Comprehensive Exams – All You Need to Know

College students might not be familiar with the term Comprehensive Exams or Comps for short – which is basically a type of finals exam for graduate school students. It might sound scary but understanding what it entrails will help students clear all the exam anxiety.

What is A Comprehensive Exam?

comprehensive exams comps tests at masters and doctorate grad school

A comprehensive exam is a higher education test that covers a large amount of content with the intent to test the graduate school students’ knowledge and capabilities before granting them a graduate degree such as a Master’s or Ph.D. Includes in the exam and content of the exam can vary according to the degree or institution.

Common Comps Formats

The format of the comp exams depends on the school and the program. It could be in the form of an academic paper including multiple questions or essay questions, an oral comprehensive exam, or it could be an exam with both an oral exam and a written paper exam.

Comps Requirements

Generally, a minimum GPA and students need to have finished all the coursework and sometimes completed a doctoral residency to take the comprehensive exams. These requirements might vary depending on the school and the program.

Comps Duration

A comprehensive exam can have one or more test periods each summing up to six or more hours depending on the school and the program. Students have to select at least two questions to answer from the five questions given within the given time.

Comprehensive Exam Preparation

how to prepare for comprehensive exams

Preparing for comps is not like preparing for final exams – there is more added stress and anxiety for graduate students than for college students. But knowing what the exams entail and preparing before can make it easier on the students.

  • Take Notes – Taking notes and revising them to understand the content better would be good. You can either use paper or a digital app to take notes.
  • Literature – Before facing the comps you ought to know your literature. Read papers and take notes, especially groundbreaking ones.
  • Ask Around – Consult with your committee chair or refer to the department handbook to find out more about the exam such as format, duration, and more.
  • Practice – Enter into role-playing with made-up questions and answers that you could be asked by the committee.
  • Don’t Be Defensive – Say I Don’t Know when you actually don’t know – do not be quiet when you were asked something you actually don’t know or out of context.
  • Rehearse – Did all the above and more? Great, but before a couple of days the comps start rehearsing.

Following these tips for comps preparation will help you get ready for the comps much better which will reduce exam anxiety and increase your self-confidence.

What to Expect

The main object of comprehensive exams is to test the student’s knowledge about the topics, main concepts in the field, and research areas. It ensures that students don’t begin their dissertations without any preparation.

So, the comprehensive exam includes questions about research methodologies, how to apply the methodologies to the research area, how it solves problems, and how it contributes to the field of the research area.

Cumulative vS Comprehensive Exams

Cumulative final exams are there to test a student’s knowledge about what was taught in the class for the duration of the whole study period to measure the student’s academic performance. These are usually given from the study materials from a semester or entire year.

Comprehensive exams are also a way of testing the academic performance of grad school students. However, these exams focus more on the student’s readiness for the dissertations and less focus on academic performance.

When You Should Take Comps?

When the student has completed all the coursework given – comprehensive exams are given to determine whether the student is prepared for the next stage of their learning process – writing their dissertations.

When to Take Comps

It’s ideal to think about the comps in the spring semester of the second year in the program after finishing all the coursework in the program. Taking comps in the spring semester does not ideal for every student.

Master’s VS Doctoral Comps

Most master’s programs do not require you to pass a comprehensive exam – but some do include one to get the students started on their thesis. It will be most likely a written exam instead of a thesis – and if you are lucky enough you will be given the option to choose between them.

Unlike master’s programs, doctoral programs require comps and there is no way to avoid one. It is considered the first step to get the students started on their dissertations. So, it’s important for students to pass the comprehensive test to proceed to the dissertations.

Comps Committee

A committee will be formed with experts on the topic in the school which will include around 2-3 committee members for the oral comprehensive. Depending on the school and the program the committee member could go up to 5 sometimes.

What Happens If You Fail Comps

If you did not pass the comprehensive exam on the first attempt you will be given another two chances to pass the test. If you still fail the test then a different project title will be given and there will be another comprehensive exam for that topic before proceeding to dissertations.

The Conclusion

Comprehensive exams are a type of final exam given to graduate school students who are doing their master’s degree or completing their doctorate. It could be given as the first step to a dissertation at the doctoral level and master’s comps are sometimes optional.