How to Face the Oral Comprehensive Exam

oral comprehensive exams

A comprehensive exam or a comp is given to graduate school students before their dissertation. It can be given as an oral exam or a written exam depending on the subject or the school. Oral comprehensive exams can be sometimes tough – but knowing about the exam could actually help you prepare for the exam better and pass it with flying colors.

Purpose of Oral Exam

The comprehensive exam is designed for Ph.D. students to show a group of committee members that they are ready for their doctorate thesis. What would be tested can depend on the program and the school. But generally, these areas would be looked at and expected from the students in the oral comprehensive test.

  • Students demonstrate mastery of specialized mathematics areas for thesis work.
  • Students synthesize and critically evaluate research literature in their field.
  • Students formulate and discuss open problems or areas in need of development.
  • Students communicate mathematical ideas orally, providing background, context, and motivation.
  • Students express mathematical ideas effectively in written form through the oral exam proposal.
  • Students receive feedback on potential directions and connections for their proposed work from committee members.


The oral comprehensive exam has two parts, a time of 30-45 minutes or more can be allocated to students to talk about the research topic area. It will be followed by 10-15-minute questions and comments from the committee members.

How to Prepare For Oral Comprehensive Exam

If you are defending a written paper that you’ve had enough time to go through – then these tips might help you prepare for the oral comprehensive exam.

Before the exam:

  • Choose a time for your exam when you feel most focused.
  • Get enough sleep the night before; don’t stay up late trying to cram.
  • Review your notes briefly to refresh your memory.
  • Re-read your written comprehensive exam to keep the details fresh in your mind.

During the exam:

  • Speak slowly and remember to take deep breaths to stay calm.
  • If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification or try to rephrase it.
  • It’s okay to say “I don’t know” if you don’t have an answer.
  • Use the opportunity to explain how you would approach the question based on what you do know.

After the exam:

  • Take care of any necessary paperwork that may be required.
  • Take some time off to relax and recharge after all the hard work.

The Conclusion

Oral or written comps are given to graduate school students before offering them a post-graduate degree. Facing an oral comprehensive exam can be tougher than facing a written exam. However, knowing what will be tested and how to prepare for a comprehensive exam will help students get through it without many hurdles.

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