Comprehensive Exam Overview and Procedures

Awarding of the M.A. in History for non-thesis students requires successful completion of written and oral comprehensive exams. Effective in the fall of 2023, comps should be undertaken in a student’s last semester of graduate coursework, along with HIST 5388: Comprehensive Examinations (or the equivalent 5- or 9-hour versions).

Overview and Purpose

For students not writing theses, comprehensive examinations are intended to demonstrate students’ ability to synthesize historical knowledge acquired in their fields of study and from a variety of material covered in regular courses. Students are expected to incorporate analysis and insights from readings into conceptual frameworks that illustrate mastery of their subjects.

Written and oral comprehensive examinations consist of three fields, each of which is overseen by a faculty member (see "Fields of Study" in the Graduate Student Handbook). Together, these three faculty members constitute a student’s comprehensive exam committee. A student’s graduate advisor (not to be confused with the History or Public History general advisors) oversees the primary field and serves as committee chair. Two other faculty members, one of whom may come from outside the History Department, oversee the additional fields. All three committee members must be faculty with whom the student has previously completed or is presently completing course work.

Written Examinations

While each faculty member possesses ultimate discretion regarding their written examinations, the Graduate Studies Committee advises that written examinations adhere to the following parameters:

  • A student’s written examinations shall ideally consist of one question per field. No field examination should consist of more than two questions.
  • A written examination in a student’s primary field should be 10-14 pages long. It should mainly draw on readings for coursework associated with that field and no more than 5 additional monographs selected through consultation between the student and the faculty member. (For the purposes of these guidelines, 3 articles shall count as one monograph.)
  • Each written examination in a student’s additional fields should be roughly 10 pages long. It should mainly draw on readings for coursework associated with that field and no more than 3 additional monographs selected through consultation between the student and the faculty member. (For the purposes of these guidelines, 3 articles shall count as one monograph.)
  • Written examinations may include a variety of essay formats, including historical essays, historiographical essays, primary source analysis, and questions about syllabus design and pedagogy. Committee chairs are encouraged to facilitate conversation within committees to ensure that each student is assigned a reasonable diversity of essay formats.
  • At their discretion, committee members can consider the inclusion of non-essay formats (such as an exhibit or a building preservation report).

Oral Examinations

The oral exam required by the Graduate College will consist essentially but not exclusively of a defense of the student’s written examinations. Students should check with each faculty member involved in the oral exam to determine the scope of the issues to be covered. If the examination is to cover matters beyond the student’s written examinations, the student must take care to discover exactly what aspects of previous course work will or will not be considered fair game for each examiner. The student's committee members will administer this examination, which is typically 60 to 90 minutes long.


  1. Partway through the semester prior to a student’s intended graduation, if not earlier, the student should select the three members of their committee in consultation with the Graduate Director or Public History Advisor.
  2. Once a committee has been agreed upon, the student is responsible for contacting committee members, requesting their participation, and discussing reading lists and possible essay prompts and formats.
  3. Given the heavy workload associated with completing comprehensive examinations and coursework simultaneously, students are encouraged to utilize summer break to begin work on fall semester exams, winter break to begin work on spring semester exams, and the month of May to begin work on summer exams. Students should keep in mind that committee members may be less accessible during breaks and should take care to discuss reading lists and examination questions prior to such breaks, if necessary.
  4. By the first week of the semester in which a student wishes to complete the examinations, a Master’s Comprehensive Examination Report Form that will include the signatures of all committee members must be completed and submitted via email to the Admin. Asst. to the Graduate Program in the History Office. Fill out sections 1 and 3 of the form (leave “Date of Examination and “Date of Report” in section 1 and “Signature” and “Date” in section 3 blank); leave sections 2 and 4 blank.
  5. No later than early in the semester of a student’s examinations, each committee member will provide the student with ideally one question, and no more than two questions, to be answered in essay form. Committee chairs are encouraged to facilitate conversation within committees to ensure that each student is assigned a reasonable diversity of essay formats.
  6. Essays must be completed and submitted to the appropriate committee member by October 15 (fall semester), March 15 (spring semester) and June 30 (summer term). Committee members are free to designate alternative deadlines based on the University calendar and History Department deadlines.
  7. Committee members will review their respective essays within two weeks of receipt and inform both the student and the Committee Chair if the essays are approved as submitted. Alternately, each committee member will inform the student and the Committee Chair if revisions are required. If revisions are requested, a new deadline for completion will be provided. It is common for essays to require at least one round of revisions, and students should factor this into their planning.
  8. The written essays form the content basis for the oral comprehensive exam. NO oral exam dates will be scheduled until all committee members have approved the written essays as submitted or revised.
  9. The Committee Chair will coordinate the time and date of the final oral exam.
  10. The oral exam consists primarily of questions drawn from the written exam essays. Student performance is evaluated as either passing of failing. Outstanding student performance may be designated as passing with distinction.
  11. Students who do not pass the oral exam may be allowed to retake the exam once. The scheduling of a second oral exam is at the discretion of the committee but is encouraged for no earlier than the subsequent semester. The student may be requested to prepare new comprehensive exam essays should faculty membership on the committee change.
  12. Exams must be completed within one year of a student’s last semester of classes except under extraordinary circumstances.

A Note on Summer Comps

Students should consider taking summer comps only under extraordinary circumstances. Given the compressed nature of the timeline involved (see below), this option is recommended only for students who were unable to complete their comps in the spring or who need to retake them. Students are advised to discuss this option with their advisors.

Deadlines and Recommended Timelines*

Fall GraduationSpring GraduationSummer Graduation
Committee Members Selected May NovemberApril
Reading List Finalized; Essay Question AssignedAugustDecemberMay
Hist. Dept. Deadline:
Comprehensive Examination Committee Form Submitted to Asst. to the Director of Graduate Studies
First week of semesterFirst week of semesterFirst Week of Semester
Grad. Coll. Deadline:
Last Day to Apply to Graduate
Usually, October 1Usually, March 4Usually, June 24
Hist. Dept. Deadline:
Written Examinations Submitted
October 15March 15June 15
Written Examinations Returned to StudentTwo weeks following essay submission (October 29 for essays submitted October 15)Two weeks following essay submission (March 29 for essays submitted March 15)Two weeks following essay submission (July 14 for essays submitted June 30)
Revised Written Examinations SubmittedNovember 6April 5July 21
Hist. Dept. Deadline:
Oral Examination
[Preferably by the Graduate College’s final date for thesis defenses, and no later than the day before the Graduate College’s deadline for filing comprehensive examination paperwork]
Preferred deadline: usually November 5
Absolute deadline: usually December 2
Preferred deadline: usually April 8
Absolute deadline: usually May 5
Preferred deadline: usually July 1
Absolute deadline: usually July 28
Grad. Coll. Deadline: Comprehensive Examination Paperwork Due to Graduate College by 5 pmUsually, December 3Usually, May 6Usually, July 29

* These dates are contingent on Graduate College deadlines and change slightly each year. 2021-2022 dates have been used in this chart for illustrative purposes only. Students and faculty should check Graduate College Deadlines for current information.

Ver. 01/15/21