Comprehensive exams are a rite of passage for many graduate students, and these tests can be a source of considerable stress. While most doctoral programs contain a comprehensive exam requirement, the rules are less clear for students seeking master’s degrees. Below is a brief overview of comprehensive exams and how to determine whether or not a specific program requires them.

What are comprehensive exams?

These exams, also known as “comps,” are broad exams that test a graduate student’s mastery over a general subject area. Comps may be written, oral, or both, and typically takes place over multiple days. Many programs provide reading lists that consolidate the testable material for specific exams, and students can spend as long as one year preparing for comps. These exams typically serve as gateways into either a degree or an advanced status within a graduate program. Most comps are graded on a pass/fail basis. Depending on the specific program, students who fail comps may have one or more opportunities to re-take the exam.

How do graduate programs use comps?

Graduate programs use the comprehensive exam process to certify that students have achieved a core level of mastery in the relevant discipline. In doctoral programs, comps usually precede the dissertation stage and certify that a student has completed all non-dissertation requirements. Such students are known as “ABD,” or “All But Dissertation.” At the master’s level, some programs may require successful completion of comps as a pre-requisite to conferral of the master’s degree.

Which master’s programs require comps?

Every academic program establishes its own degree requirements, including the structure and requirement of comprehensive exams. Many master’s degree programs do not require candidates to pass these exams, opting instead to require a thesis or other capstone project. In order to determine whether a specific program requires master’s students to pass comps, consult the program guidelines. If detailed guidelines are not available on a master’s degree program’s website, there should be an appointed Director of Graduate Studies who can explain the program’s specific requirements.

How do graduate students prepare for comps?

As individual programs create their own exam procedures, preparation methods will differ. In general, however, programs typically offer several types of support for students in the exam preparation stage. First, programs may supply reading lists that identify specific texts or topics likely to appear on the exam. Even in programs that do not supply reading lists, students can generally consult with a faculty advisor and advanced graduate students during exam preparation. Regardless of the discipline, it is customary for students to read strategically and take detailed notes during coursework so that they have those notes to study as they prepare for the comps.

While comprehensive exams are often a source of anxiety for graduate students, most institutions offer resources to facilitate this stage of graduate school. Not all master’s degree programs require these exams, however. It is important to research and learn a specific program’s requirements in order to determine whether these exams are compulsory for a graduate degree.