What to Expect and How to Prepare
The master's exam serves two purposes. The first is pedagogical: studying for the exam helps students to extend and deepen their knowledge of the material, learn about topics not covered in their courses, and gain a broad, integrated view of the field. The exam also serves as a means of evaluation: it allows the faculty to know whether the student has mastered the material and can articulate it clearly.
Both of these aims require that the student take the initiative in preparing for the exam. It is appropriate to use faculty as a resource to discuss and clarify material, but it is assumed that the student will come to these discussions having already done considerable preparation. We encourage students to study together. Students taking the exam at the same time often benefit by meeting regularly and sharing ideas.
As with any examination essay, a good essay on the masters exam will make an argument and support it with evidence. It will show familiarity with the literature as well as the ability to synthesize it and evaluate conflicting points of view.
The supervisory committee administers the examination, and the choice of questions is determined by the student's chair, in consultation with other members of the committee. During preparation, however, students should feel free to approach any faculty member, and faculty should be willing to help all students equally. The oral examination is also administered by the supervisory committee. There is no set format for the oral; the committee will usually ask the student to elaborate on issues that were unclear or poorly addressed on the written exam, but the discussion may range more broadly, and students should be prepared to discuss other questions and issues, including questions that were not chosen for the written essays.
Both written and oral components are considered when faculty assess whether the student has passed the exam. For this reason, and because committee members may disagree about the student's performance, please do not ask faculty prior to the oral examination whether or not you did well on the exam. However, some faculty members will give you guidance about topics you should review prior to the oral exam.