8 Ways to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams


Most doctoral students at UNL have to complete a written comprehensive exam to enter candidacy, and in some departments the written exam may be followed by an oral exam.

What your written exam will look like depends on your department. You may be asked to respond to a series of questions to test your broad knowledge of your field. You may be required to generate a grant proposal or prepare full articles for publication. The key is to talk to your supervisor and find out what is expected. Then prepare!

Summer’s the perfect time to prepare for your comprehensive exams (or "comps"). Here are some ways to get ready for this important milestone of your degree program. We’re going to focus on preparing for the more traditional written comprehensive exam, which is administered over a period of time (i.e., a 2-8 hour block).

Video Transcript:

Eight Ways to Prepare for Comps

1. Take notes. Establish a note taking system. Some people organize their notes in a spiral notebook, while others use a digital system. Tag each entry with keywords. If you have an open book exam, or if you end up writing a proposal for your written component, these digital systems can be extremely helpful. When you’re looking for an article or book during an exam, these tags can save you time.

2. Educate yourself. As you read and take notes, try to determine where you need to fill knowledge gaps. Are you up on the latest research in the field? Do you need to look for more sources? Meet with your committee members to discuss your reading. 

3. Learn from others. Find out about your exam. Consult your department handbook or your committee chair. Talk with doctoral candidates in your department about what their comps were like. Maybe they have tips on how to prepare.

4. Role play. Think like a committee member. To gain a new perspective on your reading, create your own prompts or questions. It'll help you think critically about what you read, which might help you recall the information when you need it.

5. Dress rehearsal. Practice writing efficiently as well as effectively by trying an outlining approach. Think through some questions that you might get from your committee and outline some written responses to them. Find the main thesis of your response and the supporting points. Then use your outline to write your response.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice. Practice answering aloud, speaking slowly and deliberately. If you’re nervous during your exam, you’ll naturally speed up a bit. Come up with different ways to ask your committee clarifying questions. When you get a question you don’t understand, or you draw a blank, asking for clarification can help you change your perspective on the question and give you more time to develop your answer.

7. Rephrase. Rephrase questions before answering. This saves the questioner from interrupting you with a rephrase of the question or, worse, you not answering the question.

8. It's okay to say, “I don’t know.” The oral exam is meant to find out what you know…and what you don't. When you get a question that's beyond your area of knowledge, you might say something like, “I haven’t thought about that. If I were to broaden my research to include that, I’d expect to see….” This acknowledges the question and helps you reconnect with your area of expertise.

Now you've got a plan. Good luck on training for your comps this summer!

Additional Resources

Dingfelder, Sadie F. Preparing for your comprehensive exams. American Psychological Association. April 2004.
McGill, Brian. Surviving your comprehensive exams. Dynamic Ecology. March 28, 2013.
Shives, K.D. Deconstructiong the Written Comprehensive Exam. Inside Higher Ed. March 21, 2013.
VanBuren, E. Five Strategies for Organizing Notes for Comprehensive Exams. Inside Higher Ed. February 18, 2014.