M.A. Comprehensive Exam: Policies and Procedures

The Master’s Reading List

The Master’s Comprehensive Exam tests students’ mastery of two lists of texts: a Master’s Reading List and a Short Reading List. Upon entering the M.A. program in English, each graduate student should procure a copy of the Master’s Reading List, upon which the Master’s Comprehensive Exam is based. Over the course of the program, students should work toward gaining familiarity with texts on the Master’s List. At the beginning of fall, spring, and summer semesters, the Exam Committee will post a shortened reading list—roughly 50 selections—derived from the Master’s List. In the semester in which the student takes the Comprehensive Exam, special focus should be given to texts on the short list. To clarify, the Master’s List is intended to help students gain a broad knowledge of literary history, which will prepare them to answer the Comprehensive Essay Question, while the Short List helps students focus their study for the Historical Period Essays.


While the student’s coursework, if properly managed, should provide a solid grounding in the advanced study of English and American literature, it must be supplemented with independent reading from the List to ensure sufficient command. In other words, the student is responsible for gaining mastery of the works on the List through judicious selection of courses and supplementary reading. The student is also advised to review the introductory sections and relevant author headnotes in the Norton English and American Literature anthologies when preparing for the exam. Of course, critical surveys and companion references (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge) to English and American literature may also be helpful, although they are no substitute for mastery of the primary texts.

Registering for the Exam

As the student nears completion of coursework (generally in the student’s final semester of study), he or she should inform the  English Department office of intent to take the Master’s Comprehensive Exam. The exam is given on Monday (Period Essays) and Tuesday (Comprehensive Essay) in the first full week of April, July, and November.  Please see: Exam Dates for date, times and location of exams.  Students should register no later than one month before the exam date.


The Exam Committee

A committee consisting of three graduate faculty members from the department will be responsible for making, administering/proctoring, and grading the exam. Each Exam Committee will serve a period of one year, extending from the fall through the following summer semesters.  Should a vacancy occur during that period, the Graduate Coordinator will appoint a replacement.

Taking the Exam

Once a student has entered the examination room and looked at the exam, he/she is considered to have officially attempted the exam. In other words, if the student then decides not to attempt the exam, the act of looking still counts as a ‘take.’

The exam consists of two parts: (1) a single, Comprehensive Essay Question derived from texts on the long list (2) and a section of shorter essays organized in accordance with the historical division of the List.

        (1) The longer essay will be a comprehensive synthetic essay question drawn from the entire reading list.  Students will have three hours to complete  this essay. They should anticipate spending 45 minutes on thinking, planning, outlining and revising the essay.

(2) The period essay questions will be drawn from the shortened reading list that will be drawn from the entire list, to be determined at the beginning of the semester. Of the seven period essay on the exam, five cover periods of English literature (Medieval, Renaissance & Seventeenth Century, Restoration & Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century), and two cover periods of American literature (Prior to 1860, 1860-Present). Further, two of the seven topics are passage-based. Each student will select three topics, at least one of which must be on the American side, and write an essay on each. For each period essay, students should reserve 30 minutes of the two hours for thinking, planning, outlining, and revising the essay.  Two of the three graders will have to assign a passing grade to each essay in order for the student to be passed on that particular exam component. The following statement expresses the graduate faculty’s expectations for student performance on the essay section of the exam:

Students should keep in mind that the essay portion of the exam is intended to test not only their concrete knowledge of literature, but also their ability to place individual writers and works in the various general contexts (literary, cultural, historical) in which those writers and works exist. Therefore, those taking the examination should remember that, while knowledge is important, the graduate faculty also expects to see in the essays evidence of a  synthetic and critical understanding of literature itself and of the historical periods in which literature is created. 

Finally, students should take care to respond to the specific topics as they are stated.

Receiving Exam Results

Normally, students will be notified of exam results within two weeks of the exam date.


Retaking the Exam/Appeals Committee

 A student need only retake those parts of the exam (e.g., an essay) that have received a failing grade. (In the event of a failed period essay, the student may attempt any of the periods not yet passed, as long as the American-essay requirement mentioned above is met in the process. Furthermore, the student may submit only as many essays as are required to pass the whole exam. For example, a student who has failed one essay may submit only one essay for the retake.) Any student who fails one portion of the exam must meet with the Exam Committee to review his or her performance and seek advice about preparation for a retake. The student must have this consultation session in order to be eligible for a retake.  Retakes will normally be scheduled on the days in April, July, and November appointed for the Master’s Comprehensive Exam.  

Any exception to this scheduling rule will be at the discretion of an Appeals Committee, consisting of the Graduate Coordinator and three graduate faculty members chosen by lot (excluding the members of that year’s Exam Committee). The Graduate Coordinator will be a nonvoting member of the committee.  

Further, the Appeals Committee will consider  petitions from any student who has failed one or more parts of the Comprehensive Exam on a second attempt and wishes a third (and final) chance. The student cannot automatically assume a right to take the exam a third time. 

Students must pass at least 3 of the 4 essays on the 2nd attempt. They may appeal for a 3rd attempt.  In order to appeal for a 3rd attempt, the students must secure a faulty member willing to mentor them and must enroll in 3 hours of independent study during this mentoring period.

The Appeals Committee will not overrule the pass/fail judgments of the Exam Committee.

Information Sessions

The Graduate Coordinator will meet with graduate students early in the fall and spring semesters for purposes of general orientation and review of Comprehensive Exam procedures.