I thought I'd share a bit about my experiences preparing for my comprehensive exams, as there are probably a good number of folks preparing to begin studying in earnest over the summer break. I work in literary studies, and I completed my preparation in a generalist department, so I took exams in four fields of literature and theory. Though this may not be your experience, I think the strategies that I employed to prepare for my exams are transferable. I studied each field of literature and the corresponding theory and criticism, then sat in a room for five hours with no books or notes and answered short and long exam questions for each exam. Upon completion of my exams, I sat in an oral defense that addressed them holistically. So here are some practical approaches to studying, bonus if completed with a helpful cat friend slouching all over your work space.
I would advise starting by setting up a timeline (by publication date) of the materials you have to read, and work through them as much in chronological order, allowing for flexibility for grouping works in movements or author collectives. You can (and probably should) also go so far as to count out the weeks between now and the exam and then estimate how much you need to cover each week in order to cover everything that must be covered.
Sometimes we get caught up trying to know everything well, when actually, you need to know a little about most things, and then there will be authors/movements/time periods you know much more about, and that's fine. What is important is to make the best use of your time going for coverage. Breadth is important to show that you know the canon and major discussions/debates in the field, and depth can only happen in so many instances when you're preparing in a limited amount of time. If you have been able to strategically plan your exam areas (this is more possible in some departments than others) you will have some overlap into your personal research areas, and this will help when it comes to going deep into some areas on your exams.
It is a good idea to make use of a planner to lay out the work that needs to be done each week, and the time you have blocked off to do it. It is also a good idea to hang something on the wall that will look at you every time you walk past, reminding you that you need to be making progress with your studying. A planner can be avoided, but the kitchen or desk wall that has a month by month planner or timeline is a highly visible reminder.
I worked mainly on paper for my exam prep, organizing (multiple) binders for different fields of study. I began by returning to survey and seminar notes and separating them out by text and author and reorganizing them into the binders for my areas of study in chronological order. In this way, I was able to see how much I already knew and what I needed to fill in as I studied. It is an instant little boost of confidence and helps you manage your time as you work to cover the field.
I took notes on paper for new texts I covered, and typed notes that I'd handwritten in classes a year or more before to refresh my memory on them, filling my binders as I went. This way I was able to track that I was making adequate progress by watching the binders fill and checking off what has been covered, and everything stays organized. There is plenty of research out there that suggests that notes taken on paper are better memorized for recall later, and I'm just a paper, pen, highlighter, color-coding, chart-making sort of studier.
I was not about to try something new at the phase of comps study when I have developed a system over almost a decade that has worked for me. Have faith in your systems, if they have worked so far.
Organize Texts and Contexts in Different Ways
In the last couple or few weeks before the exam, there's just not much more new information that you're going to be able to squeeze into your brain. Your time will be better spent not worrying about what's left to cover, but by reviewing and beginning to synthesize the work that you have done. It's a good idea to spend the last few weeks organizing the information you have amassed in different ways: thematically, major questions of the discipline, trends of past test questions, intellectual histories of key terms, etc.
Having completed chronological work thus far in your studies should have made you very familiar with the way that key ideas, concepts, debates, and movements have developed over time. Reorganizing texts into thematic groupings and in relation to critical discussions work will give you practice with using what you know in different ways and in different relationships to other works. You'll be able to recall more during the exam because you will have organized texts in different ways and by doing so, have highlighted their various cultural and historical significance.
A great way to practice for the exam is to obtain past exams and to work on understanding how the questions are asked/what they seem to be asking of you, and also to assess patterns in questions over time. The latter will allow you to estimate which questions you are very likely to get on your upcoming exam and prepare well for them. Practice answering test questions and outlining your essays with an argument, which primary texts you would discuss, and which critical works you would cite to ground your answer in applicable themes, important questions within the field, and critical histories.
A professor of mine recommended performing a Say/Do question practice exercise. Look over past exam questions and ask of each one: what is this question saying and what is it asking me to do. Let's look at an example:
"Works of children's literature are not always written specifically for an audience of children, but they are generally works with children and young adult characters and themes. Discuss the thematic concerns of three works by African American authors that would fit comfortably or uncomfortably (for pedagogical reasons) on a reading list for a children's literature course in a university setting."
What is this question saying?
The hard details of this question are: genre of children's literature, African American authors, three works, common theme, and pedagogical concerns.
What is this question asking me to do?
The word "discuss" is potentially misleading. Part of the goal of these exams is to show that you can make an argument about the literature. Always lead with an argument.
Find a common theme and speak to teaching texts that address this theme in the classroom. The word "uncomfortably" suggests addressing difficult discussions in the classroom.
Given this information, what might be a practical approach?
Theme: black girlhood/oversexualization of black girl bodies
Works/authors: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison; Brown Girl Brownstones, Paule Marshall; Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat
Pedagogy: reading rape/teaching trauma
I hope this has been a helpful overview on strategies to prepare for Ph.D. exams in literary studies. Let me know if you'd like more practical approaches blog posts like this!