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This expert advice comes from Christine Jensen Sundstrom, PhD - Coordinator, Graduate Writing Support Program, University of Kansas 

Determining Your Department’s Expectations

  • Are reviews for comprehensive exams evaluated much more stringently than those for class papers?
  • What level of professionalism is expected on comprehensive exams?
  • Does you department have samples of successful comprehensives? If not, will a colleague who was successful let you read his/hers so you get a sense of the standards?
  • What are the expected pieces of the review?
  • How strong should your voice and argument be?
  • Are you expected to evaluate the prior research?

Knowing Your Committee and Department

  • What is your department’s track record for passing and failing students on comprehensives?
  • Consult with your advisor, the graduate faculty advisor (if you believe s/he can be open), and with other graduate students to find out the track record of your committee members: how picky are they, what do they care about, and what do they tend to stress in comprehensive exam defenses?
  • Consult your advisor and other graduate students about whether committee members get along. If you ask the committee members, ask each one whether they can comfortably work with the other committee members.
  • Clarify the roles of the larger committee. Will all read your review before the exam to give you feedback or will only your advisor read it and recommend whether you are ready to defend?
  • Clarify the process. How long will committee members need the paper before the defense?


(Adapted from Writing for Graduate School, Christine Jensen Sundstrom, manuscript in preparation, Copyright 2008 ©.)


About the author: Dr. Sundstrom has over 35 years of experience teaching language, technical writing, ESL, and graduate writing and presenting in a higher education setting. She has done editing in fields ranging from humanities to sciences.