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!