Frequently Asked Questions

What is a comprehensive exam?

Comprehensive exams (or “comps”)  are a way of showing expertise in your chosen fields. In some fields/programs, they are referred to as qualifying exams. For each exam, you are expected to read and understand the foundational pieces in that field as well as recent important and relevant research.

What is the format of the comp?

You will choose two fields of study. One will be taken in exam form, in which you have six hours to answer three questions in essay form. The other will be in qualifying paper format, which is due toward the end of the semester and followed by an oral defense. Each committee has specific requirements for their exam and/or qualifying paper, so you should refer more specific questions to them.

When should I choose my comp fields?

You are expected to declare which comp you intend to take at the beginning of the semester prior to the semester in which you plan to take the exam. Each field of study has respective courses. After you finish the course-load,  you may have areas of interest in mind before you decide to take comp.

How should I start the comp process?

After you complete the course-load, let the committee chair of your chosen field know (by email or in person) that you plan to take the comp in a chosen semester (Spring/Fall). The committee chair will organize the first meeting between you and the committee. In the meantime, make sure to let the director of the graduate program know (by email) which comp you plan to take and when you will take the comp; make sure to let Deanna register you in pre-candidacy credits (6/9 credits) under the chair’s name in the semester you are taking the comp.

What is the first meeting with the committee for?

The committee needs to know your progress in the chosen field  (e.g. what courses of the field you have taken, any paper or project of the field you have engaged in). The committee will set up the timeline for your comp. This is also a time where you can clarify any questions that you may have about the comp (i.e. taking practice/trial question, the length of the answer of each question, how to cite, etc).

Could I take a practice/trial question and receive feedback from the committee before the comp?

This depends on the committee, so consult the committee chair to confirm. However, most comp areas allow for one practice question that will be graded by the committee. Committee members recommend that you take the practice question as early as possible, usually at least one-month before the comp exam, in order to allow sufficient time for the committee to offer you feedback.

Could I have a second meeting with the committee after the first meeting?

You can schedule individual appointments with each member of a committee. It is not common to have a collective meeting after the first meeting, given it’s hard to reconcile faculty member’s schedule and organize a collective meeting.

When I would take the comp in the chosen semester?

An exam in any given area of expertise will be offered once per semester, on a date to be determined by the Director of Graduate Studies in consultation with the exam committee chairs. The exam is typically given early in the semester (about three weeks after the start of any semester) or late in a semester (about three weeks before a semester ends). Comprehensive examinations will be administered to students in a common room with a maximum 6-hour time allotment and proctored by a faculty member. (See the graduate policy handbook)

After the comp, how long is it before I get the outcome?

According to the graduate policy handbook committees are required to notify students of their results within 3 weeks of taking the exam and/or submitting the paper.

What are the possible outcomes for the comp?

There are four possible outcomes: pass with distinction, pass, conditional outcome (aka “rewrite”), and fail. As stated above, the committee will notify you via email of your results within three weeks of taking the exam.

If I get a conditional outcome, then what?

The committee’s letter that informs you the outcome will also tell how would you proceed the conditional outcome. Some committee gives choices of rewrite the problematic question or oral defense your comp, some committee only allows rewriting the comp. The student, in consultation with the area comprehensive exam chair and his/her mentor(s) will have two weeks to make the decision and notify the area chair and the Director of Graduate Studies.

Students receiving this grade are required to complete additional work within two months of formal notification of the committee’s decision.  If the committee is satisfied with the quality of the work, the student will receive a grade of Pass.  If the committee is not satisfied with the quality of the work, the student will receive a grade of Fail.

If you could have done one thing different during the comp process, what would that be?

“I would have scheduled a spa visit/massage/day of relaxation and pampering on the day before the comp exam date. Studying for the exam is a very psychologically and physically taxing process. While I did spend the hours before my comp meditating and relaxing, I could have definitely used a mental health day the day before. You will greatly benefit from ensuring that you are in peak health (mentally and physically) on the day of your comp. Six hours is a long time, and you need to be at your best to get through it.” -Jen Snyder

For more details and information about the comprehensive examination, see the Graduate Policy Handbook