The Senior Comprehensive Project: A case study

Each year the term “comps” travels around Occidental like the latest virus. Everyone is mildly aware of what it is and who is currently dealing with it, but most are too frightened to actually approach the topic. All anyone ever knows for sure is that comps typically entails high levels of stress, sleep deprivation, a lot of speed walking on the quad with papers in hand in an outstretched position and occasional screaming with quite a bit of grunting. Perhaps like realizing ice cream for breakfast every day is not the best idea ever or that Occidental parties will never be fulfilling, comps is not meant to be understood until your senior year.

Though the process of completing a Senior Comprehensive project is something that only those who have made it through can accurately describe, there is much to learn about comps as a subject.

An accumulation of nights spent wide awake in the quiet section, comps is the validation of all the experiences and efforts that shaped your time at Occidental, both off and on this campus. Comps is an opportunity to gather everything you have learned and create something really great (or at least passable). Here is all you need to know about the Occidental Senior Comprehensive Project.

The Evolution of Comps

The Occidental College Catalog states that the “two central and related objectives” of the Senior Comprehensive Project are:

1) To allow students to work independently on a project that will encapsulate the concepts and content they’ve learned from their major area of study

2) To give senior students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject and apply it to current relatable issues

The Senior Comprehensive Project, unaffectionately deemed “comps,” typically consists of a mandatory senior seminar in addition to a comprehensive exam, extensive research paper, oral presentation or a combination of all of the above, depending on the major. Instead of being graded by the typical letter grading system, comps are graded using a three-category system: “Pass with Distinction, Pass or Fail.” If a student receives a “Pass with Distinction” they are given the opportunity to receive departmental honors, usually with the completion of an additional lengthy paper. If a student fails, then the department is required to provide opportunities for them to retake their comps before graduation in order for them to properly satisfy the expectations of their major.

Throughout the years, comps requirements have changed quite a bit. They have generally evolved to include more individual components and to require more extensive and in-depth research.

Been there, done that

Several professors on campus attended Occidental for their undergraduate career. They, too, completed comps and lived to tell the story:

Dolore Strevizo (photo by Marc Campos)
Dolore Strevizo (photo by Marc Campos)


Sociology Professor Dolores Trevizo ’88 shared her perspective on the evolution of comps.

“The work that seniors do in these majors [Sociology and Language, Linguistics and Area Studies] is more than what I did when I was an undergraduate. Our senior capstone class evolved to make sure that students graduate with direct data collection experience. Reasoning with and through that evidence is much harder to do than simply writing a theory-driven paper,” Trevizo said.

English Professor Eric Newhall recalls that during his time as an Occidental student, English comps consisted of two three-hour in-class exams that covered a sequential range of literary texts.

Eric Newhall (Photo by Marc campos)
Eric Newhall (Photo by Marc campos)

“As a student and a faculty member I was not fond of this model for comps, because it was more of an ordeal to be completed than an opportunity to produce an example of the best work I was capable of at that state in my intellectual development. Today, we ask students to write a 25–30 page essay about a topic of their choice. This model is not perfect (no model for comps is), but I think our students find it to be a more fulfilling and meaningful experience,” Newhall said.

Politics of Comps

Each academic discipline has its own comps requirements, sparking debate among students about whether the differences are reasonable or appropriate. Economics majors meet their comps requirements by passing the Major Field Test (MFT) while biochemistry majors are required to write an extensive research paper, present on their topic and then pass a final exam. In the 2013–2014 school year, faculty from different departments came together to participate in a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) to discuss these concerns. Some faculty members have shared that it is appropriate for different majors to have dissimilar comps requirements. Still other faculty have presented alternatives that could potentially aid in leveling the playing field.

The Occidental College Bulletin maintains that: “Since no single type of examination experience will serve all academic fields with equal effectiveness, departments have freedom to set either a single examination or a related group of synthesizing experiences as constituting the Comprehensive.”

Kinesiology Professor Marcella Raney spoke to the varying degrees of requirements by each department.

Marcella Raney (Photo by Marc campos)
Marcella Raney (Photo by Marc campos)

“I think it is necessary that specific requirements are different for different disciplines. For example, a traditional PowerPoint presentation may not be appropriate for someone in the languages, music or studio art, but is appropriate for the life sciences,” Raney said.

Some students share Raney’s sentiment, yet many maintain that there is inequality between disciplines.

Some seniors highlighted the decisions that drove them to choose the majors they did and how their decisions were heavily based on the requirements of that department’s Senior Comprehensive Project.

“I definitely think it is important to consider your major’s comps before declaring,” Kai Knight (senior), biochemistry major, said.

Idealizing and realizing comps for the new era

Students have expressed distress about having their comps during the spring semester when they believe their time would be better spent preparing themselves for their post-graduate responsibilities: preparing for graduate exams, applying to graduate or master’s programs, applying for job positions. Similarly, students who have completed their CORE and unit credit requirements by the fall of their senior year and could potentially save on tuition fees by graduating early are often unable to, due to comps in the spring. Students have suggested that changes be made to the way that senior comps are structured.

Sociology major Joe Compagno (senior) spoke about the option for early preparation.

“There should be an option for people who don’t go abroad to complete their comps during the second semester of junior year,” Compagno said.

Additional preparation or mentorship from faculty seemed like a recurring theme from students. Knight shared her recent experiences with planning for senior comps and how she felt somewhat unprepared.

“Biochemistry majors don’t often write papers, so having similar assignments in other classes would have been helpful for clarification. My comps paper was due a month before my Immunology final paper was due, both of which had the exact same guidelines, and I felt extremely prepared for the Immunology paper, and I wrote it with much more ease and speed, but I wish the situation had been reversed,” Knight said.

Faculty had their own ideas for how comps should be handled differently. Raney recommended that students receive appropriate course credit for how much time they dedicate to their comps.

“I think that there should be efforts to standardize the workload/time commitment for successful completion of comps in relationship to the number of credits that students receive for the senior seminar,” Raney said.

The light at the end

Many students agreed that comps is a long labored, exhausting process and though not entirely prepared to look at it positively just yet, they were beginning to recognize the benefits of the process. Knight affirmed the value of comps as a means of professional development.

“I think comps is extremely difficult but a great way to culminate, showing all that we have learned during our time here. I think it’s a great way to help practice presenting if we ever find ourselves in a career that requires public speaking,” Knight said.

Professors claim that the strenuous process will be worthwhile in the long run.

“Whether or not they go on to graduate school, all are transformed by the experience. A few students see it as something like hazing but most of our sociology seniors come to appreciate the complexity of making a data-driven argument and situating their piece of the puzzle in the larger body of knowledge,” Trevizo said.

So to current seniors, while committing so much time and effort in studying for a big exam or constructing a thesis that seems to use a take an entire ream of paper to print is undoubtedly daunting, you may be laying a foundation you will continue to draw from for years to come.

And to non-seniors, hold on tight and try not to be discouraged by the process when it comes. Just like any other contracted virus, Emmons is there to help you. As they say, one in four students likes mac and cheese balls, but four in four students has to do comps and if you do not remember the infamous STI-testing mac and cheese bites posters, you are too young to worry about comps anyway.