The Written Comprehensive Examination

written compThe graduate faculty expect that any student earning a Master’s degree in English from Sam Houston State University will step out into the polite world soundly prepared for pursuing advanced graduate studies in English and teaching at the university level. 

To assure the English faculty and the University that you have, in fact, achieved this level of preparation and expertise, the comprehensive examination requires that you demonstrate your broad, graduate-level understanding of literary “periods,” critical approaches, and writing disciplines, in various combinations, and your mastery of specific defining or representative works within those areas. 


The Department of English offers the written comprehensive exam three times annually, on the third Saturdays of February, June, and October. The dates for the 2017 exams are 

February 18, 2017
June 17, 2017
October 21, 2017


A candidate chooses three general areas from among the following and writes for two hours on each area: 

  • English Language 
  • Early and Middle English Literature 
  • World Literature (one of the following): 
    • Emphasis in the Classical Tradition 
    • Emphasis in World Literature in English (Postcolonial) 
  • Theory and Practice of Composition and Rhetoric 
  • Technical and Professional Writing 
  • Renaissance and 17th-Century British Literature 
  • Restoration and 18th-Century British Literature 
  • American Literature before 1800 
  • 19th-Century British Literature 
  • 19th-Century American Literature 
  • 20th-/21st-Century British Literature 
  • 20th-/21st-Century American Literature 

To assure breadth of reading and understanding, one area must be in British literature, and one must be in American literature. One must be a pre-1800 British or American literature area, and one must be a post-1800 British or American literature area. Because they are comprehensive, areas typically comprise more than one discrete topic or literary age. So, for example, a student sitting for the English Language exam would be expected to have a graduate-level understanding of English linguistics, grammar, and history of the language; a student sitting for the 19th-century British literature examination would be expected to know both Romantics and Victorians. 

Area questions come from banks submitted by area specialists and developed over the years. 


1. To sit for the comprehensive examination, you must be an English MA or MFA student who has been accepted in regular admission status. You must have completed at least twelve hours of graduate English coursework, including ENGL 5330 (Graduate Research: Methods and Theories).

2. Submit to the graduate director a comprehensive examination declaration form in the semester prior to the one in which you will sit for the exam. The form asks that you specify the test date and then identify the three areas of study over which you would like to be examined. One must be a British literature area; one must be an American literature area. One must be a pre-1800 British or American literature area; one must be a post-1800 British or American literature area. You may also submit for approval a list of any other works that you would like to use on the exam; this list will supplement but not replace works on the required list. 




Spring 2017

December 2, 2016 (Last Class Day of Fall Term) 

Summer 2017

May 5, 2017 (Last Class Day of Spring Term) 

Fall 2017

June 27, 2017 (Last Class Day of Summer I Term)

Spring 2018

December 1, 2017 (Last Class Day of Fall Term)

3. Download the reading list for each of the three areas (click on the titles below): 

Established by faculty area experts, these lists include both canonical works and those that represent important new developments and interests in the field. They will change slightly from time; you are responsible only for area lists that are current on the date of your declaration form. 

4. Prepare for the exam. The list of modest suggestions below may help guide your preparation. 

5. Approximately two weeks before the exam, the graduate director will send you a confirmation notice and instruction sheet. Respond immediately to the confirmation notice and read carefully through the instruction sheet. 

6. Sit for the examination. Because you will be using University resources (in this case, the human resources who administer and read the examination), you must be enrolled in at least one graduate course in the semester during which you sit for the exam. You must remain enrolled during the entire semester. 


1. Begin preparing early. Download the appropriate reading lists for the areas immediately and make a reasonable plan for studying. 

2. For guidance, consult graduate faculty members who specialize in your areas. Usually they will suggest both possible questions and strategies for taking the exam. 

3. Learn or review the facts about the age or subject and about the works. 

4. Review key questions, problems, themes, and methods under consideration in critical discussions about the area of study. As you review and read anew, consider the qualities—intellectual, aesthetic, and political, for example—and techniques that characterize the areas under question. Imagine the sorts of questions that may arise about these issues, and be able to make cogent critical arguments in response. 

5. Look for broad aesthetic and cultural developments over a literary age and important cohesive principles in a writing or pedagogical discipline. But also know specific works well. 

6. Do not rely exclusively on class lecture and discussion notes. While a good survey of literature and a creative or professional writing class should give you some sort of comprehensive understanding of a subject, constraints of time—and sometimes the interests and temperament of a particular professor—often determine the scope and depth of studies in a class. The exam requires that you demonstrate your mastery of a study area, not your mastery of a class. So you should plan to do supplementary reading in the field or take more than one course in the area, or both. 

7. Although no question will require that you have read secondary works, you should, as demonstration of your graduate-level understanding of the literature and language, be able to situate your argument within the critical contexts. Reading prominent critical works about the field will help you to engage important debates in the field. 

8. Have a look at sample exam questions. Write practice responses. 

9. Attend one of the biannual exam preparation sessions, typically offered toward the beginning of each long term. 


For each area, you will choose one of three questions and respond; you will have two hours to answer each area question. The exam poses questions carefully designed so that candidates can manage them within the allotted time, provided that they prepare well. The questions, drawn from an examination bank, are such that you will be asked not only to demonstrate your broad understanding of developments and issues in the study area but also to demonstrate that you can apply this broad understanding to your close reading of a handful of central texts. 

You will be allowed to write your responses by hand or to use a word processor. More specific practical instructions are provided at the time that you apply to take the exam. 

Some modest suggestions for managing your response follow: 

1. Read through all three area questions carefully and decide upon the one that best suits your strengths, interests, and preparation. 

2. Pay careful attention to the language and requirements of the question. Faculty graders, who read across a wide range of areas, will look consider first how faithfully you have followed the exam prompt. 

3. Be flexible, so that you are able to answer the question that is asked and not some hoped-for or imagined question. 

4. Manage your time well. 

5. Write an introduction, with a significant thesis and/or clear statement of purpose. 

6. “Stay on task”: Keep your focus on the particular question and your argument in response. Do not stray to another question or issue. 

7. Make your response significant. Avoid plot summaries and guidebook introductions to the works and issues. 

8. Give yourself a few minutes at the end of the two hours to proofread your response. Readers will fail essays that are not written in an idiom befitting graduate-level writing about literature and language. 


Each essay will be assigned a code number so that its author will remain anonymous during the evaluation process. 

Working independently and anonymously, three readers from among the graduate faculty will evaluate your responses and score each area essay as a pass, high pass, or fail. 

Only after all results have been reported by the readers and all disputes settled, the graduate director will formally contact you with the results. 

Should you fail a particular area question, you will have one opportunity to retake that area question at the next examination date. You will retake the exam in only the area (or areas) that you failed, and you may not change areas. You must submit a new comprehensive examination declaration form, and you must be enrolled at the University when you retake the area exam. 


Consult the booklet The Graduate Comprehensive Examination in English, available from the graduate director. This resource supplies all information necessary for applying and preparing to take the exam, sample forms, and sample essay questions and responses. 

The graduate director offers biannual prep sessions for the exam. Be on the lookout for announcements. 

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