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8 Tips to Maximize Your Comprehensive Exam Study Time

While helping people to pass a comprehensive exam, I’ve heard hundreds — if not thousands — of candidates say they “can’t find enough time to study.” They speak of study time as though it’s a missing item; something that needs to be searched for and retrieved. Actually, it isn’t.

Time is right in front of us. It’s a resource to be managed, just like any other resource. We manage how much money we spend and how much food we eat; why, then, wouldn’t we feel completely empowered to manage the number of minutes or hours we spend doing something that could determine our future destiny?

Here are my top tips for how to manage — rather than “find” — study time.

Be realistic: set a realistic goal for using your study time

Ask yourself the hard questions. How much time do you have to study? At what time of day are you most or least likely to comprehend the material? What barriers or interruptions can you anticipate? (You can count on these to occur — it’s only a matter of the frequency and the extent to which they occur!) Then, set a realistic, precise goal for yourself. For example, “I will study 60 minutes every evening after the kids go to bed, at least four nights a week for at least eight weeks.”

Plan, and plan your comprehensive exam study time

As Benjamin Franklin warned us, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Planning your study time is rarely easy or straightforward. You might not know what you need to study, how long it will take, or how to do it. As a starting point, try writing a simple list of any and every study topic you can think of. Then, go back and scratch out the things that don’t seem as relevant. Finally, put the important tasks on your calendar. Scheduling is probably the most critical step toward managing your time.

Stop procrastinating

In his book, Dr. Timothy Pychyl emphasizes the importance of knowing why we procrastinate. For many, it’s because we keep waiting until we “feel like it.” We presume that motivation must precede behavior. But science shows that the reverse is true: attitudes (e.g., motivation) are more likely to follow behaviors. In fact, Pychyl insists, “When you start to act on your intention as intended, you will see your attitude and motivation change.”

Stop thinking like an amateur – show up

I devoured Steven Pressfield’s book Do the Work. He reminds us that “Resistance is a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” Additionally, he says that “if we are struggling with fear, self-sabotage, procrastination, self-doubt, etc., the problem is, we’re thinking like amateurs. Amateurs don’t show up.”

You’re taking a comprehensive exam because you want to become a professional. So why would you act like an amateur in your studying?

Figure out which strategies work, and which ones don’t

When I teach in a live session, I show people a set of ten study strategies and ask them which strategies they use most frequently. Not surprisingly, most people use highlighting and rereading.

That’s a real problem.

An outstanding research study by Dunlosky and colleagues showed that these were the least effective study strategies. If you believe the results of this well-designed study (and you should!), and if you’re using these methods, find more effective strategies!

Skip memorization

Admittedly, some memorization—say, the 12 cranial nerves—might be necessary. But many or most comprehensive exams are likely to test your ability to use facts in a problem-solving process. In my experience, people spend way too much time on rote memorization.

Stop reading every book ever published

People who do this waste a lot of time confusing themselves. Pick just a few that you have confidence in. Information overload isn’t a good thing.

Take breaks

There is general agreement in research studies that taking breaks between study sessions helps with information retention. There’s less agreement about the optimal time for each session. I suspect that depends upon the person and the task.

Consider using the Pomodoro technique when studying for your comprehensive exam. (I have Pomo app on my iPad, and I use TomatoTimer on the web.) If I’m studying something moderately difficult, I set it for a 50-minute study period followed by a 10-minute break. However, I prefer to tackle complicated or boring material in a 30-minute study period followed by a 5-minute break. Conversely, I study easier or more interesting material for 90 minutes followed by a 5-minute break.

Managing your study time is a little like managing your weight. It’s rarely easy, but it can be done!

You have little study time. How have you made the most of it?

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  1. EJ Ashley

    I saw, today, where you said what things we better know for the exam. In paragraph form, not a list. Then I lost it! Such as, know growth and development, be clear on research, , it seemed to be very helpful to pinpoint study needs. Not a blueprint list, much more like just certain points.
    Any ideas?

  2. Marie

    I am so sorry! I did not see your question/comment until just this moment! And, for the life of me, I do not know where I might have given such a list–presumably, here on the blog, but unsure where. One of my favorites is this one, on “What’s Fair Game” or my “Countdown” here I’m so sorry, I just don’t have enough clues here to locate this “list” as you seem to remember it.

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