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At my university, the MS and PhD programs in Computer Science have comprehensive exams. The exams retest the student on topics from designated core courses. The exams are separate from the course and may be written by a group of instructors instead of just the instructor who taught the course.

Students are given a list of books to read. Some of the books indicate selected chapters, others are expected to be read and understood cover to cover. The scope of the exams is daunting and preparation for the exams is expected to be a major undertaking by the students taking months of preparation. For full time students this is difficult. For part time students like myself who work full-time and have family this effectively sidelines research during the preparation period. If you do not pass the exams on your first try, it can be very demoralizing.

I was able to stay motivated by following the strategy I described in a similar question: strategy

What other strategies have people used?

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The strategy that I used was to divide the work into chunks and assign them to finite periods of time. Let's say your exam is in three months and you have two books to read and two course notes to review. That means that you'll have 12 weeks to study. The 12th week should be reserved for "hitting the hotspots" before your exam and general review of all the materials covered in weeks 1-11. Then divide up material to be covered from the two books and two courses across the remaining 11 weeks. I would suggest that you divide it into 11 weekly topics. Assign reading to yourself. The goal of each week worth of studying is to create your own "cliff notes" for that week's chunk of material that can be studied during week 12.

A good strategy to avoid burnout is to schedule time for no studying. This especially important since you have family. Make sure that you schedule your no study time during a time that they also want to interact with you. For example, no more studying after noon on Sundays would be a good amount of time.

Since you do have family, also consider scheduling alone time for yourself where you get to do only what you want. Doing nothing, watching tv, or checking on your stackexchange questions are okay during that time. But make sure to limit those activities to only that time.

Good luck!

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