The purpose of the M.A. exam is for students to focus on a particular critical issue in the work of an author or in a literary text or set of texts; an historical or cultural circumstance of interest to literary critics; or a theoretical or disciplinary current, question, or problem. It asks students to engage both professionally and personally with those issues that motivate us as critics, to position themselves discursively within a broader field of intellectual and literary ideas, and to demonstrate professional standards of written expression and intellectual maturity.

M.A. examination

Students will identify a critical issue in the work of an author or in a literary text or set of texts; an historical or cultural circumstance of interest to literary critics; or a theoretical or disciplinary current, question or problem; assemble an annotated bibliography of 10-15 articles, books, or chapters in books, or combination of these, published in the last 10 years, that take as their subject the issue, question, or problem; and write a review essay, of substantial length (12-15 pages), on three works selected from the bibliography, placing these in the context of the critical question, interpretive problem, or scholarly trend that is articulated in the first few paragraphs of the student’s essay. It is a criticism of the criticism, within a chosen context: students must summarize, review, and evaluate the articles in light of each author’s methodology, purpose, and use of primary and secondary works. Students will want to focus on what each critic is arguing, and how, and specify in what ways this critical conversation illuminates the question or problem they have identified in choosing these works. What is the payoff in one approach over another? What are the stakes of taking a particular position? Why does this issue matter for the field? 

If a candidate does not already have a theoretical or disciplinary current, question, or problem in mind, re-reading seminar papers and reviewing seminar notes and texts might help with this decision.

Next, candidates should locate and read relevant critical work; summarize and critique that work; compile the preliminary annotated bibliography of 10-15 of the most significant items published in the last 10 years (one of these essays may be published more than 10 years ago if it is sufficiently seminal that all subsequent work responds to it in some way); and write the proposal. Selecting the most appropriate work for purposes of the review essay requires that students must read widely and critically to arrive at the focused bibliography of 10-15 items. Students may, of course, select critical work they have previously read for seminars or for seminar papers. Because some literary criticism is fairly sophisticated, students will need to reread, use a dictionary, go to the primary texts and other sources for help in understanding the critic’s approach. Annotations of one paragraph should: (1) identify the critic’s approach and thesis, (2) summarize the argument, (3) assess the work’s relevance to the student’s topic, and (4) justify the selection.


The proposal, developed out of and informed by the student’s reading and analysis of the work listed in the bibliography, consists of a one to two page, double-spaced, articulation of the critical issue in the work of an author or in a literary text or set of texts; an historical or cultural circumstance of interest to literary critics; a theoretical or disciplinary current, question, or problem that will be the focus of the student’s review essay, as well as an explanation of the bibliography and tentative identification of those three works that will be considered in the review essay. In making the selections, students should give consideration to the way selected works represent particular positions from among those works they have read. Can those selected be constructively put into dialogue with one another? Together, the three essays, books, and/or book chapters should together reflect the shape of the current critical conversation on the student’s particular topic and that allow the student to consider the issue, question, or problem from a “meta-perspective.” This does not mean that other work cannot be referenced but that the three pieces will serve as the foundation of the discussion. It is important to recognize that the review essay is a particular genre that calls for different kind of discussion than does a seminar paper. As the cited examples illustrate, the review essay should not be a series of separate summaries, but rather an integrated discussion of the criticism focused on the issue or problem the student is considering. The goal of such a work is not to agree or disagree with the critical positions but rather to write critically about them, articulating the various arguments comparatively, and identifying and assessing what is at stake in those positions.

The annotated bibliography should be attached to the proposal.


Typed, double-spaced in MLA format in all ways, including page numbers.

Length: 12-15 pages maximum


This examination essay is just that, an examination, and thus an independent project. The boundaries on faculty feedback are, therefore, limited and specific. With one exception, students will have two opportunities to understand the purpose and format of the exam: during the fall orientation session for new students, during the exam workshop, typically held late each spring semester, and from the comments provided by the Graduate Committee on the student’s proposal. Students may, however, consult with the Director of Graduate Studies at any time during the process including the writing of the essay. Students may certainly discuss their seminar papers with faculty before and after those papers have been returned and may ask for bibliographic suggestions at any point, but they should not expect faculty to compile the bibliography for them, nor should they ask faculty for assistance in crafting their proposals or their review essays.

Benefits and Rationale

This exam is an independent organic undertaking, which asks students to assess their intellectual growth and to demonstrate mature critical analysis, argument, and writing skills by expanding their understanding of an important critical issue. Students should approach this project with an eye toward future doctoral studies or toward summation of academic achievement in the M.A. program.

Review Essay Examples

The examples provided here represent a range of approaches and topics; not all take as their approach the review of a set number of works, and some are more extensive than others, but all approach their topics from a meta-perspective, exploring the larger meaning of seminal and recent work in a particular field or on a particular issue, question, or problem. A number of journals offer regular review essays of this kind; they differ from a typical review in that they do not take as their subject a single study or even a pair of studies in order to assess the critical success and value of the study or studies in question. Instead, they engage more broadly with recent work as a way to examine and critique important critical and disciplinary issues.

  • Bashford, Bruce. “When Critics Disagree: Recent Approaches to Oscar Wilde.” Victorian Literature and Culture 30.2 (2002): 613-25.
  • Britton, Dennis. "Recent Studies in English Renaissance Literature." English Literary Renaissance 45.3 (2015): 459-78.
  • Connelly, S.J. “Revisions Revised? New Work on the Irish Famine.” Victorian Studies 39.2 (1996): 205-216.
  • Dean, Janet. “Searching for the New Western Literary Criticism.” Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000): 949-58.
  • Gardner, Jared. “Archives, Collectors, and the New Media Work of Comics.” Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 787-806.
  • Grattan, Sean. “Affect Studies.” The Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo. London: Bloomsbury, 2019, pp. 333-342.
  • Kaye, Richard A. “The Wilde Moment.” Victorian Literature and Culture 30.1 (2002): 347-52.
  • Landry, Donna. “Learning to Read in the Long Revolution: New Work on Laboring-Class Poets, Aesthetics, and Politics.” Criticism: A Quarterly Journal for Literature and the Arts 47.4 (2005): 413-547.
  • Long, Pamela. “New Work on the ‘Occult’ and Natural Disciplines of the Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 55.4 (2002): 1323-36.
  • Mullen, Alexandra. “The Oscar Wilde Industry.” The Hudson Review 54.1 (2001): 125-32.
    Wolfe, Cary. “Human, All Too Human: ‘Animal Studies’ and the Humanities.” PMLA 124.2 (2009): 564-75.
  • Wyss, Hilary E. “Missionaries in the Classroom: Bernardino de Sahagún, John Eliot, and the Teaching of Colonial Indigenous Texts from New Spain and New England.” Early American Literature 38.3 (2003): 506-20.                   
Procedures and Deadlines

All new incoming students will be briefed on the examination procedure during the fall orientation session with the Graduate Committee. In addition, an examination workshop will be held at the end of the spring semester for those students intending to take the exam during the next academic year. The Graduate Committee will discuss the exam procedure, the compilation of the bibliography, and the expectations for the review essay, and will answer any questions students may pose. 

Five copies of the proposal and annotated bibliography should be submitted in a manila file folder labeled with the student’s name on the second Monday of November. A solid, well-written proposal will significantly improve the final product. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that extensive critical reading of seminal and new work on the student’s topic is essential to preparing a solid proposal and appropriate bibliography. Students are strongly encouraged to use the summer before taking the exam to do much of this reading. 

The Graduate Committee will review submitted proposals, and either approve them or recommend revision. If revision is recommended, the candidate will receive written suggestions and may meet with the Director of Graduate Studies to discuss those suggestions. Candidates who are asked to revise their proposals will have approximately two weeks to do so. 

Five copies of the review essay are due the Monday after spring break at 5:00 p.m. Students are responsible for knowing the deadlines and adhering to them. No reminders will be sent. Please note that In accordance with the policies of The Graduate School, students must be registered for the semester in which the examination will be taken. 

The M.A. exam may not be taken during the summer session. It may be taken during the fall semester only under extraordinary circumstances and only if a student petitions and receives approval from the Graduate Committee well in advance. Any student wishing to so petition should meet with the Director of Graduate Studies as soon as possible. 

Examination Committee

The Examination Committee will consist of the Director of Graduate Studies and members of the Graduate Committee.


The candidate's review essay will be evaluated by the entire Examination Committee. The results will be reported to the candidate within three weeks after the essay is completed and submitted. Essays will be assigned either a High Pass, Pass, or No Pass designation. A candidate who does not pass may revise and resubmit the essay to the exam committee one time only. If the student does not pass a second time, he or she will be dismissed from the program.

The Director of Graduate Studies will distribute copies of each essay to members of the Examination Committee. The Committee will have two weeks to read the essays. During the third week, the committee will meet to discuss the essays and assign grades. Results will be announced following that meeting. A student whose essay does not pass will be given suggestions for revision and a specific deadline (typically one month) by which the revised essay must be re-submitted to the Examination Committee.

Evaluation Criteria

The guidelines below serve as a flexible rubric for use by the Examination Committee and the M.A. Candidate, providing guidance as to the attributes sought in the examination essay.






The essay is thesis-driven, but it lacks focus and/or clarity. It undertakes limited synthesis of the material and ideas under discussion. It demonstrates a weak or no attempt to engage with these ideas, and it fails to articulate new or expanded insights.

The essay is focused and contains a sound thesis. It practices competent synthesis of material and the integration of ideas under discussion. It shows a clear attempt to engage with these ideas and articulate new or expanded insights.

The essay is well focused with a sound, clearly articulated thesis. It practices sophisticated synthesis and integration of ideas. It demonstrates lively critical engagement with these ideas to arrive at new or expanded insights.


Struggles to describe the field in a meaningful way and position the analysis critically in a way that illuminates the ideas central to the essay’s investigation.

Demonstrates a tentative critical awareness of the field and critical debate. Analyzes ideas from the critical work fruitfully on the whole and makes a limited attempt critically to position the analysis within the broader field of literary ideas and/or within the critical debates specific to the ideas the essay engages.

Exhibits a strong understanding of the field and critical debate, offers a sophisticated analysis of ideas, and is discursively well positioned within the broader field of literary studies and within the critical debates specific to the ideas the essay engages.


Gives limited attention to terminology and definitions, or fails to demonstrate an adequate grasp of disciplinary methods. Connections between terms may be tenuous or undeveloped.

Demonstrates competency with relevant terminology and disciplinary methods, but may contain some inconsistent or contradictory definitions or positions.

Engages nimbly and substantively with terminology, and ably negotiates (or perhaps even interrogates) disciplinary methods. While there may be the odd inconsistency, the exam’s key terms are conveyed vividly and cohesively.


Demonstrates a below-average grasp of professional standards of written expression and intellectual maturity; that is, it has not been sufficiently edited for style, coherence, diction, syntax, grammar, and mechanics.

Demonstrates an above-average grasp of the professional standards of written expression and intellectual maturity while evidencing some mechanical, diction, and grammatical problems.

The essay meets professional standards of written expression and intellectual maturity, including a strong sustained focus; effective organization, connections, and transitions; appropriate diction; and sound grammar, mechanics, and citation.

Deadlines and Timetable for M.A. Examination

Fall Semester Orientation, first year: New students will be briefed on the examination format, procedures, and goals.

Spring Semester (end of student’s first year): Examination discussion meeting will take place in late April of the spring semester for all students intending to take the exam during the following academic year.
Fall Semester, second year: Proposals and annotated bibliographies due to the Director of Graduate Studies the second Monday of November by 5:00 p.m. The Graduate Committee will meet to approve proposals and to advise students whose proposals require revision within two weeks. Students will be advised by the end of exam week.

Spring Semester, second year: Monday after Spring Break: Review essays due to the Director of Graduate Studies by 5:00 p.m. 

Weeks 1-3 following Spring Break: Graduate Committee evaluates essays and meets to assign grades. Students are advised; deadlines are established for revision of failing essays.

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