Studying for Comps? Here are Three Approaches to Try Based on Learning Style

An example of the author’s mind mapping technique (click to expand).

There comes a time in every PhD student’s career where they have to sit through the dreaded qualifying exams (or “comps” as they are often called). The structure of the exam changes from department to department, but the essence of the process and purpose remains the same; test the knowledge and capacity of the candidate to see if they qualify to be a peer rather than a student.

Having recently taken my comps (and hopefully having passed them), I realized a number of things that I wish someone had told me earlier. There were techniques that my colleagues and I used which were helpful and unique in their own right that could be of benefit to others. Here are three approaches, and tips from the process, that might be helpful to those of you taking your comps soon:

I. Answer the Question

“Answer the question” and “what is your theory” are the running jokes in our department and there is a good reason for that. As obvious as it is, it is really hard to stick to answering the question when studying or writing a qualifying exam answer. We all have a tendency to go off on a tangent when talking about material that we have spent months studying and revising. According to most professors I talked to, the biggest issue is that students get excited about showing off their knowledge and that they forget to specifically answer the question. Instead of answering the question, the students end up talking about all the material they know about that particular subject area.

For example, when asked whether ASEAN is a successful organization, students have a tendency to do a data dump of everything they know about international organizations. While that is helpful and that literature is critical, it does not answer the specific question asked. In this case, I found it helpful to break down the question into portions; a technique often taught in high school for parliamentary debating. First, break down the question, then rewrite it in your answer with detailed definitions to reword it in a manner you can answer more specifically.

In the case of our example (Whether ASEAN is a successful organization?):

  • What is ASEAN?
  • How do we define “successes” for international regional organizations?
  • What are we comparing it to?

Answering this series of questions creates a default sequence and structure that keeps your answer on point.

II. Find Your Learning Technique

Learning techniques work differently for different people. This is an obvious statement that we all tend to forget and expect somehow that the learning process of everyone at the same level needs to be identical.

Let’s use myself and my colleague as an example. I am a visual learner. I draw things out and they stick with me. Reading something fifteen times has no impact on me but drawing the words out just once, allows me to pick up on concepts. My colleague on the other hand has to read every single word in every article and book in order to fully understand it. While I can glean an idea and theory based on the Abstract, Intro and Conclusion, my colleague will not. This means our speed of learning is different but not our quality.

Your learning technique will determine how much time you need to prepare for comps. Depending on the approach, some people will need to prepare for a year, some need six months and some need only three months. Additionally, seniors will often share their notes from when they studied for comps. Those notes can be helpful but by no means are those notes everything you need.

Since I am a visual learner, I create mind maps of information to find my way through the large quantity of data that I consumed during my preparation for the comps. The mind maps are a helpful tool to help remember large quantities of information not just for the exam but for professional life that awaits us. Think of mind maps like a walk down a super market aisle – everything has a location. You do not need to know the exact product that is there by name because you will never be able to memorize all the products on the shelves. What you can do is remember what products are at each location. Then, once you remember the location, you can locate the exact brand of the product you want. For example, if I need to remember something about democracy, I start with whether it’s a definition, transitions or something else. If it is a transition, which of the three major ones is it? If it is modernization then I can remember the three to four major works under that. This mapping of knowledge allows me to remember specifics about things that other methods don’t.

If you are a visual learner, try drawing the information with the mind map technique. It takes a while to get used to it, but it does make life easier.

III. Use Audio and Video

We get so consumed with reading and writing that we often forget that one of the best ways to remember things is through audio and video. One of the major methods I used during my preparation was to write my notes, build mind maps and then record myself talking through my mind maps. I recorded every major concept area I had as if I was explaining a route to myself. I would listen to the whole set of recordings (I had 5 sets for IR and 4 for Comparative – lasting about 45 minutes combined) first thing in the morning. I would put them in the background while I got ready in the morning and also every day for a week before going to sleep. Through the magic of repetition, it got to a point where I could remember most of the things I needed to know because my brain would make them in to a sequence similar to song lyrics.

My colleague on the other hand used videos. One of them simply made a YouTube playlist of interviews of all major authors in different subject areas and watched them over and over again. According to him, the advantage was that he could learn and remember more when he heard it from the person who wrote it. He could understand the context of arguments better when he heard the narration and saw the expressions that went with it. Another friend used podcasts of book reviews to understand what the author really wanted to say instead of just reading the book.

These are just three approaches out of a number of potential study methods. These specific ones were helpful to me and I hope they will be helpful to others. I do plan to post my recordings and material online so they can be of use to others who are preparing. My intention is to share my own experiences and also start a discussion where others can chip in ideas and approaches that worked. This process is brutal for every PhD Student and every bit of support makes a difference. As political scientists, we can help each other and also build best practices that can systematize this process and make it slightly less stressful.


About the author:  Adnan Rasool is a PhD student, a Graduate Research Assistant at Georgia State University, and a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.  In his previous life he has been a Political Campaign Strategist, an award winning blogger on current affairs and a development sector expert.  You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures.

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