Department of English

Comprehensive Examination

Below, you'll find information that you need to know regarding the reading list and exam format.

Goals for the MA comprehensive exam

Our exam is designed to allow students to demonstrate that they can do the following:

  • Place and examine texts within theoretical, critical, historical, and/or biographical contexts
  • Write clearly and persuasively in response to questions about texts from various genres
  • Use evidence in a way that is logical, organized, and ethical.

Idea Behind the Comprehensive Examination

At UNCW, every master's candidate must pass a comprehensive examination covering his or her field of study. What do we in the English Department hope that you'll gain by doing so? While there is no such thing as a truly comprehensive reading list, faculty have chosen texts that have ongoing critical and cultural significance within the field of English studies as it is broadly conceived. During the exam, you may be called upon to explain, analyze, synthesize, and make connections between these texts. These skills will serve well as you finish the program and consider future career paths. Moreover, this exam format gives you a chance to be involved in the creation of the reading list. In addition to the list all students within a cohort will share, you will have a chance to select texts that will be useful for your ongoing studies.

Reading List

Graduate students will read 20 texts chosen by committee and 5 texts they select themselves and that reflect a particular thematic area of interest or research question for the student.

Both the list of 20 and the list of 5 may be in any genre, including poetry, essays, novels, short stories, among others, and from any sub-discipline in English studies. Each graduate student should select his/her 5 titles in conjunction with a mentor or mentors; he or she will then submit these titles via e-mail to the graduate coordinator for approval at least 60 days before taking the exam.
The reading list typically varies little from year to year, although there may be changes. The new list for the fall semester will be made available to students by February of that same year. Students will need to purchase the precise editions of the texts listed. Other texts will be available via PDF.

Who Should Take the Exam?

Students will be eligible to take the comprehensive examination after completing at least 18 hours of coursework. Students must pass the exam before graduating.

When and Where Will the Exam be Offered?

Students should elect to take the exam in either the fall or spring semester. The exam will be four hours given in a computer classroom on campus and proctored by the Graduate Coordinator. In the fall semester, the exam will be given on the third Friday afternoon in September. In the spring semester, the exam will be administered on the first Friday afternoon in February. Typically, the exam will be held from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.


Students will be allowed to bring all reading list texts including PDF printouts to the comprehensive exam. These texts may be annotated, but no additional books or papers should be brought. Students may also bring a writing utensil for taking notes; scrap paper will be provided.

The exam will consist of three prompts; students must answer all three prompts thoroughly for their exam to be scored.

  • Two prompts will be focused single-text questions AND/OR general questions that ask students to choose texts to make an argument.
  • One prompt will ask students to account for the selection of their 5 additional texts. Students should not only be able to clearly and persuasively articulate their reasons for choosing these texts, but should be able to address how the texts intersect (whether to support, extend, illustrate, complicate, or counter one another).


Students should read and study all texts on the reading list. The exam questions will prompt students to contextualize the texts by demonstrating an awareness of their historical, theoretical, critical, and/or biographical contexts.

Students should prepare to answer the questions on the exam by reading casebooks, critical editions, and/or scholarship about the texts. In addition, doing some reading about the period in which the text is written will also be useful. Students might consult the historical introductions in standard anthologies for this purpose.

Who Grades the Exam?

Three examiners will be randomly selected from members of the graduate faculty who are teaching courses in the current school year.

Final Results

The three essays are graded Pass/Fail by the examination committee, with a consensus of two members needed for a decision. Grading is done anonymously, with student names removed from papers. Students will be informed in writing by the Graduate Coordinator about whether or not they have passed the examination. In accordance with Graduate School policy, a student who does not pass must wait until the next semester before retaking the examination. No student may take the exam a third time without permission of the Graduate Coordinator, the Department Chair, and the Dean of the Graduate School.

Unless there are charges of racial, sexual, or other forms of discrimination, or charges of improper procedures, which allegedly have led to a failed examination, students may not appeal until they have retaken the exam. Appeals made after a second failure of the examination will be handled in keeping with policies established by the Graduate Council and approved by the Dean of the Graduate School and the Provost.