A Exam Planning/Scheduling

The A-exam (Admission to Candidacy Exam) is a final test of a student’s preparedness for undertaking thesis research. The content and coverage of the A-exam is determined by the special committee and discussed with the student beforehand.  Typically, the student will present an in-depth survey of the area in which the student intends to pursue their research.  Sometimes, the student at an A-exam will describe the problem to be attacked in the thesis and give some preliminary research results.


Students must attempt the A-exam before beginning their seventh semester of study.  The field recommends taking the exam within 2 semesters of forming a special committee (which must be formed by the end of the third semester). Students are required to have completed the competency requirement and to have at least two units of residency prior to the A-exam. (More details of the university's requirements can be found in Cornell's Guide to Graduate's Study.) Although students have normally made substantial progress towards completing the breadth requirement before taking their A-exam, it is not necessary to have completed this requirement before the A-exam. The chosen minor field or advisor may require the student to have taken some courses before the A-exam.  The members of the special committee are required to be present at the exam.

You are responsible for submitting your schedule form with approvals 7 days prior to the exam. You are also expected to announce the A-exam to CS field members and PhD students at this time. If you do not make this deadline you will need to reschedule the exam for a later date.  

Preparing for The A-Exam

The student and committee agree on a topic of research---it could be broad or narrow.  Typically, the topic will align closely with the research interests of the student. The exact format of the exam is up to the special committee.

In one format, the student and advisor agree on some set of (typically 3-5) important papers in the subject.  The student synthesizes the contents of those papers and writes a survey (length to be decided by the special committee) that must be submitted to the committee at least one week before the A-exam. The survey should include a discussion of open research problems in the area.  Doing PhD research will—at some point—require an understanding of the background literature.  So, time spent on this will be an investment in the PhD research and in writing a thesis.

Another format is possible if the student is already further along with their research before the A-exam deadline and will typically have written papers on the subject already. The student can give a talk including progress already made, as well as a proposal for further research.  The special committee may or may not require a written proposal or survey in this format, although the presentation should contextualize the current work.

In any case, the student must prepare to give an oral presentation at the exam, usually using a slide set.  While the student is expected to work independently, the student is allowed to ask the advisor and/or committee specific technical questions throughout the A-exam preparation. The advisor or committee should not be helping the student to do the synthesis, proofread the written materials, or prepare the presentation. That is, the advisor or committee does not see dry-runs and does not edit prose.

The A-Exam Presentation

The A-Exam typically lasts two hours and includes both a public and private component.  The goals are for the special committee to determine whether the student shows the ability to generalize and organize, whether the student is able to identify interesting open research questions, and whether the student has adequate presentation skills (including the organization and delivery).

In the first hour (approximately), the student presents their prepared work, which may include a written statement, a research plan, and early research results.  During and directly after the presentation, the audience as well as the special committee members can ask questions.  Only the student can answer those questions and decide how much time to allocate to them.

The remaining time of the exam is not public and may only be attended by the student, members of the special committee, and, optionally, members of the graduate field of computer science.  It is split into three parts.  In the first part, the committee can ask additional questions. For example, the committee may ask specific questions about the presentation or the related work. In the second part, the committee discusses the student’s performance at the exam.  In the third part, the committee discusses the outcome with the student.


To discuss the A-exam, it is useful to follow this rubric (excellent, satisfactory, needs work, unsatisfactory):

  • Ability to synthesize, doing critical analysis, discuss broader implications
  • Demonstrate capability for independent thinking and research
  • Presentation quality (incl. organization, time management, English proficiency)
  • If applicable, survey quality (incl. well-written, sound knowledge of the literature)

The student can pass, conditionally pass, or fail the A-exam.  A student who fails the exam is no longer in good standing and can be invited to retake it again within three months.  If invited to retake the A-exam again, the student may work more closely with the advisor to obtain an improved organization and presentation.  A conditional pass typically involves additional work to be done on the written survey, to be completed within a month and to be approved by the special committee afterwards.

Exam Scheduling Guidelines

***A exams should be scheduled by 7th semester (4th year). The graduate school will place a hold on your registration if you have not met this milestone before the 7th semester.

You are responsible for submitting your schedule form WITH approvals 7 days prior to the exam. The Graduate school is VERY STRICT with this DEADLINE. If it’s a weekend, plan accordingly. If you do not make this deadline you will need to reschedule the exam for a later date!

Scheduling your A or B exam

You are responsible for submitting your schedule form WITH approvals 7 days prior to the exam. The Graduate school is VERY STRICT with this DEADLINE. If it’s a weekend, plan accordingly. If you do not make this deadline you will need to reschedule the exam for a later date! 

Please send your announcement of your your exam 7 days prior to cs field members and phd students.

Exams be be given either in-person or remotely.  Students giving exams in-person must provide a zoom link in the exam announcement so that anyone unable to attend in person may do so remotely.

Forms for Scheduling either A or B Exam

A Exam Form(Online)**

B Exam  Form (Online)**

Forms to take to exam

A Exam:

A and B Results:  

*On the day of your scheduled exam, you will receive an email from the Graduate School instructing you to intiate the results submission process immediately after your exam takes place.  A direct link to the online results submission form is included in the email.  Once signed and submitted by you, the results form is sent automatically first to your chair for official recording of your results, then to your committee members for review and confirmation that the results reflect the consensus of the special committee.  The form will then go to the Director of Graduate Studies to indicate the graduate field accepts the results of the exam.  Once the electronic review and approval process concludes, the completed form is routed to Becky Stewart to review and acknowledge.  Once this step is completed the form will be automatically routed to the Graduate School.

Process for needing a Proxy:

  1. Your minor member on your committee requiring a proxy can submit the name of the field member serving as a proxy within the online exam scheduling form.  The field faculty member serving as the proxy must be representing the same graduate field and concentration as the minor member requiring the proxy on your committee.


**Notifications and tracking of scheduling forms:

  • Students receive email notifications of each approval (GFA, committee members) and receive a final notification when all members of the committee and the DGS have approved informing them that the schedule form has been submitted to the Graduate School for processing.
  • Students and GFAs can track the approval process by following this  link to login to Dynamic Forms.  The link is also provided in the email notification by the Graduate School  once the student has submitted the form.
  • Both the student and GFA receive an email from the Graduate School when the schedule form has been processed and approved. 
  • Students are responsible for ensuring committee approval and sign off so please encourage them to track the progress if it appears to be stalled.

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