Getting over the hump: Passing the comprehensive exam

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Senior Jennifer Behrens celebrated finishing the biggest exam of her college career by going to The Fluttering Duck with her biochemistry professors. But that February night wasn't without stress. Her comprehensive exam, which covers all the material she studied in her major, had yet to be graded.

Even after four years of classes, graduation still hinges upon one exam for some students.

Seniors majoring in chemistry, economics, psychology and biochemistry must pass comprehensive exams, otherwise known as "comps," to receive their degrees. 

Biochemistry and chemistry majors took their exams Feb. 23 and economics majors on March 16.  Psychology majors took their exams in three chunks during either fall or spring semester, depending on when they take their senior seminar.  

Biochemistry and chemistry department chair Bridget Gourley called the exams a "capstone experience" for graduating seniors. 

However, that fulfilling experience never comes for some students who do not pass the exam.   While Behrens felt the satisfaction of receiving an email saying she had passed comps, it is the university's policy that students who do not pass the exam the first time have the opportunity to take the exam again.  If they do not pass the second time they do not graduate with their degree.   

Gourley said if students could not pass their exam and planned on double-majoring, they usually end up dropping the major and graduating with one major in the other subject.  Students can also petition to come back and take the exam again in a year.  Gourley said that cases where students do not pass the exam in two tries are rare. 

The exams are designed to only include material that the students would have encountered in their required courses.   

"They are hard tests, but they're not impossible," said Roddrea Smith, a senior psychology major. 

The biochemistry department had one student wait 5 years before coming back to pass the exam and receive his degree, Gourley said. 

Comprehensive exams count as 25 percent of economics major's senior seminar grade. In biochemistry, chemistry and psychology students simply need to pass in order to receive their degree.  

"Just give me a C and be done with it," Smith said. 

Some students whose majors do not require comps say they are envious. 

"The pressure of a comprehensive exam is spaced out over a semester of my senior year for my senior project," said Ross Allen, a senior computer science major. "Sometimes, you wish you could just be over it."  

Smith said the pressure of having a comprehensive exam and a senior thesis due at the same time was overwhelming, but the reward was an awesome feeling, and that it helped her to realize how much she has accomplished during the last four years. 

Behrens said that preparing for the exam required her to study "everything you would need to know to do science research." 

Biochemistry and chemistry majors are given a journal article three weeks before the exam. The exam consists of questions about the information in the article, and students are expected to know every concept. 

"Routinely students write us back about how helpful the experience is," Gourley said. 

Behrens enjoyed the traditional professor-student celebration at the Duck, but she anxiously awaited the test results. She said passing was a big relief, but she wasn't worried about getting a good grade on the exam. 

"It's kind of like a pregnancy test — you don't really care ‘how pregnant' you are, just, yes or no," Behrens said. 

After comps, however, there was still no time for her to slack off.  Because biochemistry professors try to avoid giving too much work in the weeks before the comprehensive exam, Behrens found herself bombarded with tests and assignments as soon as the comprehensive was over.   

Meghan Wolfgram, a senior economics major, said that she had to continue to work hard in her classes in order to maintain a 3.5 GPA but that many economics majors allowed themselves to slack off after comps. 

Smith also said that she felt less motivated to study hard after completing the exam. 

"‘B's get degrees' is my mantra this semester," she said.