A comprehensive exam is a type of cumulative evaluation used by many graduate programs in the US and Canada. It is a common requirement for how to get a PhD or graduate from some master’s programs, and even some undergraduate honors programs. However, a comprehensive exam encompasses many different types of final tests and even types of thesis defense, and the requirements and structure of a comprehensive exam are very program dependent. In this blog, we’ll take a look at what comprehensive exams are, what’s on them, which programs use them and how to prepare for this challenge.

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What are Comprehensive Exams? What’s on a Comprehensive Exam? Which Programs Use Comprehensive Exams? How to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams FAQs

What are Comprehensive Exams?

What exactly is a comprehensive exam? Comprehensive exams have many different names, from comps to cumulative exam, qualifying exams, candidacy exams or preliminary exams.

Comprehensive exam is a term applied to many final assessments used in higher education in both the US and Canada. Specifically, they are a common graduate program requirement to graduate. The purpose of a comprehensive exam is to evaluate a student's mastery of the foundational knowledge and key concepts within their field of study. So, if you want to get a master’s degree in Canada or the US, or you plan to get a PhD, it’s likely you’ll need to complete a comprehensive exam or something close to it.

Not all graduate programs require them, and there are only a few undergraduate programs in the US that use comprehensive exams as final evaluations. If you are required to take a comprehensive exam or similar assessment, it demands thorough preparation. Keep in mind that the format and content of a comprehensive exam can vary greatly from program to program, even within the same disciplines or fields.

The specific format and requirements of comprehensive exams can vary across institutions and disciplines, but some general features are common. Let’s take a look at some of the common features of comprehensive evaluations:

What’s on a Comprehensive Exam?

The content of a comprehensive exam relies on your program of study, as does its format. For example, an MBA program might have a multiple-choice comprehensive exam, while a master’s in social work program may use an oral exam or presentation.

Comprehensive exams are often long—some may be several hours long—and may be administered over multiple days. Some comprehensive exams are completed in two parts, so you may have a written part and an oral part of your exam, depending on your program.

The content of your exam will cover the foundational concepts, principles and vital knowledge covered in your program’s coursework. So, an MBA program will evaluate your knowledge of core business principles, test your strategic thinking and your communication skills. Research-heavy programs will ask you to present a research proposal and defend your thesis. Political science programs will present you with multiple essay prompts and ask you to draft an argument in response.

How are Comprehensive Exams Scored?

Because of the variable nature of comprehensive exams, they may all use a different scoring system. Of course, passing your comprehensive exams or completing them with a satisfactory grade can determine whether you graduate or not from a particular program. Many programs allow you to retake comprehensive exams or re-attempt a thesis defense, but of course it’s ideal to pass on the first try!

Check out the grading system your program uses for comprehensive exams and what is required to pass. Here are a few examples of scoring systems you might be using:

  1. Pass/Fail System: In many programs, comprehensive exams are evaluated on a pass/fail basis. Students must demonstrate a sufficient level of mastery of the material to pass the exams and move on to the next stage of their academic journey, such as advancing to candidacy for a Ph.D.
  2. Graded System: Some programs may use a graded system for comprehensive exams, assigning numerical or letter grades based on the quality of a student's performance. The grading criteria may include the depth of understanding, clarity of communication, critical analysis, and other relevant factors.
  3. Rubrics and Evaluation Criteria: Faculty members often use rubrics or specific evaluation criteria to assess comprehensive exams consistently. These criteria may be shared with students beforehand to provide transparency about the expectations for successful performance.
  4. Weighting of Exam Components: If comprehensive exams consist of multiple components (e.g., written and oral exams, specific subject areas), programs may assign different weights to each component. For example, written exams might contribute a certain percentage to the overall score, and oral exams may have a separate weight.
  5. Oral Defense: In programs that include an oral component to the comprehensive exams, the performance during the oral defense may carry significant weight in the overall evaluation. Faculty members may assess a student's ability to articulate and defend their knowledge and perspectives. In programs with oral exams or comprehensive exams evaluated by a committee of faculty members, the final score may be determined through a consensus of the examining committee. This approach ensures that multiple perspectives contribute to the evaluation process.

Some programs provide detailed feedback to students on their performance in comprehensive exams, allowing them to understand their strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, students may be given an opportunity to revise and resubmit specific sections of the exam based on feedback.

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Which Programs Use Comprehensive Exams?

There are many graduate programs that use comprehensive exams (and even some other university programs that do). Even online graduate programs may decide to use comprehensive exams in their curriculum.

In Canada, some of the most prestigious universities in Canada use comps, particularly for the PhD and doctoral programs. Online universities in Canada may also require comprehensive exams, depending on the type of program.

You can check whether a specific graduate program requires a comprehensive exam on their website by looking through their curriculum and graduation requirements. However, keep in mind that a majority of master’s programs and doctoral programs DO have some kind of evaluation or comp, even if you’re doing a PhD without dissertation.

PhD and Doctoral Programs

Doctoral programs in a wide range of disciplines, such as the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and engineering, often require comprehensive exams. These exams serve as a milestone in the progression toward candidacy for a Ph.D. and are typically taken after completing coursework.

Essentially, you will complete 1 to 2 years of PhD advanced coursework, the progress to preparing for your comprehensive or preliminary exams. Successfully passing these makes you a PhD candidate, and means you can begin conducting your own independent research and working on your dissertation or thesis. Which means you’ll begin preparing for thesis defense and brushing up on thesis defense questions you need to answer.

Of course, comps are very important to continuing in your PhD program and they can influence how long it takes to get a PhD. Since, if you don’t pass your comps, you won’t be able to progress to your dissertation stage.

Master’s Programs

Some Master's programs, especially those with a strong research focus, may include comprehensive exams as part of the degree requirements. However, this is more common in research-oriented Master's programs, such as a master’s degree in psychology, than in terminal, coursework-based Master's programs. Depending on the field of your master’s program, a comp may look different.

For example, your exam may be a lengthy multiple-choice test. Or a series of long essay prompts and responses. It may be a more traditional presentation of a research proposal. This usually involves either submission of your proposal for review and approval, or an oral presentation of your proposal and a defense in front of a panel of faculty members.

If your exam is a thesis proposal and defense, it’s important to learn how to write a master’s thesis proposal and review research proposal questions and answers you’ll be asked so you can prepare yourself.

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Undergraduate Programs

There are a few colleges in the US which require undergraduate students to graduate with their degree. Again, these will be program dependent. Many honors programs at US colleges use comprehensive exams to evaluate graduating students in particular disciplines.

Here are some colleges that use comprehensive exams for select undergraduate programs:

  • Bethany College
  • Catholic University of America
  • Earlham College
  • Eckerd College
  • Hanover College
  • Kenyon College
  • Maryville College
  • Millsaps College
  • Occidental College
  • Reed College
  • Rosemont College
  • St. Anselm College
  • Shimer College
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Alabama
  • University of Dallas
  • University of Iowa
  • University of the South
  • University of Virginia
  • Wabash College
  • Whitman College

Other Programs which Use Comps

  1. Education Programs: Many graduate programs in education, including doctoral programs in education (Ed.D. or Ph.D.), may require comprehensive exams. These exams assess a student's knowledge of educational theory, research methods, and other relevant topics.
  2. Public Administration and Policy Programs: Master's and Ph.D. programs in public administration, public policy, and related fields may use comprehensive exams to evaluate students' understanding of governance, policy analysis, and other relevant areas.
  3. Psychology Programs: Doctoral programs in psychology often include comprehensive exams as part of the process of advancing to candidacy. These exams may cover various subfields of psychology, research methods, and theoretical perspectives.
  4. Social Work Programs: Some Master's and Ph.D. programs in social work may require comprehensive exams to assess students' understanding of social work theories, practice, and research methods.
  5. Business Administration Programs: Some Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs may have comprehensive exams, although the structure of these exams can vary. Additionally, Ph.D. programs in business administration or related fields often include comprehensive exams.
  6. Political Science Programs: Doctoral programs in political science commonly use comprehensive exams to evaluate students' knowledge of political theory, comparative politics, international relations, and research methods.

How to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams

Preparing for comprehensive exams is a long process and, as we know, can be vital to your successful completion of your program. Below we’ve included some tips on how to properly prepare for this graduate school challenge!

1. Understand the Exam Structure and Requirements

First, review the requirements for your comprehensive exam with your program, or if you even have to complete one. Review the structure, content, format and scoring rubric associated with the comps for your program so you know just what to expect. You should also take a look at any guidelines your program provides that can give you a head start on test prep.

2. Create a Study Plan

Once you know what you need to prepare for, start creating a study plan and schedule. Most likely, you’ll be preparing for your comps at the same time you’re completing other coursework and fulfilling other obligations.

Having a solid study plan will keep you organized and make sure you’re preparing as efficiently as you can. Break down your study plan into manageable sections, by month, by week, even by day. Allocate concrete timeframes and study periods. Prepare for a long study period, since you may have to prepare for your exams months in advance.

3. Content Review

For your comprehensive exams, no matter their format, content review will be important. Go back and collect your coursework materials such as notes, textbooks and study notes. Identify the key concepts, theories, and methodologies that are fundamental to your field of study. Make sure you have a solid understanding of these foundational elements.

For students writing essay-based comprehensive exams, ask about previous years’ essay topics or the content covered on previous exams so you have a better idea of what content areas to review.

5. Practice, practice, practice

If the exams include written components, practice writing essays or responses to potential exam questions. Focus on clarity, coherence, and the ability to articulate your ideas effectively. Your program may be able to give you past essay prompts or practice prompts to work with. Write regular practice essays to get used to the process of brainstorming, outlining and drafting your ideas into a strong essay, as well as writing a full essay within the given time limit.

If your comps include an oral presentation, work on your presentation and verbal communication skills. Rehearse your oral presentation and ask for feedback on your delivery.

For more traditional exams, use practice questions or write regular practice tests if possible. If the exams have time constraints, practice answering questions within the allotted time. This helps improve your time management skills and ensures that you can complete the exam within the given timeframe.

6. Seek Guidance from Faculty

Consult with your faculty advisor or other professors who are familiar with the comprehensive exam process. Seek advice on key areas to focus on, potential exam topics, and any specific recommendations they may have. If you have questions about the exam format or content, seek clarification from your program coordinator or faculty members. Understanding the expectations can guide your preparation.

Faculty members may also have resources you can use to better practice and prepare for your tests, such as practice exams or past year’s essay topics.

7. Use External Resources

Consider forming or joining study groups with your peers who are also preparing for comps. Discussing concepts with others can provide different perspectives and help reinforce your understanding of the material. Explore external resources, such as additional textbooks, scholarly articles, and online resources, to supplement your understanding of key topics.

It’s important to read widely in your field, both scholarly articles and textbooks but also keeping up to date on current affairs. You never know where an exam question or essay prompt may be sourced from, and broad knowledge of your field will help you answer questions or write stronger essay responses.

8. Take Care of Your Mental Health

Balance your study efforts with adequate self-care. Ensure you get enough sleep, eat well, and take breaks to avoid burnout. Schedule regular study breaks in your study plan and don’t be afraid to take time away from studying.

Preparing for comprehensive exams can be stressful, considering the stakes are high and the tests can be long and grueling. Nonetheless, it’s key to take of yourself during this time as you approach the end of your program.


1. What is a comprehensive exam?

A comprehensive exam, often referred to as comps or qualifying exams, is an evaluative assessment designed to test a student's mastery of the fundamental concepts and knowledge within their academic discipline. These exams are common in graduate programs, especially at the master's and doctoral levels, and are intended to ensure that students have a solid foundation before advancing to the next stage of their academic journey.

2. How long should you study for a comprehensive exam?

The duration for comprehensive exam preparation can vary depending on the program, the complexity of the content, and the individual student's prior knowledge. Some students may dedicate several weeks to a few months for focused study. It's advisable to start early, create a study plan, and allocate sufficient time to review all relevant materials.

3. What programs require a comprehensive exam?

Comprehensive exams are commonly required in various graduate programs, particularly at the master's and doctoral levels. Programs such as Ph.D. programs in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences often include comprehensive exams. Additionally, some master's programs, especially those with a strong research focus, may also have comprehensive exam requirements. Specific programs can include education, psychology, business administration, public administration, and more.

4. When do you take a comprehensive exam?

The timing of comprehensive exams varies by program but is typically taken after the completion of coursework or at a designated point in a student's academic progression. In many cases, comprehensive exams are a prerequisite for advancing to candidacy in Ph.D. programs.

5. What’s on a comprehensive exam?

The content of a comprehensive exam depends on the academic discipline and the specific requirements of the program. However, it generally covers foundational concepts, key theories, methodologies, and relevant literature within the field of study. The exam may consist of written and/or oral components and may cover a range of topics specified by the program.

6. How do you pass a comprehensive exam?

Passing a comprehensive exam requires thorough preparation. Develop a study plan, review course materials, textbooks, and additional readings. Practice with sample questions or exams, engage in discussions with faculty or peers, and seek guidance from advisors. During the exam, demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the material, and respond to questions or prompts with clarity and coherence.

7. What if I don’t pass my comprehensive exam?

If you don't pass your comprehensive exam, programs typically have procedures in place for remediation or reevaluation. It's important to consult with your program coordinator, faculty advisor, or relevant administrators to understand the specific policies and options available for retaking or addressing any deficiencies.

8. Can you retake a comprehensive exam?

Many programs allow students to retake comprehensive exams if they do not pass on the first attempt. The specific retake policies vary by institution and program, so it's essential to consult with program administrators to understand the procedures, timelines, and any additional requirements for retaking the exam.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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