Crushing “Comps”: A Guide to Mastering the Comprehensive Exam as a Villanova History Graduate Student

Featured Image Source

If you are a Villanova History graduate student, then “Comps” can be a daunting word for you. Hearing professors and second-year students discuss “Comps” may cause copious amounts of anxiety, especially if you are nearing your exams. As a recent “Comps” examinee (March 2018) and graduate (May 2018), I am here to tell you that I completely understand your predicament and various feelings about these exams. You will feel overwhelmed, stressed, tired, and pressured to prove yourself as a historian through this comprehensive exam. You may also be doubting yourself along the way, but eventually, you will realize the incredible knowledge you have acquired over your last eight to ten courses at Villanova. Below is a guide to current graduate students who will be taking “Comps” shortly.


How to approach “Comps”


Advice to first-year students:
  • Take excellent notes during all of your readings and classes- focus on the thesis, approach/method/theory, sources, and make connections to your other readings if applicable. These notes will come in handy later on when you are studying.
  • Have digital copies of your syllabi and any papers you have written. These will be needed when you are asked to compile your complete bibliography.
  • If you have time, then review your notes at the end of each semester. Try to make connections or draw out big themes related to your concentration. Make a note of key historians in your concentration. Pay attention to the names you hear over and over in your classes or readings (they are repeated for a reason!).
  • Theory and Methods is your friend for the general questions. Do the readings. Take the notes. You will thank yourself later on.


Advice to second-year students:
  • If you haven’t already, start compiling your complete bibliography separated into the books and articles you read for each class as well as your research paper bibliographies.
  • Start thinking about your board members. Try to pick professors that you have had multiple classes with and who know you well.


Advice to upcoming exam-takers:
  • MEET WITH YOUR BOARD ASAP- I cannot stress this point enough! It is so important to meet with your board members to discuss what classes are included in your concentration and possible questions that will be asked. Do not be afraid to discuss how you should approach studying with them either. They are the pros (and the graders) after all!
  • Make copies of previous exam questions that pertain to your concentration paying the closest attention to those asked by your board members.
  • Gather all of your notes from all readings, classes, and papers. You’ll be walking around with a stack on notebooks for a few weeks.
  • Go through your notes and highlight major historians, sources, and themes. Use these mostly for your concentration exam, but “classic” sources can be applied to the general questions as well.
  • Make study guides. Use your complete bibliography as a starting point to keep your notes organized by class.
  • Pick out and focus on seven of the nine general questions. Outline your answers to these questions starting with a thesis. These questions are complex and multidimensional- make sure your answer is, too, but remain clear and concise in your argument. Know and use at least five sources that best support your thesis and make its applicability to your answer very clear. Answer these questions ahead of time and memorize your answers! No excuses!
  • Meet with classmates to study, especially those you had multiple classes with since you will have similar bibliographies.

How I prepared for “Comps”


Your time to study will be limited, especially if you are taking a full course load and working. It is important to set up a study schedule to keep you on track and make sure you devote enough time to both exams (morning and afternoon). I chose the two weeks leading up to “Comps” to completely submerge myself into studying and divided my time accordingly. I ended up spending five days on concentration studying and five days on general studying with a final review day spent on memorizing my key sources and outlines. I also made a master study guide which included notes for every source on my complete bibliography and a timeline of historiography in the US and Europe from the nineteenth century to the present with key schools, historians, methods, and events or movements that influenced them.


Concentration (Morning) Exam:

  • Kerrison advised me to think of my exams as a synthesis of my studies rather than a fully comprehensive approach. Her advice allowed me to narrow in on the main players and books in my concentration and to create a dialogue between them. I ended up compiling a list of forty “go-to” books and articles that I knew I could rely on to answer my morning questions. I spent a lot of my time contrasting and connecting these main books and articles which ended up being extremely useful for my questions.
  • I also sat with the previous exam questions and highlighted the ones that stood out to me as questions that applied to my specific studies. I went through each question and wrote down a thesis and about five sources that would help me answer that question off the top of my head. If I struggled to answer it sufficiently, then I went through my bibliography as a refresher. I suggest doing this just to get you used to answer questions without any material in front of you. It is amazing to see how much you already know without really studying.


General (Afternoon) Exam:
  • I used the same approach for the general questions as I did with my concentration. I came up with an initial thesis and sources. Then, I revised them both to fully answer the question and made sure those sources fit my argument. I tried my best to include sources that probably would not be used in my morning exams. Showing your full breadth of knowledge is important.
  • I chose not to study questions three and four simply because I liked the other questions better.
  • I also studied these questions with two of my classmates with whom I had at least 4 classes with. I found their insight to be interesting and tweaked my answers to include some of their ideas as well. Talking through these questions helped me see another approach to them which broadened my answers.
  • I used the day before “Comps” to memorize these seven answers.


During and after the exams

  • Take a deep breath. Read the directions carefully. Then, read your questions. If applicable, choose the questions you feel most confident about answering. Start with the question that you know you have an answer to immediately. Take the first few minutes to outline your answer. List the sources you want to include. Write down keywords for why you include them next to the title of the source. Start with a solid thesis. Remember that history is subjective and strongly nuanced. Show these nuances in the sources you choose to include in your answer. Guide your exam grader through your thesis with clear topic sentences and thoroughly explain why you referred to a specific historian or source. Do NOT just name drop. Aim for about five sources in each answer.
  • Split the time equally between your questions.
  • Be confident. Let that confidence permeate your answers.
  • Celebrate completing “Comps!” These exams are a huge accomplishment and try not to worry while you are awaiting your results. Some students receive them faster than others, but a slower result does not mean that you performed poorly. Remain confident! Worrying will not affect the outcome either way.


These suggestions are just a guide to hopefully ease the process of studying and taking

“Comps” based on my experience with them. With that said, you should always study in your most personalized and effective way possible. I welcome any questions and comments from current students about my experience and how I studied more specifically for my concentration of Women and Gender. Good luck to all future examinees!

Reviewed: Women of the Right Spirit

One hundred years ago, the British Parliament passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act granting single and married property-owning women over the age of thirty the right to vote. Even though the Act did not include all women, it was the first victory in the fight for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom that thousands of British women devoted their lives to. One women’s suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), gained notoriety for their militant tactics, such as smashing windows and bombing vacant buildings. However, less is known about how the WSPU functioned behind the scenes. Krista Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organizers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-1918 fills in those gaps and returns agency to the everyday workers of the WSPU.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, Women of the Right Spirit is a reminder that women from all walks of life make history and deserve to have their stories told.




Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organizers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-1918 delivers a fresh take on one of the most exciting moments in women’s history: the British women’s suffrage movement. The work of the WSPU, especially, gains much attention from historians, writers, and filmmakers. While the militant aspect of the WSPU’s campaign is enticing, Krista Cowman dials the excitement back to the mundane moments and members of the organization. She credits the diligent, paid organizers, especially those on the local levels, with the success of the WSPU’s national campaign. By focusing on the women employed by the WSPU, Cowman argues that the Union provided an arena for women to be included into politics at local and national levels, and reciprocally, the paid organizers of the WSPU legitimated the Union as a political organization. Even more strongly, Krista Cowman asserts the female employees of the WSPU’s local chapters rather than the national leaders were the accurate representation of the WSPU because of their elaborate planning for campaigns and their accessibility to Britain’s women.

Cowman’s work in Women of the Right Spirit significantly contributes to the historiography of the WSPU and the British women’s suffrage movement because of its novel focus on the women who worked as paid employees of the WSPU, especially as interest in the subject has waned among researchers within the last decade. While major campaign activities such as window-smashing, arsons, arrests, and forced-feedings have been well-covered by historians, Cowman provides a new look at the WSPU as a political organization that recruited members, set up regulations for membership, and organized the day-to-day details of activism. The WSPU’s deployment of militancy also often took center-stage in its histories, and Cowman fairly addresses it in her study without it overshadowing her concentration on the organizers themselves and the importance of their local activities. Women of the Right Spirit synthesizes some of the newer approaches to the history of the WSPU with the inclusion of local studies in conjunction with the national campaign, and by researching local chapters, Cowman returns the agency to the one hundred fifty paid employees of the WSPU.

Descriptions of the WSPU’s paid organizers’ backgrounds, campaign activities in each district and at the national level, militant actions, and dissension about the course of the Union are the main themes covered within the first six chapters of the book spanning the years 1905-1914. Even though the national chapter of the WSPU gained most of the attention in the press because of its showy demonstrations, Cowman succeeds in presenting the organizational skills of district members as just important to the Union’s efficiency as a whole. As spontaneous as the WSPU’s protests seemed, Cowman provides many examples of the intense planning that the paid organizers executed. Without these women booking rooms, training members, and scheduling protests, the WSPU could not have existed as a proper political organization as Cowman confirms throughout this monograph. She even thoroughly discusses the loneliness many district organizers felt because of their intensity toward their work leaving time for little else in their lives. Cowman describes the disconnect between the national and local levels of the organization further proving the importance of the local chapter and its workers to campaign success because of the local chapter’s availability to members; Cowman labels the district organizer as the “accessible face of the WSPU” (pp. 65). In her chapter on district organizers, she argues that “their [district organizers] collective role in progressing the campaign throughout Britain was thus arguably greater than that of the national leaders” (pp. 86). These organizers lost their influential positions once World War I broke out, but Cowman traces their lives during the war to fully explain the WSPU’s impact on these women. The last chapter discusses the start of World War I in 1914, and its impact on the WSPU as a political suffrage organization as it splintered into smaller factions that continued the suffrage cause while the WSPU suspended its campaign. Cowman continues her attention to the organizers as she follows their lives after women won the right to vote, and she notes how many of these women in political roles credited their experience with the WSPU with helping them gain their positions.

Krista Cowman knows such intimate information about these women because of the numerous new sources she consulted. Many histories of the WSPU include the archival evidence from the Suffragette Fellowship Collection as does this one, but Cowman wanted to analyze these women on a deeper level. She dove into autobiographies, the WSPU’s publications Votes for Women and the Suffragette, national and local newspapers, and personal papers of local organizers. Her connection to the organizers she discusses and her passion for the subject is apparent throughout the book.

While contributing new and essential figures to the historiography of the WSPU with Women of the Right Spirit, Cowman’s argument is emphasizing the local workers sometimes wavers throughout the book. Her choice to highlight local organizers is commendable and worthwhile, but she sometimes loses sight of their importance with her inclusion of the national headquarters, militant campaigns in London, and the dissension among members on the national level. Cowman’s sixth chapter about dissenters is the least engaging and seems misplaced within this book and her broader argument that stresses the unity and success of the WSPU because of its local members. Overall, Cowman’s book proves a compelling read for those interested in the WSPU wishing to learn about the Union as a political organization, and Women of the Right Spirit succeeds in highlighting the local members who maintained the national campaign.