Once you have determined what is expected of you and you have a list of texts in front of you, you need to first decide how to organize your time and subject material effectively, how to stay motivated, and how to complete your exams in a timely manner. Depending on how you study best and how much time you have to prepare, you may consider the following study tips:
Get a study group. Even if you are meeting with people at varying stages in the exam process or who are in other departments or other fields, simply meeting with a group of people on a weekly or biweekly basis can help keep you on track. If you have to be responsible to someone other than yourself for completing material and having something coherent to say about it, you are more likely to succeed on your exams and feel confident about your progress.
Keep a schedule. Get a huge desk-sized calendar or use your palm pilot or type up to-do lists. However you organize best, just make a system that will allow you to stay on track and to monitor your progress. Make goals for every week, for example. By Monday you’ll have one book read; by Wednesday, your notes will be finished, by Friday you’ll start a new article. Map your goals out and you’re more likely to maintain motivation and interest.
Keep a research notebook. Even if your exams do not directly address your dissertation interests, it is a very good idea to keep a notebook or computer file handy into which you can enter various responses or commentary on your reading. I came across a lot of seemingly random information in my reading that I thought might help me with my dissertation writing later (though I wasn’t sure how), and it has proved invaluable. Remember to think about these exams as part of a larger learning process, and record any epiphanies or points of interest in your notebook/file.
Make an annotated bibliography of your readings. I didn’t take detailed notes of every text I read; it was too time-consuming and I felt like I was being bogged down in details (a good friend, on the other hand, learns best by taking detailed notes—do what is best for you) so instead I took notes in the margins and did spare underlining in the texts. After finishing the texts, I then did an extended annotated bibliographical entry for each that summarized the text and perhaps addressed how it fit in the list or in my framework. I then wrote down any ideas or quotations that I thought were particularly important or useful for that text. Each text, then, had a page or two of notes that became extraordinarily useful as I approached the test date. (Remember that at some point you have to stop reading and have to begin internalizing and organizing the information you’ve read. Organizing your notes in this way can make the task much more bearable). You don’t really know what information you need until you begin drafting sample essays, so don’t overtake notes that you may not need later. You can always return to texts that need further review later.
Get it done. Putting off your exams is the easiest way to stall a formerly productive academic career. The exams are not meant to see if you know everything or to see if you have your dissertation mapped out. They are, quite simply, a test of your ability to synthesize information and to direct and complete self-study. Don’t put it off any longer than you have to—you’ll never be as prepared as you’d like to be. Trust in yourself and your hard work and just take the risk.