards, thinking about the various ways my fields overlapped one another and the ways they diverged.  Because I only had two hours to talk about four different fields, these cards helped me remember the books that were most important to *me* when thinking through the ideas held in my lists: historiographically, historically, and methodologically.

  1. The study buddy


This may be a no-brainer, but aside from the “map” cards I made, my study buddies made this exam process so much more bearable if not semi-enjoyable.  For the month before our exams, a colleague and I would meet at a local coffee shop off campus and ask practice questions about our books and about our respective dissertations.  We exchanged lists and (attempted) to personify our committee members.  We both found that as we talked, we surprised ourselves with what we remembered in our year of reading.  We were able to self-reflect on which ideas, books, or themes we felt most uncomfortable talking about, and these were the areas we would spend more time studying on our own time.


The most important thing to know, regardless of your study method, is that you are not alone in this process.  Though it is arguably an exercise of learning and processing information by yourself, always know that there are faculty, student, and online networks you can tap into to make the process worthwhile.

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