Pursuing a higher education program can be beneficial for the professional profile, but it can be a challenging journey. One of these obstacles for US students is to sit for “comprehensive exams”. So what are comprehensive exams? How can you prepare to cope with them successfully?

What Are Comprehensive Exams?

What does a comprehensive exam mean? By definition, comprehensive examination, or ‘comps’ for short, is usually a compulsory part of graduate programs in some disciplines and courses. These exams test the learner’s knowledge of their profession, field of study, or dissertation topic. Usually, learners will have a certain number of days to finish comprehensive exam questions. 

Specifically, students apply their knowledge from the coursework and practical experience and do a vast amount of reading to deal with exam questions. Their answers should be concise, and most importantly, straight to the point. 

Everything You Need To Know About Comprehensive Exams

What does a comprehensive exam mean? Image: mcgill.ca

Typically, different universities adopt many variations of comprehensive exams. Even in a university, different departments may require students to take comprehensive exams in various formats. For example, one department may ask students to pass a written paper while another requires an oral exam in addition to the written exam.

Purposes Of Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive exams aim to ensure that students have mastered the critical knowledge from their field and research focus. Within its test topics, comps include questions about research and application methodologies. Comps also entail various concepts and theories relevant to the subject of study. Students who have passed comps are well-prepared for their dissertation. 

The higher education system in the U.S and Canada widely adopts comprehensive exams. Especially in the U.S., comprehensive exams are compulsory for Master’s and Doctoral degrees and are common in some universities or colleges’ undergraduate programs. 

Typically, comprehensive exams play a more significant role in Ph.D. courses than other graduate programs. For example, undergraduate students at the Catholic University of America, Rosemont College, University of Dallas, University of Iowa have to pass the compulsory comprehensive exams to complete their Ph.D. degrees.

Each student has only two chances to pass the comprehensive exams in the U.S. higher-education system. Without passing the comprehensive exams, students cannot advance to dissertation or Ph.D. candidacy. Hence, they need to study with 100% concentration to prepare for the tests and maintain focus until they pass to ace the comprehensive exams. 

Purposes Of Comprehensive Exams

Exams are never the fun part of any course. Image: i.pinimg

Different Formats Of Comprehensive Exams

Although comprehensive exams have diverse variations, there are usually three types: an academic paper, a formal oral exam, or a traditional written exam under supervision.

An outstanding example of the traditional supervised exam is the Major Field Test for Master of Business Administration (MFT-MBA). This test is adopted in the MBA programs across 300 universities in the U.S, under the administration of Educational Testing Service. The MFT-MBA attempts to assess student’s skills, knowledge, and reasoning ability with 124 multiple-choice questions in three hours. MFT-MBA tests take place in proctored facilities, and students can only sit for this test once.

The most challenging variation of comprehensive exams, according to students, is the academic paper. This exam gauges students’ capabilities by giving three simple-looking questions. The time-consuming part is when students extract information from the reading list of dozens to even hundreds of books and other works. They refer to those materials and their coursework to answer the three questions in a limited number of pages.

The last type of comprehensive exam is the oral exam, which usually takes place after the students have passed the academic paper. The examination committee would set up particular evaluation criteria beforehand. Students can expect the oral exam process to last from 90 minutes to 2 hours at most. After the students have answered all questions, the committee will confer among themselves to decide whether students have passed the exam.

Requirements Before Taking Comprehensive Exams

There are some requirements that a student should meet to be eligible for comprehensive exams. The examination committee would, at some point, review your academic portfolio based on their criteria. 

Let’s take the comps requirements of Capella University, for example. For its Ph.D. or Doctorate program, students must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and finish all their coursework before taking the comps.

Like other institutions, Capella University believes comprehensive exams are a mechanism to ensure students are well-prepared before their dissertation. Therefore, they devise coursework content into smaller questions that are adequate for students to discuss the exam questions thoroughly. The questions often revolve around the theories, concepts, and research methodologies in students’ areas of specialization.

Tips To Ace Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive exams seem to be nerve-wracking and trigger severe stress for students. Specifically, the amount of complex knowledge they have to master requires a strong will. If they fail on any or all three questions on their first attempt, they need to rewrite the paper in the second attempt. In many schools, especially for doctoral programs, a second failure would have them discharged from the program. Therefore, it is advisable to prepare carefully to excel at ‘comps’.

Establish Your Note-Taking System

To pass the comprehensive exams, you need to go through a massive amount of reading. Hence, an effective note-taking system from the beginning would help you navigate and locate the right resources when you need them. You can use tools such as DEVONthink Pro Office, Evernote, Mendeley, Zotero, and RefWorks to organize your archival finds and research materials. For example, DEVONthink Pro Office allows you to tag items in your database with keywords that you can call up to write about a specific idea.

Study The Exam Question Samples

Though the comprehensive exam questions may look deceptively simple, they are never actually that straightforward. Hence, students should study sample questions in the Comprehensive Examination Manual Guide (CEMG) usually offered by their institution. Students can break the exam questions into absorbable chunks since they are big. From there, they possibly identify inferred requirements to prepare the most effective approaches to answer.

Learn The Important Guidelines

As you begin to write your paper, there are essential elements of the guidelines to keep in mind. Different institutions may have different guidelines for their comps, so you need to take a close look at them. In general, the guidelines require you to provide logical answers in academic styles. Besides, ensure you follow the in-text citation and reference guides and do not commit plagiarism. 

Learn The Important Guidelines

It’s essential to follow the guidelines from the committee. Image: greek-latin.catholic

Think Like A Committee Member

Students can try thinking like a committee member and create your prompts or questions. With each question, you can think of the main ideas and how to structure your responses logically. Remember to add the supporting points and again review your answer for each question. 

Before the comprehensive exams, you usually have opportunities to discuss what the committee requires in your answers with your professor. You also can talk to your committee members individually or collectively to clarify their expectations. Also, try looking at past comp questions and decipher the key points that need to address. This gives you a feel for their style and hence can prepare better. 

Types Of Non-comprehensive Exams

Besides comprehensive exams, there are non-comprehensive testing methods the U.S. education institutions adopt in various levels of study. Let’s see below the different common types of exams and how to prepare for them.

Exam typeDefinitionTips before the examTips during the exam
Multiple ChoiceThese exams require you to select the most appropriate response from a list of choices.Review the course outline and organize your notes. Memorize the key terms or theories to respond accurately quickly.After reading each question carefully, look for words that restrict your possible answers.
Short Answer ExamsThese questions require answers of up to a paragraph long.Try practicing with a variety of questions. Then check your answers to ensure you understand and answer the question thoroughly.Again, read the questions attentively. Always use complete sentences. For maths-based exams, show your calculations in full.
Essay examsYou can expect a broad range of questions in sections covered in your course.Identify the main themes within the course and ensure your notes are complete. Also, identify important references for different topics and think about how to use them.Identify the questions and analyze their wordings. Then, do a plan for each question. Always keep an eye on the time. If you run out of time, put your ideas in dot points.
Open Book examsYou can bring and use your notes, books, or any reference materials. This exam tests how well you use the in-depth knowledge you have learned.Write a summary sheet with the most crucial information of the course. Make sure you mark the page references on your summary sheet to navigate well during the exam.Plan yourself time to use the resources you’ve brought. Make sure you make the best use of the notes and outlines you’ve made at home.

The Final Thought

Ultimately, what are comprehensive exams? They are one of the most comprehensive ways to assess the knowledge and capabilities of higher-education students. Comps ensure that students have what it takes to make an original contribution to their field of studies. Even though comprehensive exams are intensively demanding, they push the students to their extreme to transform to their best. Those who ace ‘comps’ ideally would have a better chance to build their legacy. 

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By John Hobbs

John Hobbs is a senior blogger at Jobandedu. Despite being a successful researcher, advisor, and writer, Hobbs had to go through stages and challenges to figure out his success and passion. Hence, his biggest passion was to help people in understanding their true potentials. It is his experience in various fields and specifications that makes his down-to-earth insights valuable and practical. His articles provide detailed job advice, including all the job details through researching and his own experience as well as insider tips he used to succeed. Hobbs also write articles sharing his passions, thoughts, and research in a unique and interesting writing style.

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