For students of master’s in communication programs who prefer a faster (but no less rigorous) final graduate requirement, relative to the thesis or capstone project, the comprehensive examination can be an ideal option. Many master’s in communication programs offer the comprehensive exam for students who are interested in taking additional courses (as opposed to devoting course credits to independent thesis or capstone project work), and who are comfortable with exam questions that require them to synthesize key concepts that they have learned throughout their tenure in the program.

Just as capstone project requirements vary across programs, so do comprehensive examinations. The structure of the comprehensive exam can range from a three-question examination that students must complete in short essay form over the course of several hours during an exam week, to a take-home essay that demonstrates their ability to connect the conceptual threads across their different classes. In addition, some comprehensive examinations are given orally, during which faculty ask students to answer complex questions about their field of study, and to justify their responses. Finally, some programs combine the two approaches or have students orally defend their written responses.

Comprehensive examinations are typically tailored to each student’s course selections and academic interests. In fact, the comprehensive exam is unique in that it is generally a collaborative effort between students and their faculty mentors, which means that, given the proper preparation, students can be primed for success. For almost all programs with a comprehensive examination option, students receive key details about the themes, theories, and applications on which they will be tested during their discussions with professors. Furthermore, many programs with a timed examination requirement even give students a menu of previously discussed exam questions ahead of time (from which students might choose several on the day of the test) so that students can thoroughly prepare.

This Guide to the Comprehensive Examination outlines the general types of comprehensive examinations that master’s in communication programs tend to offer, and also provides detailed advice from both faculty members and alumni regarding how students can succeed in their comprehensive examinations.

For more information on capstone options and the differences between a thesis, capstone project, and comprehensive exam, check out our Guide to Capstone Options.

Types of Comprehensive Examinations

As mentioned previously, the objective of the comprehensive examination is to prompt students to integrate the advanced concepts and theories of communication they have learned in their foundational coursework with the specialized skills and knowledge they have obtained through their concentration courses and/or electives within the program. Therefore, while the thesis and the capstone project prompt students to show their mastery of the aforementioned concepts and skills indirectly through the production of a research or professional project, the comprehensive exam is different in that it asks students to more directly demonstrate their knowledge through the answering of complex questions.

There are several common types of comprehensive examination, which are outlined in detail below. Regardless of the form the examination takes, questions are typically the product of collaboration between students and the professors they select to be a part of their exam committee (which is typically comprised of three faculty members from a student’s program). This collaboration is an important part of the exam process, as it ensures that students prepare optimally for their exam and are also tested on the concepts and skills that are relevant to their desired academic and/or professional trajectory. Students’ discussion of exam questions with faculty ahead of time also helps ensure that they are well prepared for their exam and can optimize their responses.

Common Types of Comprehensive Exam

  • The Timed Written Examination: One of the most common types of comprehensive examination is the timed written exam. This form of examination typically includes several (often between three and six, but sometimes more) essay-based questions that students complete over the course of several hours in a proctored setting. The questions that comprise these exams generally ask students about 1) overarching theories and concepts that are foundational to the communication discipline and 2) specific course content that is of interest or importance to the student from an academic or professional perspective.
  • The Take-Home Written Examination: The take-home comprehensive examination is generally one or more essay assignments that students have between several days and several weeks to complete, depending on their program’s specifications. Similarly to the timed written comprehensive examination, the take-home comprehensive examination is generally comprised of questions that require students to pull from knowledge and skills they have developed over the entire course of their graduate career.
  • The Oral Examination: The oral examination consists of a committee of faculty members asking students questions that they must answer in oral presentation format during a set period of time (typically between 60 and 90 minutes). For this examination, students are expected to answer questions of similar depth and rigor as they would be asked in a written exam.
  • A Combination of Some or All of the Above: There are also comprehensive examinations that require both a written portion and an oral portion. For example, some programs with written comprehensive examinations require students to defend their responses before their faculty committee, while other programs ask students to complete both a timed exam section and a take-home essay portion.

It is advisable that students who know they want to take the comprehensive examination as their final graduation requirement to consult with faculty to learn the structure of their comprehensive examination early on in their enrollment, so that they can begin their preparations well before the term during which they must take their exam. In addition, as comprehensive examinations are often tailored to a student’s individual academic path, students should connect with their course professors to discuss and solidify their understanding of central concepts within not only their foundational graduate classes, but also their chosen electives and/or concentration classes.

Note: Programs may change the structure, length, and content of their comprehensive examination as they revisit and update their curriculum and graduation requirements.

Examples of Comprehensive Examinations

To illustrate the range that is possible amongst master’s in communication programs’ comprehensive examination formats, below are examples of comprehensive examinations required by different programs, as described by faculty and alumni of real master’s in communication programs nationwide.

Hayley Hollis, Graduate of Sam Houston State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies Program: “The exam covered each of the courses I had taken, so it is customized to the individual course of study. The exam was structured by course and each question was given an approximate time limit that should be spent on that question. […] The professors provided sample questions and areas of focus for each subject to help me prepare for what I could expect on the exams.”

David Tokarz, Graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Arts in Communication Program: “The exam process consists of seven questions. Six of the questions are written based upon the seminars taken by the individual graduate student, and the seventh is a comprehensive question written by the student’s advisor. This means that the comprehensive exams are tailored directly to the coursework taken by the student, and because the questions are written by faculty that graduate students have worked closely with, they are often tailored directly to the student’s interests.”

Dr. Elissa Foster, Graduate Program Director for DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Health Communication Program: “[The comprehensive exam is a] series of questions that students answer in a single essay that is a reflection on their experience in the program, their learning outcomes, and their aspirations post-graduation. In their essay, they must indicate the classes, readings, theories, and applications of those theories that they anticipate using in their next steps once they graduate. This essay is meant to be an articulation of all the tools that they are leaving with.”

Megan Wieser, Graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Master of Arts in Applied Communication Studies Program: “First you complete the written exam, which is divided into two parts with a morning working session and an afternoon session. Then, once you’ve passed the written portion, you schedule an oral defense with the three faculty members you’ve chosen to be on your exit committee. […] The first section of the exam features questions related to the program’s two core courses: theory and research methods. No notes may be used. […] The second section includes questions related to your specialization. Notes may be used for this part. The length of each written answer is generally four pages.”

Adam Rainear, Graduate of the University of Connecticut’s Master of Arts in Communication Program: “The examination is a closed-book written exam, which are responses to three open-ended questions. Typically, the questions include a methods question, theory question, and a more specific question related to your research area, and you have two hours to complete each question. All three allow you to incorporate your specific research background and interests, but directly applying them to a novel question, idea, or debate in the field. Once finished, there is an oral defense of the questions for further clarification and scholarly dialogue between the committee and student.”

Dr. Dana Cloud, Graduate Program Director for the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University: “The comprehensive exam is comprised of three questions that students respond to in the form of three 12-15 page papers, as well as an oral defense of their responses, which requires a committee and extensive preparation. For their exam committee, students choose one faculty member in the subject area of their choice, and the other two members are the faculty who taught their two foundational courses, CRS 601 and CRS 603. […] Students are given their comprehensive examination questions around the start of their last term in the program, and are given the entire semester to prepare for and complete their exams.”

Nilam Patel, Graduate of Sam Houston State University’s (SHSU) Master of Arts in Communication Studies Program: “I was tested over 11 out of the 12 courses I took for my degree. My professors submitted one to three questions per course (more for courses like statistics and research methods, but with shorter, more straightforward answers) concerning the material covered in the courses I took from each of them, and the professors also determined how much time I was to receive for their questions.”

Max King, Graduate of Oakland University’s Master of Arts in Communication Program: “[T]here were two parts to the exam; a take-home and in-house portion, both in an essay exam format, that took place towards the end of the semester. The in-house portion consisted of four questions; one from each of the three core courses that all students are required to take, and then a question from one of my non-specialization fields (in my case it was from a critical-cultural course). […] The following week I took my take-home exam portion and had a week to complete another series of four essay questions. These focused more on my specialization courses and a reading list I created.”

Dr. Tricia Burke, Associate Professor and Former Director of Graduate Studies at Texas State University’s Department of Communication Studies: “Most students complete the comprehensive exam option, which offers them the chance to take 36 hours of communication courses and to articulate their knowledge of communication studies to their chosen two-member faculty member committee. The comprehensive exam is an oral exam that lasts about 75 minutes. During this exam, committee members ask students to discuss standard discipline-related and methods questions, and to explain and apply the theories, topics, and research covered in the courses in which those students were enrolled. This exam is meant to be a discussion in which the students demonstrate their ability to articulate their communication knowledge.”

Advice for Successfully Completing Your Comprehensive Examinations

While graduate-level comprehensive examinations may seem daunting, they are designed to facilitate students’ success in that faculty give students ample time to prepare for these exams, and some even require students to engage in the process of creating the questions in collaboration with their faculty mentors. The questions that comprise a student’s comprehensive examination are rarely a surprise because they are the product of multiple conversations between student and faculty members. Due to students’ role in determining the content and structure of their examination, there are numerous opportunities for students to optimize their performance on their examinations well before their final semester. Below are several key steps to successfully completing the comprehensive examination:

Advice #1: Take Detailed Class Notes From the Beginning

As the comprehensive examination seeks to integrate all the key course concepts from the program while also testing students’ specialized knowledge of communication, preparation for this exam starts from day one of a student’s enrollment. Taking detailed and organized notes throughout one’s tenure in the program makes comprehensive examination preparation much more efficient and effective. “Take good notes throughout your seminars and read and annotate carefully,” advised Donavan Bisbee, an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s (UIUC) Master of Arts in Communication program, “These will be invaluable when you’re trying to remember things from over a year ago.”

Samuel Wilson, also an alumnus of UIUC’s Master of Arts in Communication program, similarly advised that students seeking to succeed in the comprehensive examination take meticulous notes with a mind towards the final review process that is essential prior to the comprehensive exam. “My advice would mainly rest with your preparation semesters before you even take the exam. Good note taking is key, and it was very useful for reviewing material from semesters before. Keep some record of your readings, your notes, and your syllabuses,” he said.

In addition, students should set aside time at the end of each course to take stock of the key takeaways from the course, and to connect the themes and core concepts from each course to the overall arc of their curriculum. “I would encourage current and future students to take notes of the main points, key takeaways, supporting articles, as well as the key theorist and theories regarding each course you have,” advised Tianna Cobb, alumnus of Texas State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program. Doing so ensures that students make important connections between courses, the very connections on which they will be tested in their comprehensive exams.

Advice #2: Stay Organized Throughout the Program

Inextricably linked to thorough note-taking is the need to stay organized throughout each semester. Ms. Cobb also emphasized the importance of staying organized both within and across different classes. “It would also be extremely beneficial to keep those notes together per class, along with the syllabus for the course, in a binder. Ultimately, one would have a binder of these notes for each course,” she explained, “Although note taking of this nature is very tedious, it saves a lot of time and effort in the end for comprehensive exams and afterward when one may need to reference certain material.”

Rita Hourani-Ndovie, who graduated from Oakland University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, explained how being organized helped her to optimize her preparation for her final exam. “The first step in preparation was to gather all my materials from my classes in order to be organized and know where all my previous research and notes were, she said, “For the next couple of months, I made study guides, reread some chapters, and made flashcards. […] Even though the process was stressful, and at times difficult, it was definitely worth it and I passed!”

Advice #3: Consult Faculty Mentors Early and Often

Another key to success in one’s comprehensive examination is to consult faculty early and often to discuss and clarify course concepts. Doing so has the dual benefit of solidifying one’s understanding of key takeaways that will appear on the comprehensive exam, and helping one to form connections with faculty who may serve on one’s final exam committee. Daniel DeVinney, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Arts in Communication program, explained the comprehensive examination process he experienced, and the role that his faculty committee played in helping him to prepare. “In the months before the exam, you ask professors if they would be willing to write a question for your examinations. They almost always agree to do so. Some will give you the question beforehand to prepare, and others will give you a general idea of what to study,” he said, “Faculty are very supportive throughout the process, and […one] major benefit to these kind of examinations is that faculty will craft their question with your interests in mind. So not only is it a good chance to think about your interests, but also to become an expert in those interests.”

Christopher Wernecke, alumnus of Texas State University’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, also described how the faculty of his program were extremely supportive of his success, and how conversations with his mentors formed the backbone of his comprehensive examination. “My professors in the Department of Communication did an incredible job preparing us for this exam,” he said, “From the beginning, my professors stressed that these exams, ‘comps’ as we referred to them as, were designed to be a ‘conversation’ where we moved from student to colleague in the discipline. […] We were able to select the faculty members to facilitate the conversation, and I prepared for the exams by first tracing the ‘big’ questions and discussions my area of communication explored and what these questions and discussions meant for Communication Studies writ large.”

Many faculty members of master’s in communication programs are also readily available to answer students’ questions as they are studying independently for their exams. Of her experience preparing for her comprehensive exam, Nilam Patel, who earned her Master of Arts in Communication Studies from SHSU, recalled, “There were times when I needed to reach out to a faculty member for assistance or support during this process; for example, I found that I was missing some outlines or articles from previous classes, so I had to ask the instructors if I could get access to the archived BlackBoard sites for those courses. […] The faculty was always extremely responsive to my questions.” Faculty of master’s in communication programs want their students to succeed, and are willing to support them just as much as faculty who are a part of thesis or capstone project committees do for their students. “[D]o not be afraid of asking the faculty for help,” Ms. Patel added, “SHSU has an amazing faculty, and they love to help their students, so be sure to take full advantage of this resource.”

Erika Carlson, who graduated from Fresno State University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, also emphasized the crucial role that her advisor and faculty committee played in her studying for the final comprehensive exam. “I chose an Advisor and committee that provided me with tons of support throughout the entire process,” she said, “We discussed which topics I would be questioned on, which articles I should study, and the details of what I needed to do during the time that I was given to answer the questions. I cannot stress enough the importance of having open communication with committee members and asking any and all questions that one may have prior to completing the examinations.”

Advice #4: Compile a Comprehensive Reading List

Many programs require students to compile a reading list, which is a list of all the course materials that are relevant to their exam questions. This reading list is also an opportunity to have discussions with one’s faculty advisors and committee about class concepts. The compilation of a reading list in collaboration with one’s faculty mentors helps to maximize one’s chances of success on the final exam because it serves as a dedicated retrospective of all the skills, theories, and concepts one has absorbed during one’s tenure in the program. Mr. King explained how he worked with his faculty advisor through every stage of his exam preparation process, including the establishment of a comprehensive reading list. “The reading list is an important part of the comprehensive exams. It was something I worked with my advisor on early in the semester and derived from the readings in my specialization course work, he said, “These readings consisted of anything I was assigned to read for those classes and anything that I referenced in my papers and projects from those classes.”

By discussing each of the readings with his faculty advisor, Mr. King was able to skillfully unite the concepts that ran through the extensive reading list, which strengthened his understanding of key concepts and arguments that were instrumental to his final success on his comprehensive exam. “I grouped the readings together under three themes. Each theme was a declarative statement and was an argument that I thought I could make using my selected readings. And, each argument bridged the different courses, meaning I used readings from various classes to support my argument, rather than just using material from one class to support one theme,” he said.

Advice #5: Dedicate Ample Time to Exam Preparation

While, as mentioned, preparation for the comprehensive exam starts at the beginning of one’s enrollment, it is also essential that students dedicate ample time in the weeks preceding the comprehensive examination. During this period, preparation is less about memorization and more about making important connections between class themes and establishing the key arguments one will want to make in one’s exam responses.

“The advice that I would give to future students who choose to do comprehensive examinations as their culminating experience would be to clear their calendars of other life events around the time that they will need to complete the exams,” said Ms. Carlson, “This will help them focus solely on the examination process and will help keep their minds clear from outside life events and distractions. I would also recommend making flash cards and studying for way longer than one may think they need to study. There is no such thing as being overprepared for your comprehensive examinations.”

Ms. Hourani-Ndovie also emphasized the importance of dedicating hours of time every week in the month leading up to the comprehensive examination to studying. “In order to make sure I put in enough time to review the necessary material, I wrote my study sessions in my calendar. My advisor told me to devote as much time studying for my comprehensive exam as I would have to another class,” she said, “Honestly, it was difficult to stay disciplined on my own, but I knew if I didn’t dedicate time to studying I wouldn’t be confident about taking the exam.”

Mr. Wernecke likened the comprehensive examination to training for a marathon to emphasize how important consistent studying well ahead of the exam date is to success. Instead of procrastinating and subsequently trying to cram a lot of studying into a short amount of time (which compromises one’s full comprehension of key concepts and arguments), one should create a plan and adhere to it. “[Don’t] think of preparing for comps as a race,” Rather, think of it as a marathon – pace yourself, remember your mental and physical wellbeing are more important, and keep your end goal in mind,” he advised.

Final Thoughts on the Comprehensive Exam

While a monumental and daunting endeavor, the comprehensive examination is students’ chance to define exactly what they have gotten out of their years of graduate education in communication. Defining these learning outcomes concretely prior to graduating is an empowering exercise that can help students articulate their knowledge and skills set either to their current/future employers or to the admissions committee of doctoral-level programs in communication.

Katie Bruner, alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Arts in Communication program, explained how the purpose of the comprehensive examination was to demonstrate the knowledge she had gained in the program, and how it therefore served to imbue her with confidence upon graduating. “The examination required a high level of synthesis, organization, and clear presentation of complex information; these are exactly the skills that a graduate degree in Communication should instill in a student,” she said, “The comprehensive examination was a challenging experience, but it really made me aware of how much I had learned during my master’s program.”

By being proactive, taking meticulous notes, staying organized, and leveraging faculty expertise and investment in their success, students can excel in their comprehensive examinations and use this success to propel them forward into their future careers.


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About the Author: Kaitlin Louie is the Managing Editor of MastersinCommunications.com, and creates informational content that aims to assist students in making informed decisions about graduate programs. She earned her BA & MA in English from Stanford University.