English M.A. Examination


Description of the English M.A. Exam

The required Common Reading Examination is a capstone accomplishment demonstrating the kinds and depth of knowledge expected of those who earn the general Master’s Degree in English offered at Rutgers-Newark. Most take it in their last semester. The exam is held over two days, usually the week after spring break in March. (The dates, set by the M.A. Exam Committee in consultation with students, are also coordinated with Graduate School deadlines for submitting graduation candidacy forms.) By October 1 or sooner, students who plan to take the exam in March must file a Declaration of Intent form (available outside Hill 504) with the Graduate Director, who should be informed of special accommodations students with disabilities require, and of any later changes of plan. Prospective exam-takers should try to attend the Q&A session about exam preparation and discuss it earlier on with their faculty advisors.

Note that one cannot do a Thesis in lieu of the Common Exam.


The exam tests knowledge of a representative selection of English, American, and Anglophone authors on the Common Reading List, which is periodically modified so that no single “canon” solidifies for the MA Program.  New rules and two new lists went into effect in 2012, one for exams offered in even years, one for odd years. (Some authors and texts are required reading on both.) The double list is available on paper in the rack outside Hill 504. Questions and requests for sample exams can be addressed to the Exam Committee Chair.

 Besides receiving fair assessment in relation to others, students working from the same required list have opportunities  (1) to acquaint themselves with writers and works they have not studied in classes and to delve further into others they have; (2)  to consolidate their learning in the  Program, especially by working out comparative and cross-historical analyses of literary developments and patterns; (3) to study independently; and (4) to benefit from the solidarity of a common testing experience.  Students often form study groups during the preceding summer.

The Common List is divided into four sections of roughly 10-20 authors each. Students are tested on all four sections on both exam days:

            Literature Before 1660

            English and American Literature, 1660-1800

            English and American Literature, 1800-1900

            Literature Since 1900


All literature students face the same exam questions on each day, with some question choices. Question subject matter can range from aspects of literary form and genre to theme, characterization, and the place of a text within an author’s work or a larger context. On each day’s work, students will write the Honor Pledge, date, and sign it (“On my honor, I have not received any unauthorized assistance on this test”). Most students elect to write their exams on the computers in Dana’s electronic classroom. They may consult an unmarked copy of the Reading List at the exam.

   Day One (3 hours, 50 minutes total):  2 short essay answers for each of the 4 sections of the year’s Reading List (8 short essays total). All answers for a section should be about works from that period alone;  the same work also cannot be used to answer more than one question on Day One. Students are advised to choose and answer questions that display their knowledge of as wide a range of works as possible (English, American,  Anglophone; novels, poems, plays, non-fiction prose; works by women and men; and so on).

     Although the individual questions are not timed, students are advised to spend roughly equal time on each answer, reserving some time to review their completed work. These essays will be a few paragraphs at most and therefore cannot be comprehensive. But students will be evaluated on their ability to answer the questions with reference to specific features of the texts, the more specific the better. While answers should be in grammatical prose, they need not be well-polished essays with thesis statements, development, and conclusions, and should spend as little time as possible on introduction.

   Day Two (3 hours + 30 minutes to review the work):  All students write one 1-hr. essay and one 2-hr. essay (with question choices for each).  Some questions are open as to works discussed and approach taken; others give authors or titles to choose among.

    Whereas Day One answers are necessarily brief, Day Two calls for more extended and considered arguments. Students will still be evaluated for their reference to specific features of the texts.  Some of these broad essay questions are designed to elicit connections and comparisons between works from distinct historical eras and contexts.

    In at least one essay, students are expected to demonstrate the ability to engage critical theory.

    As far as possible given the subject matter, the essays should incorporate a diversity of male and female authors, ethnicities, colonial, post-colonial, or Commonwealth contexts, genres, and historical eras.

    While students may refer in passing to any text, all the extended discussions should refer to texts on the year’s reading list. The majority of each answer should be devoted to extended and detailed discussion of just a few works for each question, as it specifies, instead of more works treated superficially. Whenever possible, the student is to avoid repeating material already used on Day One and avoid using a text to answer more than one question on Day Two. 



                                                            < Common Reading Exam>  7/24/14