What are MA Exams and Comprehensive Exams?

by Annie Rose Stathes
June 7, 2013

MA Exams and Comprehensive ExamsMA Exams/Comprehensive Exams

MA exams, also called comprehensive exams, measure and assess a students’ readiness for graduate-level work. They can be oral or written and may require students to present, defend, or otherwise demonstrate their knowledge of a particular subject or field of study.

MA exams are typically administered at the beginning of a master’s program for students pursuing a Ph.D., or during the second year of study for students earning a stand-alone master’s degree. Students are often required to “pass” their MA exams within two to three attempts. MA exams vary in requirements, structure, and depth by institution, department, and field of study.

Who Has to Take MA Exams?

While some students pursuing a stand-alone MA degree are required to take MA exams, it is a more common requirement for students pursuing an additional master’s degree or a Ph.D. Students who enter into a Ph.D. program without a master’s degree are also commonly required to take an MA exam.

MA Exams Questions and Structures

The structure and types of questions asked on an MA exam vary by subject, program, and school. Many schools require examinees to select an appropriate academic book and work with an advisor or other staff member to analyze and discuss, either orally or through written work, its content, relevance, and influence.

Other schools require examinees to complete an oral or written defense of a certain field of study or subject. Still other schools require examinees to complete a more traditional exam by correctly answering specific multiple-choice or essay questions. Ultimately, MA exam results primarily serve to prove students can be successful in more rigorous, challenging, and advanced academic settings.  

MA Exams and the Completion of a Program

Many Master of Arts programs require students to do three things to earn their MA degrees: earn satisfactory grades on a certain number of courses, write and perhaps defend a capstone or thesis project, and complete a comprehensive oral or written exam. Once a student has satisfied these requirements, they are able to graduate or advance into the Ph.D. portion of their program.


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About the Author: Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an instructor of writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

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