Main Content

Written Comprehensive Exam

The Graduate Written Comprehensive Examination is the standard capstone project for the Master's Degree in English (M.A. or M.S.), outside of the thesis.  M.A. and M.S. students who select the comprehensive exam option complete 36 semester hours of coursework and take the written comprehensive exam. 

Applicants for the examination must be matriculated students who have completed or are currently enrolled in courses that will enable them to complete thirty credits with a 3.0 average.  M.A. candidates must have completed the language requirement.  


1. Important Dates
2. Overview of the Exam
3. Registration Form
4. Exam Components:
    Exam List 
    Literature Review Assignment
    Grading Guidelines
    Sample Exam Question

1. Important Dates for the Examination


To take the exam in the Fall …

• Register to take the exam by the fourth week of the Spring semester
• Turn in Literature Review (via electronic attachment) in mid-October
• Take Exam on the first Saturday morning in December 

To take the exam in the Spring…

• Register to take the exam by the fourth week of the Fall semester
• Turn in Literature Review (via electronic attachment) in mid-February
• Take Exam on the second Saturday morning in April


2. Overview: Graduate Comprehensive Exam 



Applicants for the examination must be matriculated students who have completed or are currently enrolled in courses that will enable them to complete thirty credits with a 3.0 average. M.A. candidates must have completed the language requirement. 

Registering for the Exam:

Students register for the exam by notifying the Graduate Coordinator in the first four weeks of the semester before the semester in which they plan to take the exam (to take the exam in May, you register the previous September; to take it in December, you register the previous February). If a student registers for but does not take the exam in a given semester, s/he may register ONCE more, and only once more. Students must notify the Graduate Coordinator in advance of the scheduled exam from which they plan to withdraw in order to be eligible to reregister.

If students plan to take the exam during a semester in which they are not registered for any other classes, they must register for IDS 901, an ungraded 0-credit course that costs approximately $150. If students are registered for other credits in the semester during which they take the exam, they do not need to register for IDS 901.

Structure of the Exam:

The examination is based on a reading list that includes ten primary texts; one is always theoretical and one is always a collection of lyric poems. Each primary text on the list is accompanied by one required and three recommended secondary texts (generally essays or book chapters).

On-Campus Component

For each part of this three-hour component of the examination, there is a choice of two questions (that is, the student selects one question from each part to answer). The English Department Comprehensive Exam Committee, in consultation with the English graduate faculty, is responsible for making up questions for the examination.  

Part 1: an applied theory question (answer one of two questions—one hour)

Part 2: a close reading of a poem (answer one of two questions—one hour)

Part 3: a comparative question, addressing three texts from the list.  The focus of this question might be formal, historical, thematic, ideological, or a combination of the above (answer one of two questions—one hour).  None of the three texts discussed in this question may be the one students selected for their literature review (see below), to ensure discussion of more texts on the list.

Take-Home Component—Literature Review (5-10 pp.)

Each student taking the exam in a given semester selects one of the primary texts on the list and reads both the required and the supplementary secondary sources, using these sources as a starting point to prepare an overview (5-10 pp.) of the critical conversations about that primary text. The secondary sources that accompany each primary text serve as a starting point for the literature review, but students are responsible for reading an additional six sources (for a total of ten sources) as they prepare this exam question. It is due 6-8 weeks prior to the day of the exam (see deadlines).

Evaluation of the Exam:

Exams are read by the English Department Graduate Committee. Exams may be awarded grades of distinction, pass, or fail. In evaluating examinations, the committee will be guided by the following considerations: the essays must respond to the specific demands of the exam questions and must reflect sound knowledge of the works and ideas being examined. The entire exam should demonstrate the mastery of standard essay-writing practices. The Committee transmits two copies of the Graduate Program Comprehensive Report to the Dean of the Graduate School, who then sends one to the student and one to the Records Office.

If a student fails the exam once, s/he may write a letter of petition to the English Department Graduate Committee asking to retake the exam. Barring extraordinary circumstances (for instance, plagiarism), such petitions will be granted. Students who fail the exam a second time will be dismissed from the program.


3. Registration Form

To register for the exam, complete the Comprehensive Exam Registration Form and return to the Coordinator of English Graduate Studies (Dr. Joel Dodson).


4. Exam Components

Exam List

A copy of the upcoming Exam List for Spring 2019-Fall 2019 will be posted here by October 1, 2019 and emailed directly to students upon registration. 

Literature Review Assignment

For instructions and dates for completing the Literature Review portion of the comprehensive exam, see the Literature Review AssignmentGuidelines.  

Grading Guidelines 

The following are the Grading Guidelines for both the Literature Review and On-Campus Essay portions of the exam.

Sample Exam Question 

See the following Sample Exam Question to prepare for the on-campus portion of the written exam.