Skip to main content

Preparing for Comps

Guide for the Perplexed:

Tips for Preparing for Comps

After you finish coursework, you’ll prepare for comprehensive exams, during which you’ll show your familiarity with your discipline and readiness to write a dissertation in your field. Most students apply for comps at the end of their second year and take their exams in the spring of the third year.

Before Applying

In the fall semester of your second year, connect with a faculty member you anticipate would be a good fit as a dissertation advisor. In cases when your general dissertation topic doesn’t correspond with coursework, consider initiating a tutorial with your intended advisor to begin thinking through your topic and surveying relevant works in the field. This tutorial might form the basis of your dissertation reading list! You can find instructions for arranging a tutorial in on p.19 of the GSAS Academic Policies and Procedures Guidebook.

Complete the paperwork.

Complete the Application for the PhD Comprehensive Examination Form and submit it to Sue Perciasepe in the department office by the deadlines listed here. Select your exams in conversation with your advisor, keeping your area’s particular requirements in mind. (You can find these requirements on p.10-14 of the Red Book).

Soon After Your Examiner is Assigned

After the Doctoral Committee meets, you’ll receive a letter letting you know whether your application was approved and who your examiner will be for each exam. Here are some tips and strategies other graduate students have found useful in making the most out of your relationship with your examiner:

  • Keep in mind that your examiners are rooting for you. They want you to succeed! While they will challenge you and take seriously their role in evaluating your knowledge of the reading list, they are also eager to help you prepare.
  • Schedule a meeting with each examiner before the semester ends to set the stage for a productive summer. Talk through any revisions to the bibliography that might make sense in light of your own focus or interest. Feel free to suggest your own alternatives or additions.
  • As early as possible, talk through how the examiner will formulate questions for the comp exam. Some examiners will ask you to write your own questions and then make their own revisions. Others will write their own questions based on broader themes in light of your ongoing conversations.

In the Academic Year Leading Up to the Exam

It is up to you to schedule meetings with your examiners to make the most of their guidance. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to meet at least three times prior to the exam so that you can talk through the questions and themes you see emerge as you tackle the reading list.

Begin with the text that seem most relevant to the types of questions you plan to pursue. That way, you can read these works more deeply and discern possible comps themes or questions in light of the general themes you see emerge between other authors on the list. Keeping in mind that the list represents a representative collection of prominent voices in a conversation, seek to chart the outlines of the concerns and themes that animate this conversation.

Your examiners can offer you tips on how to proceed, but you should find a system that works for you. This applies also to your meetings. Your examiners will expect you to take the lead in your meetings, so plan accordingly. Consider bringing a prepared agenda or document to focus your conversation. For example, some students have maintained a general list of prominent themes or questions they see emerging in the comps works along with how various thinkers relate to this theme.

Pace yourself. There will naturally be ebbs and flows in your work throughout the semester as you balance comps studies with teaching responsibilities, but try to set milestones and meet them. In many cases, the key to keeping pace is being intentional about setting aside time for reading and synthesizing. Some students have found it helpful to schedule blocks of time on their calendar or to make regular use of downtime (e.g., commuting) for comps study.

Come up with a consistent way of taking notes and continuously discerning the questions and themes you will bring into your exam. Many students find it helpful to produce something (e.g., a book review, a list of quotes or questions, a lecture) for each book as a way of synthesizing the reading list as you proceed. This has the added benefit of creating reference materials that you might find helpful in the future.

Realistically, a handful of the works on your list will be less relevant to your own questions. Know the main arguments of these works, but do not feel like you need to go into depth for texts that seem ancillary. If in doubt, talk through your pacing and thinking with your examiner.


Your comps exam will be unique to your own research interests and relationship to the discipline. However, you still might find it helpful to collaborate with other graduate students as you study.

Many students who have already taken comps are happy to share their own notes. This can come into handy for parsing difficult texts. Particularly in cases in which several people are taking your exam, consider meeting up to discuss texts and themes. That way, you can benefit from conversation and learning from the expertise of your colleagues.

Before the Exam

Once you have spoken to your examiners about possible questions, consider your examiners’ own personality and interests. What sorts of wrenches might they throw into the question that you have prepared? Comps questions often ask you to take a step beyond summary or analysis to offer your own evaluation. Note each examiner’s own interests and how he or she brings them into the conversation. If your examiner has a favorite thinker, be prepared to cover how this thinker relates to the themes you are focusing on even if you have not focused on this during your meetings.

Take Care of Yourself

Preparing for comps is tough. Working on a long-term, ambiguous project like comps can be draining and paralyzing because it difficult to gauge your preparedness. Therefore, pace yourself and trust the process. Get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and attend to your family and social relationships. These practices of self-care will also come into handy when you begin writing your dissertation.