Many master’s and doctoral programs require a comprehensive exam at the end of coursework. Taking, or writing, your “comps” can be a daunting enterprise because as its name implies the range of questions/topics is both wide-ranging with the expectation of thorough, detailed responses.  It’s a unique writing situation, and often reflected upon as part of the challenging hurdles one needs to overcome in graduate study. One reason for this is that seldom in graduate study do students experience this type of high stakes writing from prompts on what are usually expansive subjects.


However, you have the skills required to succeed. First, you’ve engaged in study of the range of topics, and typically the program will have identified the areas for the comps. And you’ll be required to answer a portion of those. For example, the AU Counselor Education & Supervision (CES) doctoral program poses five questions and students self-select three to answer and have two weeks to submit the finished product.


The manner of the exam may deviate as well. Some programs do an intensive stretch of “in situ” writing; while others will offer it as a “take home exam.” The take home exam might appear “easier” in some sense, but be prepared that you’ll be expected to present a formal manuscript replete with a table of contents and reference pages. And yes, you’ll be evaluated on your attention to format and conventions.


Here are a few strategies to prepare:

  1. Practice beforehand by outlining the various subtopics for each topic. Remember, these are topics that books are written on, so from the onset maintain a realistic expectation of
  2. Right now, you don’t have the specific questions, but you can begin preparing by reviewing your program and by identifying relevant references and data. This is valuable pre-writing. Even if it turns out there’s not a question on this theme, you may certainly (and perhaps should) consider weaving this theme into one of the questions. For example, a question on adolescents and family dynamics offers you an opportunity to integrate systems theory.
  3. The topics are usually well-established in the program, either as a recurrent theme in the program or from a required class. So, draw from your experience. Review what you’ve already written on the topic or your class notes. Consider that your goal here is not to repeat what you’ve already written but to present yourself as someone who’s grown from that previous writing experience. Reflect back to what was presented in class or your own writing and do the meta-work to generate new ideas/wisdoms to share about the topic.
  4. And speaking of research, go ahead and creating a “working bibliography” of the potential resources. This will save time in the long run, but the exercise also contributes to preparing for the writing intensive.
  5. Keep the topics in your “present vision” by writing & talking about the topics. Convene a study group, and informally talk about the topic(s). Don’t refer to notes but allow yourself to converse and to listen. One great way you can achieve this more relaxed conversation is to “walk & talk” with a friend about the subject areas. This informal conversation is healthy enterprise in limbering the cognitive processes and to allow new creative thought to emerge. After walking, write a few notes on any new learnings.
  6. Whether your exams are over a few days composing in a classroom or at home with a longer deadline, it makes good sense to strategize on the topics you’ll answer. In other words, don’t study/prepare for all and don’t be tempted to select the “hardest” topic to impress your committee. Identify right away which topics you’ll write on & prepare to answer on a variety of possible subtopics.
  7. Unless the question is arbitrary (e.g., Discuss X’s influence on depressed populations in the 1918 Pandemic), think about a particular theme that you’ll take with each topic so that your reader sees your effort in doing more than just presenting information/ knowledge (See WEX Resource on Bloom’s Taxonomy & Writing).
  8. Remember, this exam is an artifact of graduate academic writing. Your reader wants to see you integrate themes with the relevant research. Consider that one purpose in writing is to interpret themes and evaluate the prevailing research for the reader. (See WEX Resource on Scholarly Voice & Writing).
  9. Remember you’re in driver’s seat. Take control by leading your reader to appreciate your interpretations. Your reader wants to be impressed with your scholarly response. Your reader is curious and eager to see how you respond. Write for that reader.
  10. Finally, most programs allow you to have a format editor with the “take home” exam, and if time and budget allow, this is highly recommended as you do not want an error with punctuation or a citation affect your success. Having a plan in place to use a format editor at the end is a great way to ensure that you can focus on the content and development of your ideas. In fact, many students have entrusted WEX to polish the manuscript and do a comprehensive review for APA accuracy. Since most exams have a short turnaround period, WEX requires a 2 week notice so that we can reserve an editor’s time to complete the edit within the deadline. Expedited Editing charges also apply.