What is a comprehensive exam?

March 12, 2019

A comprehensive exam is an evaluation that measures a student’s competency and mastery of concepts in the field of an academic discipline.

Passing a comprehensive exam, which may be in written, verbal, or some other format, indicates that a student is prepared to move into the dissertation phase of the degree.

Many graduate programs, especially PhD programs, require students to take comprehensive exams (which are also known as preliminary exams, general exams, or major field exams) as part of their program. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to ensure the student is knowledgeable enough with his or her area of research to make an original contribution.

What should you expect from comprehensive exams—or “comps,” as they’re commonly called?

The nature of the exams will vary from school to school, and program to program, but here are a few of the most common formats, requirements, and expectations.

Comps formats

The formats for comps vary widely. You may find yourself doing any of these:

  • Submission of an academic paper as a basis for the dissertation.
  • Formal oral exam.
  • Review of your academic portfolio.
  • A series of proctored, or supervised, exams.

Your school and program will dictate the required format, and in some cases, you may need to take multiple types.

Comps requirements

Again, these will vary across schools and programs, with some requiring all, and others requiring some.

  • Minimum GPA (at Capella University, a 3.0 GPA is required before taking the comps).
  • Completion of all coursework.
  • Completion of doctoral residency, if relevant to the program.
  • Paperwork, such as the Comprehensive Exam request form.
  • Possible additional requirements for students in licensure or practicum programs.

What the exams involve

Faculty are verifying that students grasp the key elements of research and the current state of their field enough to position their research to add to the collection of knowledge in the field. To that end, comps exam questions are usually focused around:

  • Knowledge of the research methodologies and how to apply them in the student’s areas of specialization
  • Theories and concepts that contribute to the body of knowledge in the student’s area of specialization
  • Theory and research that can solve problems in the field

Your coursework prior to the comps should prepare you to thoroughly and knowledgeably discuss these questions. The comps are a mechanism for ensuring that students don’t begin dissertation work until they’re fully prepared to do so.

Many schools (including Capella) will allow you to re-take the comps if you don’t pass the first time.

If at any time you’re in doubt about your level of preparation for the comps, be sure to work with your advisors and mentors to address those concerns before scheduling them.

Capella University offers professional doctorate degree and PhD programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’sdoctoral programs.

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