Common Formats for Comps Questions

Graduate students studying for comprehensive exams sometimes ask me what the questions will look like.  Though every question is different, some patterns reappear more often than others.  They are variations on formats used at every level of schooling, just at a deeper level. Here are some of them:

Compare and contrast questions:

  • Situate “X” in “Y” or situate “X” vis-a-vis “Y”
  • Connect and relate “X” and “Y” historically…categorically…causally…analytically…
  • Evaluate the strengths/weaknesses of “X” in light of “Y”

Define questions:

  • Define “X” and apply to “Y” situation
  • Define “X” and extend the definition to consider “Y”
  • Define “X” and critique (chosen criticisms should demonstrate thorough knowledge of “X” and of “Y” by implication, and should be important rather than trivial)

Selection questions:

  • Describe the scope of “X” and choose examples to illustrate (choices are key to evaluation of the answer)
  • Select “X”, “Y”, or “Z” and defend your choice  (criteria for selection are key to the evaluation of the answer)

Questions no one should ever ask on a graduate level comprehensive exam but, unfortunately, sometimes they do:

  • Regurgitate a well-known list without providing your own viewpoint or analysis
  • Fishing, or “Guess what I am thinking”
  • Parroting, or “Assure me you know my position/theory/argument  and its importance”
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