CSE Comps - Frequently Asked Questions
What do the comps test?
The comps is a breadth exam. It is intended to ensure that all of graduate students have a similar background that will serve well in research. The graduate material on the comps exam is covered by our core classes. The undergraduate material is usually covered in a typical computer science bachelors degree.
I heard the comps syllabii are changing. What should I be studying?
The comps syllabii are revised by individual areas on an as-needed basis. The purpose is to keep the comps material relevant and consistent with the courses we are teaching. However, you are only responsible for the current syllabii.
How many people do not pass the exam?
On any given try, several students will not pass. However, partial passes are frequent, and students have three tries. Only a few students have actually had to leave the program. The vast majority of students who leave the program do so by their own choice.
When should I take the comps?
When you are ready. Every student has a unique background, aptitude, and ability to handle stress. We encourage students to take the exam as soon as possible, since the material from the core classes will be fresh in their minds, and most of the fun of graduate school lies after the comps. Also, you have three tries, and we give partial passes (e.g., for passing at least three of the five for the PhD comps). Students with a good computer science background and who have done well in the core classes might take the exam in the Spring of their first year. Everyone is required to take it by Fall of their second year, and must petition (with good reason) to delay further.
What criteria are used in determining if I've passed the exam?
The faculty can take several factors into account. First and foremost is the exam. However, performance in courses, progress in research, and testimonials of professors also play an important role. If you have taken graduate courses at another institution (including UCSD Extension) that you are transferring to your degree, do so before taking the comps so that the information is available to the faculty.
How should I study for the comps?
Our graduate and undergraduate courses are the best preparation for the comps. Study groups are a valuable for encouraging you to study and pushing you to higher levels of expertise. Taking the exams near the time you take the classes helps, too. Because there is so much material to know, it pays to be organized. Try scheduling your time to make sure you leave enough time for each topic, especially the exams that you feel you need the most preparation for. You might also want to keep notes on what parts of the syllabus you have covered, practice questions you have answered, etc. If the professor who taught your particular instance of a core class isn't around to write the comps exam, you might want to find out how the remaining faculty think of the core area. Finally, you might take a look at Chris Vogt's "Steps to Passing the Comps".
Do the faculty provide answers to past comps exams?
No. Why? First, most questions do not have a single right answer, and supplying an answer could be misleading in this regard. Also, with changes in technology, an answer could actually change. Second, it takes a lot of time to prepare and grade the exams, much less write our own answers. If you have a specific question for which you'd like an answer, we recommend you do your best to solve it, and then discuss it with your study partners, a qualified faculty member, or even a senior student.
It seems like my core classes are taught with a different philosophy than the books that are assigned. How should this affect my comps answers?
Part of the added value of your graduate classes is that the professors will critically evaluate the state of the practice of his or her field. Your answers should reflect this critical evaluation, which is why it is so important to take the core classes and do well in them. However, you should avoid answering questions in a way that panders to the professor's research style. For example, emphasizing modularity in an advanced compilers question that does not really concern modularity would be counterproductive, in spite of the fact that Griswold (apparently) wrote the question.
If I have more questions about the comps, who should I talk to?
It depends. Julie Conner, our graduate affairs coordinator, has exam syllabii, old exams for study purposes, and scheduling information. She also arranges petitions. You sign up with her to take the comps. Sanjoy Dasgupta is the current comps chair, and can answer procedural questions about the comps and can advise you about when to take the comps. The MS chair, Charles Elkan, can also answer questions. If you have questions about a particular exam area or a technical question, you probably want to speak to the professors who teach the corresponding undergraduate and graduate classes. Senior students can also be a big help, since they're the ones who took and passed the exam.