Things I learned while preparing for exams



fter completing my comprehensive examination on December 12, 2017, I started to reflect on the process. What advice would I give to those in younger cohorts? What helped me get through reading a seemingly endless reading list? Did I really need to eat that much ice cream or take that many naps?

While the some of the answers are more obvious (yes to the ice cream and naps), other questions require a bit more explanation. So below is a list of things that helped me get through my exams. I hope you enjoy!

Book holder

This is hands-down the best investment (besides the actual books) I made for the purposes of exams. After the first month of reading with my neck hunched over a table staring down, I could definitely feel tension beginning to build. I conducted a  quick Amazon search and two-day shipped an eleven-dollar book holder to myself. I even added a note to myself reading: “you’re doing great! Here’s a gift! -Jonathan.” The book holder continues to be the best purchase I’ve made in a very long time. I take it with me everywhere I intend to sit for a long period of time to read. While it is a little bulky, the material is good quality, and for the price, I am not afraid to pack it tightly in my luggage when I travel. Having the books at eye level reduced neck pain and made my reading and note-taking much more efficient.Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 1.38.37 PM

Google drive

One of my biggest issues while starting fields was deciding how to organize myself. In the beginning, I took notes every way possible. I would start on a google doc and if I went somewhere with no internet connection I would open a word doc, which later had to be copy + pasted into the google doc. I went through a phase where I wanted to “get away from my computer” so I started to take notes on paper (haha). This led to a stack of papers on my desk that I ended up having to type into a google doc anyway because it made for easier searching.

I played around with the idea of using other organizing systems such as Zotero and Evernote. These felt like the most professional. I mean, everyone was/is using Zotero, I didn’t want to be out of fashion! But honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to learn a whole new program in the midst of reading and taking notes. (I may return now that I am at the dissertation prospectus phase, however.) I ended up sticking with Google docs because it allowed me to make three folders (one for each examination) and then create a “Reading Notes” document for each exam. I took all of my reading notes for one exam on the same google doc. I would write the full citation of the book, highlight it, and under the citation, I would copy + paste my “formula page” for each book. The formula page was essentially a fill-in-the-blank with the same formula for each book, depending on the exam. It had questions such as, “What is the book’s main argument?” and “How is the book situated in the field of Latinx Studies?” I would also add my meeting notes with faculty in the same google doc that way our discussion points were immediately underneath the section of books that we discussed. By exam time each google doc had over 200 pages. While reviewing for the exam I could easily “ctrl+f” to search for keywords.

Find your place(s) and make it a habit

Where can you read and concentrate best?

I moved around to a lot of coffee shops. I found that the movement and busy noise forced me to focus on my own work. For a while, my kitchen table was where I would go every morning. Something about being able to roll out of bed and continue where I left off the day before was exciting; it also cut out the time for travel to a coffee shop. But wherever I was, I realized I need to be somewhere with windows and sunlight. I cannot read in a library with tiny windows or a basement. I needed to be able to look up and see that life continued regardless of whether or not I finished the book. But I do have some friends who need complete silence or seclusion to read. So find what works best for you, where are you most productive?

Similarly, at what time are you most productive? I noticed that I focused better in the early morning when the world seems a bit quieter. Like I mentioned above, rising with the sun gave me a generative feeling like I was soaking up the sun for energy and inspiration. By 6 pm, however, I have decided that I am useless to myself for the tasks of reading and writing. I get frustrated the later it gets. So after a certain time, I stopped working. If I did anything towards exams it was going to the library to pick up the next round of books or organizing and cleaning up my google docs. So again, what works for you? At what time are you most productive and does your schedule allow you to block off this time to focus on exams?

And like the other things on this list, try different things, feel them out, and figure out what works for you. It took me until the end of my second year in graduate school to figure most of these out.

Find something that slows you down

When reading a book for fields, we read to extract certain knowledge (main argument, structure, who are they building on/against). Often times I found myself not remembering getting through books even though I had at least 2 pages of notes proving I had gotten something from the book. It became formulaic and about halfway through preparation, I knew exactly where in the book to look for certain information. It was rare that I made it through an entire book.

I also noticed that I was having a hard time “turning my brain off” when I went to bed. My mind kept thinking about what I had read or what I was going to read the next day. So my solution was to read. I began to read novels that demanded my attention to detail. I couldn’t skip to the end and still expect to completely understand the story; nor did I want to. I actively knew that reading at least one chapter of a novel each day would force me to 1) read non-academic texts, and 2) allow my brain to ease its way into rest.

OyTY6pbqSPOUW0G8DkJciQAnother way I allowed myself time to slow down was cooking at home. Taking the time to choose, prepare, and cook the ingredients became ritual to me. It also allowed me time to break up my reading/writing sessions. I would wake up around 5am, read until 8am then start preparing breakfast. After this, I would read a couple more hours and then start making lunch. Each meal would take me about one hour from start to clean-up.

Whatever you do, allow yourself to come down from the constant thinking. These will be helpful in the future — I still read chapters of a novel almost every night before bed, and cooking my own meals has become one of my favorite activities!

Remember what matters

This came at a moment of intense vulnerability with an exam committee member. After confessing my own inadequacy for the program and the exam, they reminded me why I was here. They wanted me to think back, go back and read my personal statement that I submitted for graduate school. They wanted me to see the growth in my own thinking. But most of all they wanted me to remember what mattered. What matters was the connections I was continuing to make with my communities. What matters is the histories I continue to tell that haven’t been told. My exam committee member did not want me to get caught up in the formality of the exam. They reassured me that I already knew everything I needed for the exam. They were right, but I didn’t completely believe them then. I left that meeting holding on fiercely to what mattered.

So check-in with yourself. When you find yourself at what you believe is your wit’s end, take a minute and ask “What matters to me?” Turn those truths into fuel for the continuation of reading and writing that is ahead.

Make plans for after the exam

Post-exam can be an incredibly awkward time. I remember being at the post-exam party that was held for me and feeling a mix of emotions. Simultaneously I wanted to cry, scream, dance, laugh, and sleep ( I know not all are emotions but this is my moment so I’ll feel what I feel). Mostly I had the familiar “okay it’s over, now what?” feeling. I decided to spend the entire next day in Boston visiting friends and walking around the city. It was a spontaneous trip so nothing very extravagant happened but it got me out of Providence and gave me something to do since reading vigorously had come to halt for the time being. The next week I went home for the winter break. I suggest having something to do to keep busy after the exam. This is especially so if your exam requires time between you taking the exam and finding out if you passed. Don’t let your life come to an end just because your exam did, the diss prospectus is next, so take a much-needed break.



Please remember that most of the points above were a process. I could not go to any place and start to read, it took time to figure out what worked best. Similarly, I built relationships with my committee that allowed me to open up when things became difficult. I am also aware that not every committee member is going to be that person; perhaps none of them will be. But look for that person who will be there to support you emotionally when needed. The items and suggestions above worked for me, but this doesn’t mean they will work for everyone because everyone has different needs and preferences. Finding your groove is a process, embrace it! Good luck!

What are some things that have worked/are working for you? Please share in the comments!

I would like to immensely thank my examination committee for their guidance, support, and words of wisdom. Committee: Monica Muñoz Martinez, Matt Guterl, and Robert Self

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