5: Comprehensive Exam Tips

  • First, like many things in graduate school, comps/quals differ from department to department. This list of strategies is a broad overview and does not replace talking to your advisor.
  • Many departments maintain a file of previous comp questions. Talk to a department administrative assistant to find out more about this.
  • Talk to other graduate students in your department who are studying for/recently completed comps. They are one of your best resources for planning.
  • Get a reading list ready early. Talk to your advisor or fellow graduate students to get a suggested list of the most significant texts in your field. Think about forming a reading group up to a year before your comprehensive exams.
  • Generally, departments give you more than one test with one required to be written; sometimes they are both written, sometimes one is written and one is oral. Check with your advisor to find out the format of your exams.
  • Comps are meant to show the breadth of your general subject matter knowledge and the depth of your specialty.
  • Comps are about synthesizing your coursework and research interests as well as showing your department what you know about your potential dissertation work. Make sure your committee understands your work and guides you as you prepare for comps.
  • Some departments require a proposal before comps—check with your advisor for specific details.
  • If you fail comps (but you probably won’t!!!), most departments allow retakes, although some departments are more stringent on this. Again, check with your advisor for your department’s policies.