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Final Exams: Understand Comprehensive vs Cumulative

Updated: July 15, 2022 | Published: April 21, 2020

Updated: July 15, 2022

Published: April 21, 2020


As if taking a test wasn’t already stressful and confusing enough, you’re then faced with understanding the differences between all these complex terms and types of tests, such as comprehensive vs cumulative. Don’t worry, though! Here’s everything you need to know about both of these testing methods, and how to take them successfully, allowing you to finish graduate school with flying colors.

What Is A Comprehensive Exam?

A comprehensive exam is a test that is given to graduate students towards the end of their coursework, with the goal of determining how ready a student is for the next step of their academic career, that being their dissertation. Such an exam can be given in a variety of forms, such as oral or written.

What Is A Cumulative Exam?

Cumulative exams test students on everything that they’ve learned throughout the semester or year. The main focus of this type of test is to see that students have retained and understood information they have learned from their courses.

What Are The Main Differences?

Comprehensive vs. cumulative — what’s the difference? While these two exams may sound very similar, they are still two very different exams.

Comprehensive exams are focused on ensuring that a student is competent to begin their dissertation, and that they are familiar with the necessary research methods.

Cumulative exams, however, test our knowledge based on what was taught in class throughout the year, with more of a focus on academic performance.

A graduate student intensely preparing for his comprehensive exam
Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels

Who Takes These Tests?

It is usually only graduate students (either master’s or doctorate) that take comprehensive exams, since the basis of this test is to ensure they are ready for their dissertation.

Cumulative tests are generally taken by any student who has recently completed a course and needs to prove their knowledge by successfully passing the exam.

So when comparing comprehensive vs. cumulative exams, it’s not at all a competition as they are simply made for different types of students.

How To Succeed In Your Comprehensive Exams

If you’re a graduate student and are about to start preparing for your comprehensive exams, then you’ll surely appreciate these tips on how to succeed on these tests.

1. Get An Early Start

Starting early is the key to success, and especially so when it comes to comprehensive exams, since they require such a great deal of time invested.

2. Manage Your Time

Set yourself a schedule and a timeline that you’re going to commit to sticking to. Set a date that you’re going to start and set time blocks that you’re going to spend preparing. That way, you can avoid procrastination and stressing out at the last minute. You’ve already come so far, so making some sacrifices is surely worth it.

3. Reading Is Your Best Friend

Read, read, read, and read some more! Reading is your best friend when it comes to comprehensive exams, and you can really never have too much information about your topic of study or how research should be properly conducted.

4. Ask Others

Take advantage of those around you! Whether it be fellow students that already prepared for the exam or professors in your field, ask around and see who is willing to give you some handy tips for your big test.

5. Get To Know Yourself

Every student is different and there is no perfect equation for success. That’s why it’s important that you get to know yourself, including your strengths and weaknesses. That way, you can know where you need to fill in the gaps and focus more time in.

6. Start With The Answers You Know

Start with what you know, show yourself how well prepared you are, give yourself that confidence booster, and don’t stress about the more complicated questions until they are the only questions left. Then you’ll have all the leftover time to really think through these tougher questions.

7. Make A Package

Prepare yourself a package with all of your notes, information, documents, and anything that might be relevant for your comprehensive exam. That way, if you’re asked a question, you can quickly find the answers you need and have more time to put together the words to best express yourself.

8. Review, Review

Practice really does make perfect. So the more you review your information, relevant theories, and concepts, the more confident and prepared you are bound to be for your comprehensive exam.

9. Roleplay

Pretend that you’re on the committee giving you the comprehensive exam. Think about what kinds of questions they would ask you based on what you’re presenting. Put yourself in their shoes, and it might help you prepare answers to questions you never thought about before.

10. Prepare Your Mind & Body

Our minds and bodies are connected. So you can do all the studying in the world, but if you haven’t taken care of your physical well-being, you might run the risk of hurting your success. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep despite the stress, that you’re drinking enough water, eating properly, and are doing things to help ease the anxiety such as yoga or meditation.

11. Polish Things Up

Even if you feel perfectly ready, be sure to polish things up before the big day. Go over everything, make sure all your notes and ideas are clear and that they make sense to you. Even use this list as a check list before you meet the committee.

How To Succeed In Your Cumulative Exams

The cumulative test meaning is a test that covers everything from the course. This generally means that there’s a lot of material to be retained, and that’s why you’ll need these nifty tips to ensure success.

1. Take Notes Early On

Don’t wait for the last minute or last class to start taking notes. That never ends well and often means you’ll miss out on important points. Start taking notes from the very first class, and that way you’ll have a summary of all the class information written in a way that you can understand. It also means that you can review these notes on a regular basis, and save yourself stress when exam time hits.

2. Turn Studying Into Routine

Make studying a part of your everyday life. Studying only a few days before your exam can cause burn out and isn’t known to be the most effective way to succeed. Even setting aside an hour or two every weekend can go a very long way.

3. Make The Most Of Second Chances

One of the best aspects of cumulative exams is that you’re given a second chance to retake the exam if your grade was unsatisfactory. Make the most of this opportunity by seeing where you had the most trouble, and invest your time in learning that material.

4. Mix Things Up

If you just sit in front of your computer studying all day, it’s likely to get boring and it will be hard to stay focused after a certain period of time. By diversifying your study methods, you can keep things interesting and can keep your motivation alive!

A graduate student polishing things up for his cumulative exam
Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Which Exam Type Is Preferred?

While you might be trying to decide between comprehensive vs. cumulative, truth be told, you can’t actually choose. This also means that there isn’t really a preferred type of exam. They are both rigorous exams that require a great deal of preparation, and as to which one is ‘easier’ is also completely individual, depending on a student’s personal knowledge, experience, and taste.

What Are Some Benefits Of Both Types Of Exams?

Both types of tests, whether comprehensive or cumulative, have their advantages for students.


Comprehensive exams help ensure that students will be well prepared for the next step of their education, and that they will have knowledge of how to research that will be beneficial for their futures as well. The idea behind this type of testing is that students won’t be thrown into the water before they are ready, which for many can be a complete game-changer.

This test is also beneficial in that it focuses less on academic performance and more on the student’s overall qualifications.


Cumulative exams, while different than comprehensive exams, still make sure that students are prepared for the next step, but in a different way.

This type of exam tests whether or not students have grasped the information and fundamental concepts of the course before giving them a passing grade. Such a style of test encourages students to learn the material from top to bottom, and to study throughout the year.

What Are Other Kinds Of Testing Methods in College?

On top of cumulative and comprehensive exams, there are also many other types of examinations that are commonly given.

1. Multiple Choice

Multiple choice formatted tests are very common, giving students a choice of 4 to 5 answers, often with the answers sounding the same in order to ensure that the students truly understood the concepts.

2. Essay Style

Essay style tests give students the opportunity to show their knowledge through writing about a certain topic, and is often not a right or wrong kind of test. This is most commonly given for topics that are more conceptual, rather than concrete.

3. Open Book

In many cases, students are allowed to bring their textbook to the exam! Many students are mistaken and think that it means they don’t need to study, while it’s really just used as a way to refer back to the main concepts. These concepts still need to be understood in order to properly apply them.

4. Demonstration Tests

In a demonstration test, students are required to verbally share their knowledge either through a presentation or one on one. Sometimes, such a test can even be physical, such as a piano test.

5. Placement Tests

Placement tests are tests that are given for the sole purpose of knowing a student’s level in order to place them in the appropriate class. The grade here generally has no real weight.

Are Students Motivated by Cumulative Exams?

For the most part, students don’t appreciate cumulative exams.

But based on findings, students don’t always actually prefer what’s best for them. A research project that divided students into high and low scoring groups, found that students performed better in the cumulative exams, despite what they claimed to prefer.

It was concluded by the researchers that cumulative exams do in fact motivate lower-scoring students to perform better, while for higher-scoring students, they already have the necessary motivation.

Sometimes, however, a lack of motivation isn’t what prevents students from succeeding, but rather their circumstances, such as a lack of support or time to study due to family or work commitments.

That’s why the University of the People offers tuition-free online degrees to provide equal opportunities to all. So put comprehensive vs. cumulative aside, because when it comes to motivation, the University of The People is here to help you realize your full potential.