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What Is a Comprehensive Exam? a Grad Students’ Guide

Updated: June 19, 2024 | Published: April 17, 2020

Updated: June 19, 2024

Published: April 17, 2020


Any graduate student on both the master’s and doctoral level has likely heard of a comprehensive exam, which are sometimes simply known as “comps.” It may sound a bit overwhelming and scary, but by understanding what is a comprehensive exam and everything they entail, students can reduce the anxiety that tends to come with these exams.

What is a Comprehensive Exam?

Similar to how it sounds, a comprehensive exam is a test that covers a large array of material. Such a test aims to assess the knowledge and capabilities of a student before granting them with a graduate degree.

What’s included in the comprehensive exam varies depending on the type of degree, and passing the exam allows you to continue onto higher levels of education.

The Most Common Formats

The format for a comprehensive exam varies greatly, and it depends on your school. You may even have to take multiple types of exams.

They are often given in the form of an academic paper, but can also be given as a formal oral exam or a traditional supervised written exam that can be broken up over a few days. In certain cases, a comprehensive exam is merely a review of your academic portfolio.

What Is Required

Although the requirements for a comprehensive exam vary between schools and programs, in general, a minimum GPA is required prior to taking this exam.

Students who take a comprehensive exam must have completed all of the coursework, and if relevant to their field of study, they may need to have completed a doctoral residency prior to taking the exam. Other requirements include a request form for the comprehensive exam that must be filled out and submitted.

What The Exam Entails

The aim of comprehensive exams are to ensure that students have understood the main ideas of both their field and research focus. These exams are used as a tool to make sure that students don’t begin their dissertation without being fully prepared.

Therefore, these exams tend to include questions about research methodologies and how to apply them in specific fields of study.

Comprehensive exams also entail a variety of concepts and theories related to the subject of study, both for adding to the already existing knowledge, and on how to solve problems.

What Are Cumulative Final Exams?

Cumulative final exams aim to ensure that students have managed to retain everything they learned in class. The exam therefore focuses on material that was covered throughout the entire study period.

Other than simply retaining the information, these types of tests also evaluate your ability to understand and apply the material taught from the entire semester or even year.

Many people confuse cumulative final exams with comprehensive exams, and although they both have their benefits and sound similar, they are two different types of exams!

The most obvious difference is that comprehensive exams focus more on a student’s readiness for the next stage (dissertations), and less on their academic performance.

Proud graduate students after completing their comprehensive exams.
Photo by Feedyourvision from Pexels

When Should You Start Thinking About Comps?

While it’s common to want to start planning out our every move as soon as possible, for many young students, our career goals and interests tend to change very quickly — especially as we are exposed to different ideas. Ideally, for most students, they start to think about comprehensive exams during the spring semester of their second year in the program, but this is not necessarily right for everyone.

When Should They Be Taken?

Comprehensive exams tend to be given towards the end of coursework, since they are seen as the determining factor as to whether or not a student is prepared to move to the next professional step of writing their dissertation.

What Is The Exam Format?

At the master’s and doctoral level, comprehensive exams tend to be written, though they can be oral, and in certain cases are even a combination of both formats. The exams last in some cases for more than one test period, and can be as long as eight hours in each sitting.

The Difference Between Master’s vs. Doctoral

Is there a difference between master’s and doctoral comprehensive exams?

Master’s Comp Exam

When it comes to master’s programs, taking a comprehensive exam is not always required. Certain programs will request passing a comprehensive exam to begin a thesis, while others may accept the exam instead of a thesis. If you’re lucky, your college will even give you the choice between the two!

Doctoral Comp Exam

As opposed to master’s programs, almost all doctoral programs require that their students complete a comprehensive exam, and it is seen as the first step to starting a dissertation. Once the student has passed the exam, they are given the title of ‘doctoral candidate’ and can then begin their research.

UoPeople Master’s students hard at work to prepare for their upcoming comprehensive exams.
Photo by Fox from Pexels

The Best Ways To Prepare For The Comprehensive Exam

Now that you know all about what is a comprehensive exam, the next step is to figure out how to best prepare for this big test. Here are 14 steps to prepare:

1. Start Early

The best way to prepare for just about anything in life is to start early. When it comes to comprehensive exams, this is especially important since graduate programs require you to have a committee and a set date, as well as no shortage of paperwork to be dealt with.

2. Create A Packet

Make yourself a packet with all of your information. Keeping it all in one organized place can help you stay on track, and can make it a lot easier to share with your committee.

3. Always Take Notes

Taking notes is the key to success in any field. As soon as a new idea, thought, theory, or just about anything related to your studies comes up — write it down!

4. Educate Yourself

If you’re going to be a professional in your field, then be professional! Educate yourself as much as possible and constantly look for new ways to add to your knowledge by asking questions and reading relevant material. Figure out where you can expand your knowledge.

5. Watch Others

Watch how other successful people in your field work and research. Learn from these fellow professionals and remember that once upon a time they were also in your place. Talk to other doctoral candidates or professors, and see what kind of advice they can offer you.

6. Put Yourself In Their Shoes

Put yourself in the shoes of a fellow professional in your field. What would they think in this situation? What would they do?

7. Practice Makes Perfect

Keep practicing no matter what. It’s no lie that practice makes perfect, so don’t give up.

8. Memorize and Roleplay

Aim to memorize quotes from the sources you’ve used as you may need them when you defend yourself in front of your committee. Even just paraphrasing what you read is also good enough. Using role play techniques, such as having a friend ask you questions, can also help you be well prepared for your comprehensive exam, especially if it’s given in an oral format.

9. Change Up The Words

Rephrasing what you want to say can help you better remember. Once you know how to say what you wanted to in several different ways, it’s likely to stick with you.

10. Don’t Be Afraid

The goal of the exam is to see what you know, and if you don’t know something, that’s ok! That’s why the exam was created. Don’t be so hard on yourself, because at the end of the day, this test is to help you be as best prepared as possible, and you can always try again.

11. Be Strategic About Your Reading

There are endless texts, journals, and reports out there that can help you with your comprehensive exam. But it’s not exactly realistic to expect to read everything out there. Be strategic about your reading, and make sure you’re only reading the most relevant and important information to avoid burnout and save yourself time.

12. Stay On Top Of Your Field

You’re about to be a professional in your field, and it’s up to you to stay on top of what’s going on in your field, whether that be keeping up to date with popular journals or even shadowing a professor.

13. Always Ask Questions

If you really want to succeed, you’re going to need to ask for help. Find a patient and understanding professional who is willing to give you the tips you need and help you fill in the missing blanks.

14. Mind And Body Is Important

The mind and body connection is completely undeniable. Even if you’re well prepared mentally, make sure that your body is too. You want to be able to handle any stress that may come your way.

You can do so by ensuring that you get enough sleep each night, drink plenty of water, prepare healthy meals, and maybe even practice some yoga or meditation! These things may seem time consuming, but they will be worth the investment.

How Is The Overall Outcome Determined?

If you unfortunately do not pass the comprehensive exam, you are required to take it again in order to pass the program. Students are only allowed to take the test twice before a different project is given.

For students that are given an oral exam, a committee of staff members (2-3 people) will undergo an oral review for an hour, which will go over areas that were considered to be below the expected standard.

When Should You Start Preparing?

While every student is different, the general consensus is that you should start preparing anywhere from 6-8 months before your comprehensive exam.

What Is The Aim Of A Comprehensive Exam?

If you were now asked what is a comprehensive exam, you would surely be able to give a seriously comprehensive answer. The goal of a comprehensive exam is for graduate students to show their deep understanding of concepts related to their field of study, as well as how to properly conduct research in their field. That’s because we need you to continue adding to our knowledge!

At UoPeople, our blog writers are thinkers, researchers, and experts dedicated to curating articles relevant to our mission: making higher education accessible to everyone.