M.A. English – Comprehensive Exam

M.A. Students

Exploring the M.A. Exam Reading List

Your familiarity with the texts on the reading list (PDF), revised spring 2012, should improve steadily from the moment you begin the graduate program.  Graduate courses will aid but not complete this process.  Each student must take responsibility for developing a reading and studying schedule that helps her/him prepare for the comprehensive exam that concludes the M.A. program.

Keep in mind that while exam questions vary in format and content each quarter, satisfactory answers will always include a clearly formulated argument supported by strong supporting evidence. In addition to supplying a historical and cultural context for the literary works you discuss on the exam, you should be prepared to identify stylistic innovations, literary trends, and so forth by providing specific textual examples to back up your claims.

Preparing for the M.A. Exam

  1. Before arriving at Poly:
    1. Familiarize yourself with the M.A. exam reading list
    2. Read a few texts not covered during your undergraduate experience
    3. Once you move to town, contact and join a study group (these meet throughout the summer)
  2. Studying for the M.A. exam:
    1. Continue studying independently upon beginning coursework
    2. Participate regularly in one or two reading and study groups
    3. Refine your performance on timed essay exams in those graduate courses that require them, remembering that the scoring rubric used when assessing M.A. exam responses assigns a "high pass" to an A-level essay, a "pass" to a B-level essay, and a "no pass" to a C-, D-, or F-level essay.
    4. Peruse the mock M.A. literature questions on the following handout to familiarize yourself with some of the question types faculty employ when creating the exam. Mock Comprehensive Exam Questions (PDF)
    5. Train yourself to formulate effective M.A. exam responses:
      1. Read carefully: absorb all prompts fully before choosing one, and then read the selected question again before beginning to brainstorm; if you neglect to address all portions of the actual prompt, you will not earn a passing grade. Note: in 2011, the graduate committee extended test-taking time for each section from 75 to 90 minutes, not to encourage longer essays but to insure students had at least 15 minutes to map their arguments before beginning to write.
      2. Create an argument: faculty expect students to do more than pour out relevant information surrounding a given topic. Be sure you propose a narrowly defined thesis, and closely support your argument with appropriate evidence.
      3. Provide evidence: faculty avoid generating prompts that call for discussion of four or more works, lest they inadvertently encourage students to dance across the surface of each text instead of digging into its depths. If you respond to a question requesting analysis of:
        • Three texts, you should know each text well enough to recall specific claims, themes, scenes, and images from it.
        • Two texts, your response should reflect the kind of familiarity with each text and its historical context required of someone leading a study group in discussion of the text.
        • A single text, your argument should demonstrate the kind of expert awareness of textual issues necessary to complicate traditional readings of the text.
    6. Before signing up for the M.A. exam
      1. Fulfil the Writing Proficiency requirement. If you completed a B.A. at a UC or CSU school, this should automatically be checked on your portal page by Oct. 1. If it is not, or you completed your degree out of state, visit the Writing Skills Office (building 10, room 13) with a copy of your transcripts in hand, as well as a course description for the undergraduate course in which you demonstrated writing proficiency.
      2. Complete the second language requirement by passing a Translation Exam with a B-, passing a fifth-quarter language class at Cal Poly (SPAN 202, FR 202, or GER 202) with a grade of B (not B-) or better, or demonstrating to the Graduate Director that you have taken and passed a 5th-quarter (4th-semester) language course in the last five years.
      3. Fill out the Formal Study Plan (FSP) with the Graduate Director 3-4 months before you will take the exam, (i.e. early spring, if taking the exam in fall; early winter, if taking the exam in spring). Sign up for a consultation after checking Dr. Marchbanks' office hours schedule for available times.
      4. Fill out the Advancement to Candidacy form with the assistance of the Graduate Director.
      5. Have your records evaluated at the Evaluations Office so they can generate a "Summary of Remaining Master's Degree Requirements" report listing any discrepancies between your FSP and the courses you have actually taken.
      6. If there is a discrepancy between your FSP and completed courses, amend your formal study plan with the Graduate Director. Sign up for a consultation after checking Dr. Marchbanks' office hours schedule for available times.
    7. Signing up for the exam
      1. Having demonstrated that all coursework will be completed by the end of the quarter you take the exam, fill out the M.A. Exam Sign-Up Sheet (located in the English department office)
      2. Turn in the M.A. Exam Sign-Up Sheet to the Graduate Director by week two of the quarter you will take the exam. Exams will usually take place on two consecutive weekends, usually sometime between week five and week ten of each fall and spring quarter.
      3. The graduate director proctors exams in a computer lab, with students generating essay responses on a computer according to the schedule below. Students wishing to handwrite instead of type the exam may do so, but will have the same period of time to complete each section as their peers.

Taking the M.A. Exam

  1. Part 1 (proctored on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday morning and afternoon)
    1. Section 1: American literature (90 minutes)
    2. Section 2: British literature (90 minutes)
    3. Section 3: synergetic, "crossover" questions requiring students to make transcontinental or transtemporal connections between different, nation- or period-specific bodies of literature (90 minutes)
  2. Part 2 (proctored on the following Friday, Saturday, or Sunday morning and afternoon)
    1. Section 1: composition & rhetoric (90 minutes)
    2. Section 2: literary theory (90 minutes)
M.A. Students at Graduation

Assessment of the Exam

Two faculty separately assess each essay without knowing its author, assigning a "high pass" (A), "pass" (B), or "no pass" (C or lower). When reading these essays, faculty refer to a rubric which states the following:

Please assess the essay as you would an in-class essay exam in one of your graduate courses where students worked under similar time pressure. A passing essay may contain occasional mechanical errors, but should most definitely:

  • contain a clearly stated thesis supported by appropriate evidence
  • evince clear organization and avoid unnecessary summary
  • employ relevant works from the M.A. reading list
  • answer all parts of the question

When two faculty initially disagree as to the score a given essay should receive, they confer until consensus is reached. Students should receive exam results within a week following administration of the final exam.

Initially, passing the exam requires passing four of five sections. If you do not pass four sections, you have one more opportunity to pass those sections you failed but must now pass every section you did not pass the first time.  When preparing the second time, pay close attention to any written suggestions provided by faculty the first time around.

Students may petition the Graduate Director and Graduate Committee to request a third exam opportunity, but such petitions will only be approved by the Graduate Committee in extraordinary circumstances.


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