There are many different ways to do comps*, but in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona students have 3 weeks to write 50 double-spaced pages in response to questions asked by the members of their committees.**
My three weeks started about 15 minutes ago. Following my advisor’s advice, I am spending my first day outlining all of the questions. That way, when I start the Serious Outlining that proceeds Real Writing, I won’t be stuck after finishing my last question but will have a clear direction already set (and open to adjustment). In more detail, here’s what that will look like.
Step 1. Break down each question into its constituent parts. If there aren’t constituent parts inherent to the framing of the question, attempt to add them your self.
Step 2. For each part of each question, make note of all the citations you think you might want to draw upon in your answer. This is in response to my advisor’s suggestion that, fundamentally, you need to show you have a good grasp on what you’ve read.
Step 3. For each committee member’s question, identify 2-3 key examples from the appropriate bibliography to illustrate your argument and use as a connection point for the other readings. This is also a response to my advisor’s point that there’s really not enough space for more examples than that, and while its good to gesture at the scope it is also (maybe more) important to demonstrate depth.
Step 4. Watch a movie. In my last bit of asking around, a few people told me that lots of people watch a lot of movies during comps – something about intense focus for long chunks of time needing inversely intense passivity when not writing. Also naps.
And finally, wheninacademia.tumblr.com‘s answer WHEN I AM ASKED FOR ADVICE ABOUT QUALIFYING EXAMS::
* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** It is understood that they have spent a significant amount of time preparing for this (indeed, bibliographies and statements must be submitted in advance). Also, this is followed by an oral examination a couple of weeks after the written portion ends.