Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Published: Tues., October 3, 2017

Most master’s and doctoral students at UNL are required to complete a written comprehensive exam, also known as “comps”, to enter candidacy for their degree program. This is usually the last major task you need to complete before you can begin your thesis or dissertation research.

Comprehensive exams can be scheduled at any time. Many students choose to schedule their comprehensive exam in the semester after completing their last course. Comps are the middle step in the road to your degree. It is usually sandwiched between completion of your formal course work and the writing of your dissertation.

What Will It Look Like?

What your written exam will look like depends on your academic department. You may be asked to respond to a series of 4-8 questions to test your broad knowledge of your academic area. In some fields, you may be asked to write papers or literature reviews and, in other fields, you may be asked to take an exam on content you should know. In most instances, the questions will be based on the coursework you have completed in your degree plan of study or will be directly related to the anticipated topic(s) of your thesis or dissertation. In some academic departments, the written exam may be followed by an oral defense or exam.

The administration and format of the exam can also vary by academic department. Some programs require students to “sit” for their comps and these can be given on multiple days. In this instance, the student is placed in a conference room or classroom, given the questions, and a time limit to write their answer. Another department might give students the option to receive questions at various times and respond in a “take home” fashion, answering the each question by writing a paper and submitting the paper by a certain date set by the department. The length of the paper may vary by department and the number of questions asked. The amount of time you have to complete your comps will vary by department; so ask your adviser what the time frame will be.

If given a choice, the format can be a matter of personal preference. For example, the writer of this article chose to “sit” for his comps. It involved two Mondays, four questions each day, two-hours allowed per question. While it was fairly intense, and he had to do revisions later, it was more convenient for him personally as a working student. On the other hand, a fellow student and writer’s friend, another part-time student, opted for the take-home format, receiving a question every Friday for six weeks, writing the paper over the weekend, and submitting it Monday. A full-time student might choose to do a more drawn out format if they are less pressed for time or depending on the structure of comps in that department.

Regardless of the format, preparation is key to successfully passing your comps. Reviewing lecture notes, assigned readings, and your written papers are good study strategies. Think through some questions that you might get from your committee and outline some written responses to them. If you are likely to produce an article or literature review, you may want to compile and organize your research literature in preparation. You may be required to generate a grant proposal or prepare full articles for publication in a professional journal. Discuss what is expected with your adviser/supervisor. If this is the case, you may want to develop a strategy to manage the research literature or other materials you will be using to write your comps. Talk with fellow students in your department about what their comps were like—they may have specific tips for how best to prepare. As mentioned earlier, some academic departments also require an oral exam, usually in front of a faculty committee. These can be stressful, but if you are well prepared, you should have nothing to worry about.

Some Tips for the Oral Exam

  • Anticipate the questions and practice answering them out loud, speaking slowly and deliberately. Nervousness during your exam, can make you rush your speech.
  • Proper eye contact and body language is important. Be professional and academic.
  • Rephrase questions to make sure you understand what the questioner is asking. If necessary, ask for clarification. This can help you change your perspective on the question and give you more time to develop your answer.
  • The oral exam is meant to demonstrate what you know. But sometimes you get a question that's beyond your area of knowledge and you might have to say something like, “I haven’t thought about that. But if I were to broaden my research into that, I suspect….” This acknowledges you need to broaden your area of expertise.

So, now you've got a plan to succeed on this important milestone in your graduate education. Good luck on preparing for your comps. It can be a rewarding experience!