Most depart­ments feature com­pre­hensive exams, though each depart­ment’s exam is a little dif­ferent. Flickr

They come in dif­ferent formats and are required for dif­ferent reasons in dif­ferent depart­ments, and can take any­where from 40 minutes to 6 hours, but they all go by the same name: comps.

Most majors offer com­pre­hensive exams sometime during the spring semester senior year, but there is no formal requirement or pref­erence from the provost’s office about whether depart­ments must give a com­pre­hensive exam to stu­dents in their major, Provost David Whalen said.

For some depart­ments, including chem­istry, biology, physics, psy­chology, and soci­ology, the com­pre­hensive exam is a stan­dardized, dis­ci­pline-spe­cific mul­tiple-choice exam offered by Edu­ca­tional Testing Service, the same company that offers the GRE.

In some depart­ments, such as the department of Psy­chology or Soci­ology and Social Thought, com­pre­hensive exams are as much about eval­u­ating how the department com­pares to other col­leges as it is about eval­u­ating an indi­vidual student’s per­for­mance.

“It mea­sures how our stu­dents’ knowledge in soci­ology com­pares to a national sample,” Chair of the Soci­ology and Social Thought Department Peter Blum said. “What the comp does is gives us this indi­cation whether the core gives stu­dents famil­iarity with what people expect soci­ology majors at other places to be familiar with. The mea­sures have indi­cated that we’re doing pretty well with that.”

In the foreign lan­guages division, com­pre­hensive exams often have both an oral and written com­ponent. For Spanish, French, and German stu­dents, the essays evaluate stu­dents’ under­standing of the books and themes dis­cussed in upper-level lit­er­ature classes. Later in the semester, stu­dents also must com­plete an oral exam, although the length of the con­ver­sation and the topics dis­cussed can vary.

For American Studies majors, whose coursework can vary greatly from student to student, the com­pre­hensive exam is an oral con­ver­sation. Director of American Studies and Pro­fessor of Pol­itics Kevin Portteus said this allows him to tailor each con­ver­sation to the par­ticular student’s coursework.

In the history department, each pro­fessor pre­pares a bank of mul­tiple-choice ques­tions con­sisting of material they cover in their upper-level courses. A com­puter program selects ques­tions from these banks based on the courses each history major has com­pleted.

For pol­itics majors, comps consist of essay ques­tions. For religion and phi­losophy majors, there is both an essay and an oral com­ponent.

For rhetoric and public address or theatre majors, the depart­ments don’t offer a com­pre­hensive exam. Instead, stu­dents com­plete a senior project that allows instructors to assess a student’s ability to apply the con­cepts they’ve learned in their con­cen­trated areas of study.

“When we used to do comps 30 years ago, if you failed somebody, they weren’t going to graduate. It wasn’t like some­thing they could readily do again to make up a defi­ciency,” Pro­fessor of Theatre George Angell said. “With senior projects, there’s more over­sight over the whole process from beginning to end. The projects attempt to roll together all aspects of the program, from the aca­demic to the prac­tical.”

In most depart­ments, comps are graded on a pass or fail basis for grad­u­ation, although a spe­cific letter grade or per­centile is required some­times for depart­mental honors. Pro­fessor of Spanish Sandra Puvogel said she tells her stu­dents that no one can fail the oral comps, and if a student has dif­fi­culty with a par­ticular portion of the written exam, they will be allowed to re-take that portion.

For the most part, though, stu­dents enter the exam with clear expec­ta­tions and ample prepa­ration, and per­for­mance isn’t a problem. In the psy­chology department, seniors scored in the 99th per­centile nationally, according to Psy­chology Chair­woman Kari McArthur.

The provost said coursework require­ments are more fre­quently the cause for people not com­pleting their degrees, not com­pre­hensive exams or cap­stone projects.

“It might just be a nec­essary class for their major, or they don’t turn in a final paper so they never get a grade, and never get a degree,” Whalen said. “It’s very frus­trating for someone to be that close and have so little left to do. Very often, they get jobs, and they’re already employed or get married, and life carries them off on its own cur­rents. They may have every intention of fin­ishing, but then life gets busy. But do we end up here at the end of the year with weeping stu­dents and irate parents over a 59 percent? No.”