Tips for Taking Comps

Please note that these tips were written for the old comps format. Although some parts of this page no longer apply, the information is still very relevant.

See for information on the new format.

Advice from a Professor who grades our comps essays

Hello from Mary Choquette:
I was asked to contribute a few comments of taking comps to this wiki.

Most importantly, read each question carefully and select the questions you are most confident you can answer successfully. Always answer the entire question!! This is where students get into trouble often. Also, if a question asks you to identify a particular environment and structure your answer within this environment, do so, and do so consistently throughout the answer. Direct quotations are not required in answering comps questions. Though, theoretical and philosophical references can explain a point more clearly. Primarily, in answering comps questions, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the core principles of library and information science and apply these principles to real life situations and examples as specifically asked in the comps questions.

You can do it! Study with a group. Ask a faculty member for some pre-exam guidance. And, make sure to get plenty of rest before and during the 2 days.

Best of luck!

Definitions of Common Comps Phrases (from Dean Hale)


The most common faculty comment when someone fails comps is: "Didn't answer the question!"

Words are important. Be sure you know what the question is asking before you start. There will be a dictionary in the room if you need one. Here are definitions of some verbs often used in comps questions:

Compare and Contrast

To discuss both similarities and differences between or among two or more things


1. A critical review or commentary, especially one dealing with works of art or literature.
2. A critical discussion of a specified topic.

[NOTE: critical is defined as “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation”]


1. To characterize; to tell the facts, details, or particulars of
2. To trace the form or outline of


1. a. To state the precise meaning of (a word or sense of a word, for example).
b. To describe the nature or basic qualities of; explain: e.g., define the properties of a new drug; a study that defines people according to their median incomes.
2. a. To delineate the outline or form of: e.g., gentle hills that were defined against the sky.
b. To specify distinctly: e.g., define the weapons to be used in limited warfare.


1. To investigate by reasoning or argument
2. To present in detail for examination or consideration


1. To make plain or comprehensible.
2. a. To offer reasons for or a cause of; to justify
b. To offer reasons for the actions, beliefs, or remarks of.


To ascertain the origin, nature, or definitive characteristics of.

Study Suggestions from the CUA website

  1. Answer the question that is on the examination — not the question you wish had been asked instead, nor the question that some sixth sense told you to prepare for that is not on the list. In order to do this properly, read over carefully the five questions given each day and take a few minutes to decide which ones you are best prepared to answer.
  2. The comprehensive questions are designed to be broad in scope and to cut across narrow subject lines: it is normally expected that you draw upon materials from several courses. If, for example, the question deals with the nature of "professionalism" in librarianship, you should indicate several areas in which the librarian is given an opportunity to show that he/she is really a "professional". Above all, do not single out one particular area and dwell on that to the virtual exclusion of all other aspects of the problem. The professional librarian, for example, in the selection process must take into account aspects of censorship and intellectual freedom — but selection involves much, much more than that.
  3. If there is a question involving a topic about which you have strong personal feelings (and censorship is a good example), take care not to be overly emotional, to the point of irrationality and incomprehensibility. You are perfectly free to disagree with what faculty have said about, e.g., the purposes of the American public library, the responsibility of the public library to serve youngsters doing homework assignments or their parents solving puzzles, or the vexing problems of censorship. But what you may say must be factually sound, logically defensible, compatible with professional (and professional association) policies and standards, and enunciated with civility toward those who hold other views.
  4. Even if it means spending a bit of time making a preliminary outline of your answer, see that it is characterized by unity, coherence, and logic - and ideally proper grammar, syntax, and spelling. The comprehensive examination is supposed to give evidence not only of the acquisition of factual material - names, dates, expressions of library philosophy, etc., but also of the ability to synthesize these things and express this synthesis with reasonable clarity.
  5. In answering any question, it is expected that you be able to cite two or three books, articles, or other sources with which you are familiar that bear on the subject, ones that are truly relevant. Though full and exact citations aren't expected, be prepared to mention things you read (by author and/or title or even "a recent article in Library Journal on X topic" - we don't expect you to have full and complete citations memorized). It's something faculty look for when evaluating answers. A weak answer with appropriate references to the literature may pass where an equally weak answer without relevant references will fail.
  6. Finally, and perhaps the most important of all: do not dismiss a question in three or four paragraphs. Even allowing for time to choose questions on your strong points and to make a brief outline of your answer, you still have more than an hour to write on each of the two questions. It is impossible to lay down quantitative requirements, but I don't see how any single question can be answered in very much less than a thousand words. Don't resort to such devices as extra-wide margins, spectacularly large fonts, etc. This is not to say that you are to "pad" your answers or use irrelevant "filler" material. When you feel that you have fully answered the question, stop. If the question seems trivial to you and deserving of a short answer, remember that, though one faculty member may have formulated it, the entire faculty approved it for inclusion.

Some Additional Advice from Dr. Sydney Pierce:

  1. Read through the textbooks and readings currently being used in core courses. Questions drawing on the content of these courses always appear on comps. 600-level electives — especially cataloging, collection development, and management — are normally covered too, so review any you've taken. I also suggest that students who have time might browse through a year of Library Journal and/or American Libraries, reading articles on current professional concerns.
  2. Find a study group, or create one of your own. It's not only more pleasant to go through this with friends, but you also learn more by discussing material with others.
  3. Review and try to answer questions asked previously— available here —but don't go back too far. Questions are written by current faculty and reflect current content of the program. For some very good advice on taking essay exams, see the Purdue OWL [online writing lab] web site at

Advice from the Purdue OWL web site (see #3 above) on writing an effective essay exam:

  1. Read through all the questions carefully.
  2. Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
  3. Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
  4. Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
  5. Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
  6. Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
  7. Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
  8. Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.

There’s more! Take a look:

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