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Comprehensive Written and Oral Exams

General Information 

A comprehensive examination is required of all candidates for the Master of Arts in Anthropology, to assess Learning Goals (see appendix). The exams may be taken by students in good standing (minimum GPA 3.0) after completing all required core and concentration courses or the term when final requirements are taken. Comprehensives should be taken during or after the completion of the practicum, but can be taken before completion of the practicum in certain circumstances.  

Comprehensives are held twice during each academic year: once in the fall and once in the spring. The Department faculty sets exam schedules at the start of each semester. Written examinations are held over a two-day period. The oral examination takes place on a third day. 

The exam consists of three portions: Day 1 of the written exam contains 4 questions that cover core courses; Day 2 of the written exams is composed of questions that require students to synthesize core concepts from their focus area and apply to their practicum experience. The oral portion of comprehensive exams occurs on Day 3, which is scheduled approximately a week after the written exams are completed. Candidates are expected to demonstrate excellence in performance throughout all portions of the exam.

Each candidate must finalize his/her committee by the beginning of the semester in which comprehensives are taken. The committee consists of at least three members, including a chair. Candidates must select a committee in consultation with their chair, request each member’s participation, and obtain their written consent to serve. Committee members should have Graduate Faculty status or its equivalent (e.g., comparable professional experience).  The committee chair will compile the written exam, in consultation with the candidate. 

Written Examinations

Written exam topics are to be planned out in consultation with the committee chair at the start of the semester.  The exam on general (core) material is administered on day one. Questions on the concentration(s) and practicum are administered on day two. For Day 1 exams, candidates should meet with each person who will pose a question to request study questions and advice on preparing for the exam. However, faculty are not required to provide study questions. Students are responsible for drafting sample questions for Day 2 exams and submitting them to their committee within the first month of the semester in which they plan to take comprehensive exams.    The committee will write the final Day 2 exam questions. 

Exams are four hours in length each day. Typically, exams are held on consecutive days, and run from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Candidates who arrive late will not receive additional time to complete the exam.

Candidates are expected to prepare typed exam essays on computers, although select answers or portions of answers (e.g., statistical calculations) may be written in longhand. Requests to complete essays in longhand must be approved in advance by the committee chair. Candidates must secure an active University account in advance of exams. Computers will be screened and randomly assigned for exams. A computer lab will be reserved for writtens. Unauthorized individuals may not enter the lab during exams. Academic misconduct of any form is not tolerated.

Students registered with Student Disabilities Services (SDS) may request special accommodations for testing; provide documentation from SDS to the Graduate Coordinator at the start of the semester. Flash drives, practice essays, books, articles, and similar materials are forbidden. Email, internet, cell phones, pagers, and similar items must remain off. No food or beverages can be consumed in the lab. Students may bring essential items (e.g., prescription medication) and take breaks as needed, but candidates must remain near the lab at all times; all conversation is forbidden.  Academic misconduct of any form during comprehensive exams will result in immediate expulsion from the university. Students must adhere to the University policy on academic conduct, posted online at:

Typically, candidates will be provided with blank paper for jottings, if necessary. Before composing essays, candidates should create and save a file on the Desktop under their surname, and should print their name and identify the course/topic on all handwritten work. It is advisable to begin each essay on a new page with the title of the course/topic. It is not necessary to save each answer under a different file heading.

It is also helpful to paginate and to create a running header by surname, but neither is required. It is advisable to correct spelling and grammar only after all questions have been completed if time permits. Candidates are urged to save files regularly. A faculty supervisor will assign candidates to computers, distribute exam packets, and proctor the exam. The proctor will announce when the exam period has ended. All candidates must stop writing when informed that the exam period has expired. Should a problem arise, contact the main office (x2080) or exam proctor.

All written exam essays are graded by each of the advisory committee members and by the person who posed the question (if not a committee member).  Written exams are evaluated for (1) content (depth of detail, accuracy of detail, integration of source material); (2) analysis (critical thinking, original contributions to theory and/or practice, synthesis); and (3) style (clarity of writing, organization of ideas). 

Passing or failing an individual question is decided by majority vote, or by the evaluation of the committee chair in case of a tie. In voting decisions, committee members should pay particular heed to the evaluation of the person who has posed the question. Committee members are not bound by this person's evaluation.

Written exams are graded High Pass, Pass, Fail, or Conditional Pass.  A conditional pass may translate to Pass through successful performance in the oral examination, or a student may be asked to write new essays as a take-home assignment after the oral exam. A conditional pass may also translate into a Fail if the oral exam/essays are deemed unsatisfactory.

Students may not receive more than two conditional passes on Day 1.  That is, three conditional passes is equivalent to failing Day 1.  In this case, students would need to retake the Day 1 exam in a subsequent semester.  No conditional passes will be awarded for questions on Day 2; students either Fail or Pass Day 2 exams. If a student fails Day 2 s/he would need to retake Day 2 in a subsequent semester. If a student fails both Day 1 and Day 2, s/he would need to retake both written exams in a subsequent semester.

Comprehensives cannot be retaken until exams are administered during the following semester. 

Oral Examination

The oral exam is used to address any apparent deficiencies in the candidate’s written exams, and to discuss and evaluate their practicum. Orals are scheduled by the faculty to follow soon after completion of the written exams. Typically, orals are 1-2 hours in length and do not include a break.  Any faculty member may read any written exam or attend any oral. Unauthorized individuals may not attend the exam.

Normally, orals are moderated by the candidate’s committee chair. During the oral, committee members may ask any question deemed appropriate. Typically, questions focus on the candidate’s written exam responses and practicum. Overall performance on the whole of the oral exam must be acceptable to the advisory committee (not more than one dissenting vote is allowed).

Upon conclusion of the oral, the committee will inform the candidate of their grade on all written and oral portions of the comprehensives. This will complete the comprehensive examination.  All comprehensive exam results (pass or fail) are reported immediately and in writing to the Graduate School. 

Comprehensive Exams, Misc.

A student's Comprehensive examination, with the grades given, must be retained in the Department files for three years. Any exceptions to the comprehensive examination policies and procedures of the Department of Anthropology must be approved by the student, the student's committee, the Graduate Coordinator, the Department Chair, and, if necessary, the Graduate School.


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Last Updated: 8/28/14