General Advice

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In the event

Every year, between 5%-40% of students do not pass UCLA's comprehensive exams. Not passing the comps feels embarrassing. Don't be unnecessarily embarrassed. Firstly, your colleagues probably know your results. Information gradients quickly equilibrate and with them dissipate any future potential for embarrassment. Therefore, don't avoid your friends and colleagues for fear of being asked about your comp results. They want you to do well and are likely to offer help and advice for next time. Secondly, some students who have not passed UCLA's comprehensive exams have gone on to become leaders in their field (including an assistant professorship with subsequent tenure at MIT straight after receiving their PhD). Therefore, not passing is not a measure of your innate ability, but merely an instantaneous measurement of your training status. Therefore, do more training. The best training strategy for your next attempt will probably involve some modification of your last strategy.


Some good strategies include:

  • Give yourself enough time. You are tasked with practicing 6 quarters worth of course material in one quarter's time. Consider taking that time and doing research on the back burner.
  • Be careful not to fool yourself. It is tempting to read rather than getting one's hands dirty. Sakurai forebodes that "the reader who has read the book but cannot do the exercises has learned nothing". The best preparation for comp problems is practicing previous comp problems (UCLA's previous comps, previous finals and midterms of committee members, comp question and answer books by Lim, Chicago, Princeton).
  • Do problems carefully. One may be tempted to prefer quantity over quality in order to collect a large canon of completed questions. However, it is important to find a balance. A high quality problem session involves working on the problem for 30 minutes, checking one's answer with the solutions and then doing the problem again without the solution. If one does not check the answers, one is merely revising the things that one already knows rather than charting unknown territory.
  • Leave your comfort zone. Learning has an uncomfortable activation potential. Overcoming this potential means leaving one's comfort zone and accepting the fact that one does not know something. When you transform this confusion into curiosity, learning is fun and motivation intrinsic.
  • Work in small groups. Working with peers helps with motivation, problem solving and can be more fun!
  • Be optimistic. Research has shown that optimism motivates for long term reward rather than short term reward. Therefore it is important to remain optimistic to fight procrastination. If you know that solving problems will help you pass and pass well, what point is there in delay?
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