Section: News

Comps: antiquated or beneficial?

by Katherine King

If you had gone to Harvard, you wouldn’t be worrying about comps right now. Many elite colleges and universities do not have any form of required senior examinations or projects. However, students, faculty and administrators at Kenyon perceive benefits in comprehensive senior exercises, commonly known as “comps,” despite the stress they create for students.

Tim Spiekerman, associate professor of political science, said his department’s senior exercise “serves as a kind of capstone, a way to review and think about together all the classes they’ve taken and how they relate to one another.”

Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff felt similarly: “They are the culmination of the work that’s done for the major,” he said.

Dean for Academic Advising and Support Hoi Ning Ngai explained that the goals of senior exercises vary for different majors. “Ultimately, however, what all senior exercises have the potential to do is simultaneously capture and show how a major department has helped shape the ways in which students understand and analyze some aspect of the world — deeply and critically,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian.

Sarah Bence ’15 explained that although she and her friends were already worried about their English comps scheduled for the end of March, she saw something valuable in the experience of preparing for the exercise. English comps consist of a final exam based on a reading list students are given ahead of time. “It kind of feels like an extra class that you have to take because you have an entire reading list, but you don’t have any instructions,” Bence said. “So I feel like one of the main benefits is that it’s judging if you can teach the material to yourself.” She said that she and her friends are planning to form a study group closer to the examination.

        Comps appear to have the potential to create a sense of unity among majors. Students “usually have study groups and stuff like that, which I think they have a lot of fun with,” Spiekerman said. However, requirements vary depending on major.

“The topic comes up once in a while of whether it’s good for the students to have big differences in both what comps [in different departments] entails and difficulty,” Spiekerman added.

Bence said the differences between different departments’ comps were on seniors’ minds. “It creates a little bit of tension,” she said. “I mean, everybody feels bad for the art history majors … and the people who have double majors — it’s just impossible.”

        The actualization of standardizing senior exercises, which could relieve this tension, would be difficult. “It’s a terrible idea,” Rutkoff said.

Ngai also admitted the difficulty. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that there have been conversations among students about standardizing senior exercises,” she wrote. “The possibility of that seems unlikely, however, especially given the unique qualities (including content and skills) encapsulated within each major. It seems that standardization — if that’s even possible — would take away from the unique ways in which content and skills are demonstrated in different departments.”

        While rumors may inform what students think happens if they fail comps, each department handles the situation differently. “If you flunk, then you’re assigned a member of the department that you can work with and your advisor then determines when you’re ready to take the test again,” Spiekerman said of the political science department’s policy.

Ngai also wished to clarify confusion on this point: “There unfortunately appears to be a widely circulated myth that a student can receive ‘a general liberal arts degree’ without successful completion of the senior exercise,” she wrote. “This myth is entirely FALSE. Any degree conferred by the College requires successful completion of the senior exercise.”

In most departments, students are given several chances to pass comps. However, passing is not guaranteed. “A student who does not successfully complete his/her senior exercise will not be able to graduate,” Ngai wrote. “There have indeed been instances of this on record.”

President Sean Decatur acknowledged that the discrepancies between senior exercises can present some difficulties, but he ultimately believed that they benefit students. “I do think that there is something about, both the independent thinking and pooling together of material to do as part of a capstone experience that is really powerful as part of the learning process.”

Decatur cited a Gallup poll, which tracked the self-reported happiness of graduated students who had senior exercises of capstone projects. “[Gallup] asked questions [to students.] Did you do a project in college that lasted more than a semester? Did you do a project like the equivalent of a capstone project? People who answered yes to those are more likely, 10 years plus after graduation, to report that they are more engaged in their work, they’re more satisfied in their work. They have a stronger sense of well-being. So comps is going to make you healthier.”


Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at