The final project to get my medieval master's degree was to take comprehensive exams. 2 days, 4 hours, 6 essays in total concerning 4 areas of history: Byzantine, early medieval, late medieval, and early modern (Renaissance and Reformation). My professors gave me recommended lists to read, totaling about 60 books. Just to show...
My friends in the program got it and knew the task at hand, but others found it hard to imagine reading 60 books. I LOVE reading. To me, I felt really lucky that my big medieval task for the summer was to read.
In June, I had finished the books and transitioned into my summer job -- working as an administrator at a camp for gifted middle school and high school kids (5th year in the program) in Saratoga Springs. Each day, generally before my morning run and before bed, I found a bit of time to review the heretical movements, emperors, and other shenanigans about medieval society. The faculty in my program let me take the exam on site, meaning I didn't have to travel to DC for the exam. Instead, I was locked in the office in NY.
I finished the first day in about 3:41, and it occurred to me that I can run a marathon in about the same time I can take one day of exams. And it did feel like a marathon - about the same amount of time of preparation, and a somewhat similar feel of exhaustion after. But there was still one day to go.
In all ways, I found it best to treat comps like a marathon - and my jitters were about the same. I went on runs each morning, listened to certain "psych up" songs, and tried to find a little relaxing time to talk with a friend. That's what has gotten me through 3 marathons, and it works!
The butterflies were big on Thursday. This was the day - the final day, the subject area where I knew the material really well. The attitude I chose for the exam was "tenacious" -- it was something a few friends had said, and it stuck with me. So, I came in on Thursday ready to rock and roll. I told my proctor that she would know within the first minute if it was a good exam. She flipped the test, and I just smiled. The test was a way of truly showing what I knew - good, thorough questions that I could confidently answer. I wrote and wrote, and every once in a while would get up to stretch. It started to occur to me with an hour to go that I was about to finish my degree. "Hang in, hold on, finish strong," I thought, and then realized that I truly was coaching myself in marathon-manner. It was a great exam because I could really show what I knew and incorporate a lot of the books I had read in preparation. Plus, I was able to incorporate ideas from papers I had written in school too, so it was a nice way to amass it all.
When the time was done, I opened the door and my friends at my job had made a "finish line" for me. I almost cried at this point - just from the relief of finishing and feeling grateful for my friends here. They also got me a cake, so we had a little work party at lunch. I was very touched, simply because they understood how much the exam meant to me.
For me, it was a big stepping stone in my academic career and a victory. There is still lots of work to be done, but it was a way to show my department what I've learned since I got to graduate school. I couldn't have done it alone, and it was the support I received leading up to the exams that made Thursday all the more special. So, if you ever:
*Asked me a question about the Middle Ages or asked about what book I was reading
*Bought me coffee while I was studying
*Helped me move my books across several states (thanks, Dad!)
*Offered support and hugs