M.A. Comprehensive Examination
All M.A. candidates must take a comprehensive examination. It can be either an oral comprehensive examination, which normally lasts 1-2 hours, or a written examination, taken over 6 hours. Comprehensive exams may include questions about anything that M.A. candidates covered in their course work. The scope of the examination includes knowledge of particular courses as well as the larger historiographical issues. Ordinarily the examination takes place in the last few weeks of the student's final semester in the program, and never before the semester in which the student's course work and/or thesis are being completed. The guidelines for arranging your comprehensive exams apply to both on campus and online MA candidates and cover both oral and written exams. Review the information below entirely before reading the scheduling guidelines. The link to the guidelines are at the bottom of this page.
1. Prepare for the comprehensive exam from the beginning of your studies. In each of your classes, you need to prepare a written electronic document or series of documents summarizing the argument of every book and article discussed, and maintain a document analyzing the important issues, scholarly debates, and other field-specific concerns raised in your classes.
2. Form an examination committee no later than the third week of the semester in which you intend to graduate. Consult with the Director of Graduate Studies and other faculty concerning the membership of this committee. Your committee should be comprised of faculty members with whom you have completed coursework. One committee member must serve as the committee chair. The chair of a M.A. Comprehensive Committee must have at least Associate Graduate Faculty status. This committee normally consists of three faculty members, although your advisors may recommend up to five. Not all committee members should be from the same concentration (U.S., European, etc.).
3. Provide each member of the committee with a complete list of courses taken, books and articles read, and papers written. With each committee member, you should develop a list of questions for which you should specifically prepare. Although the examiners will begin with some of these questions, they will also ask follow-up questions and may ask about other topics that you have studied in your classes in the oral exam. You will be expected to demonstrate not merely factual knowledge but an understanding and an ability to think about the historiography of each field and the major questions animating it. In the written exam your field questions will be based on your readings.
4. Schedule your comprehensive exam. All MA students have the option of taking a written or an oral exam. Students can choose whichever format—oral or written—they prefer. If you'd like to take an oral exam, you'll will coordinate a date, format (in person/Skype/phone) with your committee and with the graduate secretary. There is more information below about the Written Exam Format and the Oral Exam Format. No matter which format you pick, we recommend that you schedule your exam early in the semester.
- Spring graduation: between February 1st and March 15
- Fall graduation: between September 15th and October 30th
5. The committee may judge the student to (1) pass with distinction with a recommendation for Ph.D. work, (2) pass, or (3) fail. Since the official form lists only pass and fail as options, you should remind the committee ahead of time of the third option, especially if you want to continue for the Ph.D., and ask that they note that you passed with distinction in handwriting on the exam form if they support your continuance. A unanimous vote is required to pass or pass with distinction.
When assessing the exam (oral or written) the committee will consider the following:
- Do your answers demonstrate mastery of historical themes, historiography, and scholarly discussion in the coursework taken?
- Do your answers demonstrate masterly understanding of the historical content and events and their interrelationships in the coursework taken?
- Did you clearly explain key historical concepts and handle abstract ideas? Did you successfully synthesize and generalize diverse themes?
- Are your answers organized and are the arguments well supported?
In the event of failure, the committee will adopt one of the following: (1) permit the student to take a written or oral examination within the same semester (if the student satisfactorily completes this option, the original failure will not be recorded on the permanent record; if not the student will be able to take the exam again under option 2), or (2) permit the student to take a written or oral examination the following semester. Any student who fails to complete the second examination satisfactorily will be dropped from the department's graduate program. Results of the comprehensive examination must be reported to the Graduate School, with copies to the Department of History and the Director of Graduate Studies. You can get this form at the Graduate School: Graduate School Comprehensive Exam Results.
Comprehensive Exam Format
Oral Exam Information
An oral exam lasts approximately two hours. Each committee member will review your booklist and prepare questions to ask you during your exam. During the exam each faculty member, in turn, asks the student questions that generally focus on important books and concepts covered in the courses completed by the student.
Written Exam Information
Each committee member will review your booklist and submit a question (or several, and you will choose one) for your exam. Each answer (in each of the three sections) should average 2000 words in length, for a minimum total of around 6000 words for the entire exam. The word count on your answers may vary, of course, but be sure to answer each question as fully as possible.
- You will have six hours to complete your exam.
- You are permitted to bring a pen and blank sheets of paper with you to the exam. Your book list (submitted in advance) will be provided with your exam.
- You are permitted four 5-minute breaks during the exam period.
Assessing your Exam
When assessing the exam your committee will consider the following:
- Do your answers demonstrate masterly understanding of the historical
content and events and their interrelationships in the coursework taken?
- Did you clearly explain key historical concepts and handle abstract ideas? Did
you successfully synthesize and generalize diverse themes?
- Are your answers organized and are the arguments well supported?
The committee may judge the student to (1) high pass (2) pass or (3) fail. A unanimous
vote is required to pass.
If you’re taking the written exam, your committee might decide on a provisional pass. Students that pass provisionally only require a few points of clarification—places where committee members would have intervened and redirected if the exam was oral. The committee will work with the student and coordinate an appropriate follow up (email or phone) for a provisional pass. This should be completed within 72 hours of notifying the student.
In the event of failure, the committee will adopt one of the following:
- Option 1: permit the student to take either a second written
examination or an oral examination within the same semester (if the
student satisfactorily completes this option, the original failure will
not be recorded on the permanent record; if not the student will be
able to take the exam again under option 2), or
- Option 2: permit the student to take a written examination the
following semester. Any student who fails to complete the second
examination satisfactorily will be dropped from the department’s
Your committee chair will communicate the results to you, and to the Online Program Coordinator. The Graduate Secretary will prepare the MA Comprehensive Results form, and will acquire all the necessary faculty signatures, and submit it to the graduate school on your behalf. You, the online MA student, do not need to come on campus to file this paperwork.