A Guide to Preparing for and
Taking Comprehensive Examinations
- The goals of comprehensive exams
- Comps are not just an exam to ensure you "know the literature"
(although they are definitely that!) but are rather one part of the larger
process to ensure you are properly prepared for the job market.
- Knowing the literature in a field is crucial to being able both to
publish and to teach in that field. Most of you will eventually be in
positions where you will need to do both. Comps are the first step to
laying the foundation so that you can be suc cessful in both endeavors.
- Therefore, the main goal should NOT be to try to satisfy your faculty
members (again, although you most definitely must do that [see Rule #1
below]) but rather to understand the literature sufficiently well that you
can "place yourself" in the literat ure when writing your
dissertation and can teach an introductory undergraduate course in that
field. If you can do those things well, you should also be able to satisfy
your committee. However, asking committee members "what do I have to
read and what wil l I be responsible for," (although reasonable
questions) will evoke the "know the literature" response from at
least some faculty.
- By taking the time to really immerse yourself in the literature until
you do see the connections between various authors and can structure the
literature into different threads and different schools, you will find it
much easier to identify interestin g questions to write your dissertation
on and also much easier to develop courses in your first years out
- Major and minor comps are only given in weeks 5, 6, and 7 of fall and
spring terms. See the graduate program for further rules and stipulations
about comps and to see a schedule for preparing for comps.
- Preparing for comps (see the Graduate Program for a recommended
schedule/timetable for preparing for comps).
- RULE #1: Make sure you clearly understand what your committee members
expect from you in a comprehensive exam!
- This rule cannot be stated too emphatically. Every other guideline and
rule that follows should be disregarded if it conflicts with RULE #1.
- Several processes exist to accomplish this rule:
- Make sure you also begin the process by talking to the field
committee chair. The department office manager or graduate secretary
can tell you who the chair of the relevant field committee is.
- Talk to your committee members individually, and if necessary
collectively, to clarify expectations
- Look at past comp questions (the graduate secretary has or will have
a typed list of all past comprehensive questions for each field). If
possible, attempt to decipher which ones were written by your
committee members to get a feel for their style.
- Look at past comp answers, successes to see what you should do, and,
if you want, failures to see what to avoid
- Talk to other graduate students who have worked with your committee
members to see what their experience was
- If you have any questions about anything regarding your comprehensive
exam, make sure you get answers early on from all your committee
- Create a clear, well-specified contract of readings for the comp
- Negotiate your contract with your committee members and make sure that
they are clear what you plan to do and that you are meeting their
expectations for a comp
- Put your expectations in writing
- This should include an explicit reading list
- Do not feel limited to the comp exam contract that the graduate
secretary has, but write up your own contract and attach it with your
- Specify how many questions the committee will provide per theme.
Make sure all committee members are clear on this expectation.
- Make sure you and your committee are clear on what the reading list
signifies. Some faculty view reading lists as merely suggestive of the
types of literature you are responsible for knowing and will feel
quite comfortable asking you to comment on rea dings that were not on
the contracted reading list. Others view anything not on the list as
"off limits" during exam time. Make sure you know which type
of faculty are on your committee.
- What you should know. As always, see RULE #1. However, good general
- Know the arguments of all the "major" authors in your comp
field and the corresponding themes
- Read the last two years' worth of issues from the top 3 to 5 journals
in your field. If you are comfortable with most (not necessarily all) of
the articles in those, you will probably have a good grasp of most of
the issues your committee will ask. Bu t again, see RULE #1.
- Studying for comps
- Take notes on all your readings
- Structure and organize your notes in a manner which will make them
readily accessible to you during the short period of time you have to
write the comp answer. Some ideas include:
- Take notes on all authors you read and summarize them in 25-50 word
paragraphs, using a computer filing system or 3x5 cards or any other
system that works for you.
- Creating thematic strains that run through the literature. Put
different theories and different authors into categories that allow
you to see how they relate to and are distinct from each other.
- Compare and contrast major schools of thought in your field
- Noting the use of key concepts in the literature
- Developing a flow chart of how key ideas have cross-fertilized or
are otherwise connected in the field
- Do not take an attitude of "I will be able to respond to the
questions they ask." Rather have arguments already prepared. Make
sure you know the range of possible questions AND know exactly how you
would respond. Spend at least an afterno on writing up your response to
- Take practice comps. Most students believe it is crucial that you take
practice comps under the direction of one or more of your committee
members. This serves several functions:
- Helps you achieve RULE #1 of clarifying expectations. It is far less
painful to get heavily criticized for a bad practice comp than for the
- Helps you place yourself in a setting that closely matches the setting
you will face during the comp itself. You need to get comfortable with
the stress and atmosphere that is involved in taking a comp.
- Use the practice comp as a means of finding out what you need to make
your comp successful, especially learning what works best for you
personally. There is no right way to write a comp. However, you may find
that some ways work better for you than ot hers.
- It is often difficult to make sure you have sufficient uninterrupted
time. This may require advance negotiations with partners, family
members, and/or friends to make sure that you can have this time
available when you need it.
- Test out what conditions work best for you: for example, intense
short writing sessions with frequent breaks, or less intense but
longer writing sessions with only one or two breaks per day.
- The details. Make sure you have all the details taken care of well
before comp day:
- The main point here is to complete everything needed for a good comp
before the week that you begin the comp. If these things are in place,
they you can focus exclusively on the thinking and writing of the comp.
This stuff can all be done before han d, so why not do it? Admittedly, a
professional-looking paper with bad ideas will not pass a comp, but
likewise a sloppy paper with good ideas has a "bad initial
impression" problem to overcome. Since properly formatting a comp
is easy to do, can be done beforehand, and can be maintained in a single
file that you use as a template for all comps and future papers, why not
get this done and make sure your paper makes a good first impression?
- Make sure all your books and articles are on hand and organized so
that you have quick and easy access to them on comp day.
- Make sure your notes are organized, just like the books and articles.
- Make sure your bibliography of all possible citations you may use is
typed, proofed, and spell-checked, ready to be attached to your comp
once it is complete. Long before you take your comp you should have a
complete bibliography of all citations you might use in your
comprehensive exam, already formatted in APSA or Chicago Manual style.
You should keep a running bibliography, making sure you have all
relevant information for each possible citation you might use. If you
have a complete and consisten t bibliography made up when you sign your
comps contract, then using n-text citations will allow you to simply
attach that bibliography (minus those books and articles you didn't cite
in the final comp).
- Prepare a template document for each answer that has a good-looking
title page, page numbers, proper footnote format, etc. ready to go so
all you have to do is start writing and not worry about formatting. Take
a slow afternoon to make up a draft fil e on your computer weeks before
the comp that already has the following:
- Title page with name, placeholder title, comp subject and date.
- Page numbers in header or footer.
- Tentative headings for different paper sections (Intro, Section 1,
Section 2, Conclusion). You can replace Section X with appropriate
headings when you write the exam.
- Complete bibliography (see above).
- Make sure you have a new printer ribbon or ink cartridge for you
- Most students suggest that you not study the day before your comp, but
rather take the day off and rest up. Also, plan on taking three days off
after the comp is over to recover.
- Sequencing of preparation: each student should do whatever it takes to
make sure they are prepared for their comp. However, most evidence
suggests that the minimum preparation for a comp involves the following
for a comp to be taken in Term 3:
- Term 1: Take the field seminar for the comp field or begin extensive
preparations on the long, generic, reading list for the field that has
been prepared by the field committees. If needed (and it probably will
be), ask your committee members to updat e that list.
- Term 2: Continue focused readings. Take practice comps with one or
more committee members. Write contract towards middle or end of this
term. Final reading list should be a subset of the long, generic,
reading list you have already completed.
- Term 3: Make sure contract is signed and date for comp is set.
- Again, there are many styles for preparing, but the bottom line is it
takes most students 6-10 months to prepare properly for a comp. Plan
- Writing a comp
- Answer the question
- Make an argument
- Use a clear structure
- Use empirical examples, if appropriate. See RULE #1.
- Make sure you understand how to make an argument that fits the
political science model in both argumentative style and prose style.
This should be second-nature but, if not, should have been remedied by
taking your practice comps. Again, see RULE #1 < /LI>
- Only you will know what works best for you and you will only know that
if you have practiced beforehand! What follows are some suggestions that
MAY work for you but may not.
- Either begin with an outline, or if that is not your style, make sure
that you write a quick draft and then organize those thoughts
subsequently. You are unlikely to be able to write a coherent,
well-structured answer without either using an outli ne or going back
over a draft and organizing it afterwards.
- If you have prepared well and are lucky, at least some of your
practice comps or the answers you wrote to questions you thought you
might face will be relevant to the questions you receive. Its unlikely
to work well if you just plug in a previously w ritten answer. However,
it may well help to incorporate some of what you have
previously written in preparation for comps. But do so very carefully,
doing it only if it will help your argument.
- Stay normal and calm but serious. Make sure you eat and sleep
properly, or at least the minimum to ensure you are operating at
- For some people, it may be appropriate to use an egg-timer or
alarm-clock to keep you aware of the passage of time. Consider making
a daily schedule for when you should have each section done, e.g.,
finish outline 10am, finish intro 12noon, fi nish draft of 1st section
2pm, finish draft of 2nd section 3:30, finish draft of 3rd section
5pm, finish draft of conclusion 7pm, break for dinner, etc.
- If you get stuck on a section, consider moving on to the next
section and returning to that section later.
- Make sure to review and edit your work on the last day. Spell-check
and proof it after all revisions are made and just prior to printing.
- Remember, this is not a dissertation.
- Write your introduction last and make sure it tells the committee
what is the main argument of your comp.
- In general, shorter is better, but again, see RULE #1.
- Complete one answer per day and use the last day (day 3 in a minor
or day 4 in a major) to edit, review, revise and improve those
answers. Again, this depends on style but there is some consensus
among grad students that this approach works best.
- You are likely to experience a range of emotions during and after
the comp. Many students feel depressed and confused during and/or
after the comp. That is normal. You learn during the comp and so,
naturally, will feel after the fact that you could have done better.
Don't sweat it. As long as you did the best you could, then be
satisfied with that and try to relax as much as possible until you
hear the results.
- Taking the oral
- Student responsibility for organizing
- Relax before oral
- Bring notes if necessary
- Get feedback from other students on your answer
- Intelligent conversation about the material
- Failing a comp
- Although it does not happen often, and is unpleasant for all concerned
when it does, some students will flunk their first comp. Indeed, some of
our best students failed their first comp., bottomed out, but then
started over and went on to success in t he profession. So, please, do
not give up if this should happen to you.
- All students are allowed to re-take a comprehensive exam once. If you
fail your first attempt at a comp, and many students have done so over
the years, do not freak out. Your committee will work with you to help
you pass it successfully on the second try.
- Some students who have failed their first attempt at a comp have gone
on to get a pass with distinction in the retake. So, it is possible to
- Set up a meeting with the graduate advisor and with your committee
members as soon as you have recovered from receiving the failure notice
to begin setting up a plan that will allow you to successfully complete
- The retake must be taken in the next term in which the comp is
offered. Thus failure of a comp in fall term must be retaken in spring
term and failure of a comp in spring term must be retaken in fall term.
- Other stuff
- Any questions, ask your committee
- Work with other students
- Read efficiently and strategically
- Follow RULE #1
- Faculty are here to help, are on your side, and want you to succeed.
- A word of advice for dissertation writers from John Tullius (PhD, 1997)
Carefully track your citations and bibliography from the outset!!! Since
the bibliography is the last piece of the dissertation, it is easy to fall
into the trap of waiting until the end before compiling your references (which
is what I did). Instead o f relaxing these last two weeks before my defense, I
have spent five unnecessary days hunting down journal volumes and numbers,
inclusive pages of articles, etc. Too bad I did not take the following advice
to heart: Know the grad school requirements BEFOR E you start writing, have an
organized system for tracking your references, and ALWAYS keep your
bibliography updated with each new citation!
Please note: These notes are the results of a meeting held in Spring of
1997 and Spring of 1999 talking with graduate students who had taken
comprehensive exams about their experience and their suggestions for how to
succeed. Your experience may be qui te different. Following these suggestions
does not guarantee that you will successfully complete a comprehensive exam,
but they may help.