M.A. Comprehensive Exams

During the student's final academic year in the program, each Master's candidate is responsible for working with his or her Committee Chair and other committee members to schedule a comprehensive examination.

Exams are given twice a year: during the 12th, 13th, and 14th weeks of the fall and spring semesters.

Committee | Reading Lists | The Master Reading List Document | Written Portion | Oral Portion | Exams by Emphasis


Each Master's candidate's committee comprises three members of the English Graduate Faculty—which includes faculty from the English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies Department —and one observing, "outside" member from another department.

If the candidate's program emphasis of study includes a related field, that outside member will also conduct that portion of the exam.

One of the committee members from the English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies Department (usually the student's program advisor) will also serve as the committee chair and coordinate the details of the written and oral portions of the exam.

By of the end of the student's first year—or during the semester before the term when the exam is to take place, at the latest—each Master's candidate is responsible:

  1. for asking appropriate faculty to serve on the committee,
  2. for asking one member (usually the student's advisor) to serve as committee chair, and
  3. for working with each committee member to develop a reading list for each section of the exam.

The Reading Lists

Each emphasis in the program prescribes that the Comprehensive Exam comprise certain sections. Follow the links from Exam Descriptions According to Emphasis below for more detail about each.

In consultation with the Exam Committee Chair, the MA candidate will ask each committee member to be the examiner for a particular section or sections of the exam. Once agreed, the candidate will work with each committee member to develop a reading list for that section. Faculty members should not be asked to supervise sections of the exam outside of their areas of teaching, research, or expertise.

The reading lists should be developed and finalized during the semester before the exam, affording the candidate time to study during the break between the third and final semesters.

The Master Reading List Document

By the beginning of the semester when the exam is to take place, the candidate should create a Master Reading List Document, a Word file that includes all the reading lists for your exam. This Master Reading List document should include:

  • Your name and the program emphasis you've chosen
  • The reading lists that you have agreed upon with members of your committee, with each work in the lists presented in complete, MLA bibliographical format
  • A heading for each reading list that identifies which section of the exam that list satisfies and that includes the name of the supervising committee member.

For instance, the exam for the Literary Studies Emphasis comprises the following sections:

  1. "Primary Text with Selected Secondary Works" (one reading list, one committee member);
  2. "Pre-1800 British Literature; British Literature after 1800; American Literature" (three reading lists, three committee members);
  3. "Related Field, Minor, or Synthetic Option" (one reading list with one "outside" committee member in the case of a related field of minor; no separate reading list in the case of the Synthetic Option).

In the first week of the semester, this Master Reading List Document containing final versions of all reading lists should be sent to each committee member as an email attachment, as well as to the Director of Graduate Studies. In addition, some committee members may request a hard copy.

Written Portion

The written portion of the Comprehensive Exam is divided into multiple sections (given one or two hours in the written portion of the exam). The faculty committee members will be responsible for sections relevant to their specialties.

The written portion of the exam will be taken on two consecutive days beginning on a day between Monday of the twelfth week through Thursday on the thirteenth week of the semester. All written portions of the exam must be completed no later than Friday of the thirteenth week.

MA candidates may consult a copy of their reading lists during the written exam.

After reviewing the results of the written portion, the Exam Committee will vote whether or not to allow the student to proceed to the oral portion. If two or more committee members provide reasons not to proceed, the students is judged to have failed the exam. The committee must then vote whether or not to allow the student to retake the unsatisfactory portions of the written exam. All committee members—or all members minus one—must approve a retake. The Graduate School permits only one retake.

Oral Portion

The oral component of the exam is given on the fourth working day following completion of the written portions of the exam. This means that no oral will be taken before Monday of the thirteenth week or later than Thursday of the fourteenth week. For details, see "Principles and Procedures For Conducting the Oral Component of the Comprehensive Exam."

The committee must by majority vote either pass or fail the candidate on the entirety of the exam: that is, the aggregate result of the written and oral portions, and all the sections. The committee cannot selectively pass or fail just an aspect of the exam (any section of the exam, or the written or oral portion). In the case of a vote not to pass the exam, all committee members--or all members minus one--must approve a retake. One retake is permitted. Graduate School policy states that "if the student fails the second attempt, the student will be terminated from the program."

Exam Descriptions According to Emphasis

Guidelines for the composition of the committee and the reading lists vary by emphasis. See the following pages for more details on the substance and format of the exam in each area: