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Master of Public Administration

comprehensive exam.

* Note: Students admitted Fall 2011 and beyond will complete the capstone project or thesis.

Advantages of Comprehensive Exams

  • Do not have to give up an elective
  • Synthesize knowledge learned in MPA
  • Provides a sense of closure

Upcoming Exam Dates


Comprehensive Exam Date

Two-Week Notification Deadline

Contact MPA Chair

Fall 2013

Friday, October 11

Friday, September 27, 2013

Carol Ebdon, Ph.D.

Spring 2014 

Friday, March 7

Friday, February 21, 2014

Carol Ebdon, Ph.D.

Summer 2014 

Friday, June 6

Friday, May 23, 2014


Fall 2014

Friday, October 10

Friday, September 26, 2014


Spring 2015  

Friday, March 6

Friday, February 20, 2014


Summer 2015  

Friday, June 5

Friday, May 22, 2014


These are projected dates and are subject to change.

Some Facts about Comprehensive Exams

The UNO MPA Comprehensive Exam takes place on a single day. The exam is in two parts and runs from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Students have a one hour break between exam sessions.

Tips on Preparing For and Taking the MPA Comprehensive Exam

  • Review the sample questions.
  • Prepare your own study guide.

Examples of Past Comprehensive Exam Questions

Some Facts about Comprehensive Exams

Students must have completed 30 graduate credit hours before taking their comprehensive exams. Please notify the MPA Chair that you plan to take your exams at least two weeks before the exam date. Comprehensive exams must be word processed. Students should be aware that computer or disk problems may result in a student having to retake a portion or their entire exam.

The exam is closed book. The emphasis of the exam is on the application of skills and knowledge learned in the program to practical issues of management and policy in the public and nonprofit sectors. Material from the core courses is stressed most heavily. While specialization/concentration areas are not explicitly examined, some questions call upon the student to draw upon that portion of their study. In each of the two parts of the exam students are given choices of which questions to answer.

Exams are graded by a rotating committee of two faculty members. Results of the exam are usually reported within two weeks from the date they are administered. Please keep in mind that an additional week is sometimes necessary before results are available. The comprehensive exam is graded on a scale of pass or fail. Exams will be graded using the Comprehensive Exam Rubric for Morning Session and Afternoon Session. The required score to pass is 120 points or 75% of the total maximum points. Students do not receive written evaluations of the exams, but those who fail are asked to contact the MPA Committee Chair for feedback.

The School of Public Administration allows students to take comprehensive exams twice. If they should fail for a second time, they are terminated from the program. Students failing the comprehensive examination the first time have the option to apply to develop and submit a Capstone Project proposal (PA 8990) in lieu of taking the comprehensive exam again.

Prepare your own study guide

  • Review old tests and papers; review textbooks used in classes; be aware of key issues and authors in the field
  • Study over an extended period of time (25-40 hours)
  • Consider creating or joining an exam study group
  • Do some timed writing in a practice situation
  • Read each question in its entirety; then develop an outline of your answer.
  • Have an introductory paragraph that provides an overview of your argument.
  • Have a concluding paragraph that summarizes your argument with conclusions.
  • Provide a clear explanation of theories relevant to the exam question.
  • Do not give generic answers

More Advice on Comprehensive Exam Success

Dr. John Swain, a former UNO Public Administration faculty member, left us with this advice for students:

  1. Have a positive attitude: you have prepared by taking the courses, the faculty is not out to get you or anyone else, and the odds are in your favor (many more people pass than fail).
  2. Study at a broad overview level rather than tiny details: the questions are broad with more than one reasonable mode of answering, the details tend to stick to the broader conceptions, and a broad overview helps in synthesizing the material. This does not mean you should neglect detail in your exam answers. Details can add much to your answers by showing a real grasp of the material when integrated with more general explanations.
  3. Read the instructions and questions carefully: the greatest cause of failure is misreading either instructions or questions, not answering required questions, and not addressing the question asked does not help.
  4. Use the time available to the maximum: the task in comprehensive examination essays is to convince the readers the faculty that the student knows enough well enough to be granted the MPA degree. Do not give just a “long enough” answer from your perspective. Remember that faculty members grade the exam, and the more you show them, the better your chances of passing the examination.
  5. Do not try to write a better essay than you can: the quality of work that got you to the comprehensive examinations should get you through them. Do not pressure yourself to expect to perform at some phenomenally new level; you are already capable of performing at a sufficiently high level.
  6. Study for the exams over an extended period: one or two long sessions may not really be much help, while five to ten over a three to four week period may be better.
  7. Study core course materials: the examination is mainly over the core courses, so that is where you should largely focus your efforts.
  8. Use a classical essay approach: introduction with a thesis statement, an organized main body, and a conclusion that gives your final view on the thesis statement.
  9. If your life is falling apart, do not take the examination at that time. Too many people have subsequently failed.
  10. Look around: you are among pretty good company as far as student groups go, good students usually pass comprehensive examinations, and some students who you might not be impressed with are also likely to pass the examinations. Rather than looking at yourself negatively, see your positive attributes and positive chance at passing the examination.
  11. If you can provide a substantive response to the questions asked and if the reader can tell from your answer that you gained knowledge directly from the core courses, you should have no trouble passing the exam.

To Summarize—Dos and Don’ts


  • Study in groups.
  • Answer each part of the question.
  • Review your books, lecture notes, assignments, and other class material.
  • Read recent copies of major public administration journals and practitioner-oriented magazines to identify broad themes relevant to this area of study.
  • Be ready to cite relevant literature. This does not need to be exhaustive, but you should know major works in the field.
  • Apply relevant concepts from your course work to the question.
  • Write in a classic essay format.
  • Pick the questions you think you will do best on.
  • Use the sample exam questions for practice and to guide your studying.
  • Get a good night's sleep and have a good breakfast just like your Mom told you.


  • Panic.
  • Take the exam if you are not mentally prepared.
  • Procrastinate in studying for the exam.
  • Start writing before you have an outline and a theme for each answer.
  • Give an answer that any reasonably well-informed citizen might give. Deliberately use what you have learned in the program to answer the question.
  • Give a “pat” answer no matter what the question is.
  • Be afraid of controversy; you are better served taking a strong point of view and then defending it carefully than giving a bland answer that you think the faculty wants to hear.
  • Forget to proofread.
  • Leave early.