The Comprehensive Exam
In many BYU M.A. programs the comprehensive exam is an important opportunity for you to show your mastery of the material covered in your classes and on your reading list. The reading list is an important component that allows you to become an expert in your field by reading relevant literature that applies to your area of study. Usually, students are given their reading list as soon as they are accepted into the program, and the test is administered towards the end of the program of study in the third or fourth semester. In some programs, information on the reading list is tested in a separate written or oral examination, while in other programs the information is incorporated into a final oral or written examination.
Just like with any test, the average student waits until the last second to study and tries to cram in all of the information in a short period of time. We suggest that you maybe try a different approach. Below are some suggestions that have worked well for previous students:
- Look at your reading list AS SOON AS YOU ARE ACCEPTED. You may even consider reading a few selections the summer before you start your program. After all, that first summer will be the least busy part of your program!
- Make a reading calendar for 15 months or so before your specialty exam. Plan out how much you should read each month so that you can pace your reading and not hate your life right before the exam.
- Make sure you can find all of the materials on your list. Some students prefer to find all of the materials ahead of time, while others choose to find the readings as they go. No matter which method you choose, be sure to plan ahead so you have enough time to get materials through inter-library loan if necessary.
- Consider using a tablet or online PDF marking program so you can save some money in printing costs.
- Consider writing summaries for each article your read. When the time comes to review for your exam, you will have to only read one-two page summaries of important points for each article, which is much more efficient than re-reading each selection.
- Consider coordinating your reading list with your course work. Usually, your reading list offers an in-depth perspective on what you are already learning in your classes. If you can coordinate your readings with your coursework it is more likely that you will retain the information and make important connections. Plus you'll sound smarter in your classes!
- Try to finish all of your readings 4-6 weeks before your exam. This will give you enough time to review all of the materials on your list and refresh your memory right before the big day.
- Form a study group. Some students choose to divide their reading list among several classmates and then meet periodically and teach each other the material. Others simply form a group to get together and read in silence during their time together. If you can schedule a time for one-two hours a week for the first three semesters and summer you will be able to keep yourself on track to finish everything on time. The Harold B. Lee Library allows students to schedule study rooms where you can talk openly without distractions. Click here to reserve a study room.
- Ask your committee chair what you should study. While you will not know exactly what is on your comprehensive exam, most professors are more than willing to tell you the structure of your comprehensive exam and what kind of material will be covered, such as final exams from your classes, the reading list, etc. Every student gets a personalized comprehensive exam authored by their chair, so he/she is your best source for information on the testing format.
- Spend the last 4-6 weeks reviewing everything. During the last weeks of study, consider meeting everyday for an hour or so with classmates and take turns reviewing specific material. Make a schedule of who will teach what and try to review the scheduled material before you meet so that everyone can contribute to the discussion. Even though each student will have an individualized test, you will be surprised at how many ideas connect together in your discipline.
Letter from the Professor to the Student
In our chosen profession, there is no substitute for spending real time on serious reading, research and writing. All-nighters near the end of the semester or a few days before the MA exams are not the way to succeed at these challenges. Rather, regular, organized and dedicated study will make for lasting understanding of the issues in your fields. As you take classes, look for the reasoning behind the way course syllabi are organized. Don’t forget the things you learned on the first day if “it’s not going to be on the final.” (By the way, that is a question no self-respecting graduate student should ever ask a professor). If you have not already started, begin work on your final papers today. Keep up with all your readings, and read other texts about the subject you find referenced the articles and books you read.
The MA reading exam can be a difficult experience, but the best way to prepare is to carefully read the texts on the list. Read everything on the list. For each item you read, ask yourself, “why is this text on the list? What contribution to the ongoing dialogue in linguistics or pedagogy does it make, or what is this literary work’s place in literary history? What is different about it? What are the main pints being made? Does it contradict or add to something else on the list?” I recommend answering these questions on a piece of notebook paper, one for each text--after you have read the entire work––and then spend some time every weekend reviewing what you have written in the notebook. This might be hard to get used to at the beginning, but after you do it for a few weeks, and after you get more pages in the notebook as you proceed through your reading (do some every day—even if it is just for 45 minutes), you will start to see patterns and connections between the texts. You will also not suffer in the weeks before the MA exam trying to cram undigested information into your head. Believe it or not, this type of study and familiarity with the “mini-canon” of the reading list will help you as you do your thesis or final project.
-Professor Dale Pratt, BYU Department of Spanish and Portuguese, 2014