How to Pass Human Sexuality Comprehensive Exams

You’ve gotten through your bachelor’s degree and now most of your master’s or doctoral coursework. Now is not the time to try to learn new material. You have to focus on what you already know and enhancing that knowledge as much as possible.

Before the test

Schedule out your plan for studying

  • Identify how many weeks you will need to study for the exam
    • Do you work better under pressure, or slow and steady?
  • Create your study tools at the end of each semester by take all the major ideas from each class, and who the most well known theorists are
  • Or if it is too late to do this class by class, make a start date for you to begin looking through old class material for study tools
  • Review old papers and lectures throughout the semester
  • Dedicate 1-3 hours every day for 1-3 months
    • Stick to what you decided for yourself
    • Mark a calendar to show your follow through and holding yourself accountable
    • Recruit supportive people to hold you to your plan
  • Take as many work days off that you can afford before the exam to dedicate to studying and have time for self care before the test
  • Gain access to old exams so you know what to expect and what topics have been covered, then practice answering them with the same time limit you will be given
  • Ask yourself what are all the major topics that have been taught. What has been emphasized? What is expected knowledge?  If you were in the same program at a different school, what information might you be required to know?
  • Talk to people from the year or two ahead of you and find out
    • What their experiences were?
    • What were the kinds of questions that were asked?
    • How do they wish they had studied?

How to Study

Memorizing history and foundations of your field can be done with flashcards, genograms, and pictures.

  • Choose a few people in each area so that no matter what question gets asked you have some basic information.
  • Come up with phrases to help you remember people and what they did
  • Include pictures or drawing clues
  • Use different colored paper or pens to differentiate ideas
  • Flashcards by people and topic
  • Genograms
    • Circle indicates women and a square for men
    • Place the founders of the field at the top of your sheet and move downward by time periods. If two people studied together, draw a double line for signifying the close relationship between them. If two or more people argued over their work and disagree on issues, draw a jagged line between them
    • Write key words about each person’s work
  • Picture drawing
  • Decision making flow chart
  • Watch videos of the people to put a face and voice to the name of the scholar
  • Quiz your friends and ask your friends to quiz you
  • Make up essay questions and answer them without looking at your books
  • Take old exams
  • Take time for self care
    • Get a massage or pedicure
    • Make time for lunch with friends or partners
  • If you really cannot give yourself a break, watch movies and apply theory and people to the conversations or topics
    • Play drunk history like the Comedy Central television show and pair your study nights with a little more fun

Strategize for your approach to the exam

  • Scan the entire test so that you can get a sense of how quickly you will need to work. Answer the easiest questions first. Get them out of the way.  If you get stuck, move on and come back.
  • Will you write names and years for citations down right away so you don’t forget?
  • Read through the question once and begin to formulate a conceptualization?
  • Write an outline and fill in later?
  • Professors don’t typically care what the answer is, they are usually most interested in how you crafted the answer. What is your supporting documentation that supports your idea and the rationale behind your answers. Of course, in certain circumstances there are “right” and “wrong” answers.

Practice, practice, practice

Day of the Test

Remind yourself of how far you have come and how much you have learned. If you have rituals that have helped you succeed through past exams, they can’t hurt.

Do everything the morning of the same you would any other day, but include all of your favorite things

  • Get plenty of rest. You need your brain to be working on high speed.
  • Eat your favorite energy producing breakfast *stay away from fast sugar. You don’t want your body to crash.
  • Drink your coffee or tea
  • Hydrate with plenty of water, but not too much to need excess bathroom breaks
  • Chew peppermint gum
  • Stretch your body
  • Dress the Part
    • Wear something that makes you feel confident and reminds you of success OR wear your most comfortable clothes. You want to be in your brain and not have your body distract you.
    • A daring lipstick, pair of comfortable leggings, a bright dress
    • A suit, sweatpants, hooded sweatshirt, goofy worn in t-shirt
  • Listen to your favorite, pump up songs right beforehand and brace yourself for the silent room where your classmates are about to start typing away
  • Bring ear plugs
  • Get peace and quiet in a calming place


Center yourself as you get the prompt to start your test. Ground yourself in how you feel and the confidence in what you are about to work on. Remind yourself of your strategy and let yourself go without over thinking it. Go back to reread the question throughout your answering and definitely at the end to make sure you are answering every question. Your anxiety will be high. Accept this anxiety as energy to help you do your best without letting it take over and interfere with your process. Do not fight against having anxiety. It is normal. Do not compare yourself to the others taking the test in your presence. Everyone has a unique process and end result. Trying to do what works for others or spending time focusing on what they’re doing could disrupt your knowledge you already have being reflected in your writing.


Be kind to yourself and try to not think about what you just did. There is usually not immediate feedback. Prepare to have a lot of feelings coming down from the anxiety of taking an exam that sums up your graduate education. Know ahead of time what you will do to cope with the let down so you don’t end up being destructive. Set yourself up to celebrate regardless of the results.

Remind yourself about what the results mean. Some programs allow you to retake a section of comprehensive exams an additional time. Other programs have higher consequences of having to retake classes or being kicked out of the program. Failure in the first case can be a learning experience of where you are missing expertise and with proper feedback, you can rise up to the challenge the next time. Failing that means you cannot continue is a lot bigger of a deal and requires more preparation to make sure you do your best and succeed.

Do your best to not ruminate on what you could have done differently. It is done. You did it! No matter what your results are, you got through the test and will either learn you passed or that you have a little more work to improve on in order to make it to the next level. Everything will be okay. You will accomplish your goals. If it seems like the test anxiety and pressure of your program are too great, consider seeing a therapist to help you overcome it so you do not get in your own way of doing your best on your comprehensive exams.