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Graduate Program

Comprehensive Examinations

All non-thesis students must pass a comprehensive examination. The exam consists of three questions, written by professors from previous core seminars.

A. The comprehensive examination should be scheduled by the Chair of the Graduate Program during the term (Fall, Spring, Summer) of the first semester after the student has taken his or her final core graduate seminar.

B. The Chair of the Graduate Program shall set the administration date of the exams each year and announce those dates in advance. The examination shall be administered from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The student is responsible for determining the timing and duration of breaks.

C. A comprehensive exam is composed of three questions. The student should choose before the exam from which of the four core seminars the three questions should come from: American politics, global politics, political theory or foreign and security policies. A student who fails one or more of the three field questions may repeat the failed field exam question(s) at the next, regularly scheduled examination date (or at a later scheduled examination date). The outcome of the repeat examination is final.

D. The comprehensive is an “open-book” examination. Students may elect to take their examinations with pen and paper or using approved computer facilities.

E. Graders of the comprehensive exam questions should rate each answer on the following scale: High pass, pass, low pass, or no pass.

Comprehensive exams are typically administered in the political science department conference room, on a laptop computer provided by the department.

For on-line students, we will attempt to find a facility close to the student where the exam can be proctored.


We recommend that before you take the comprehensive exam, you consider how long ago you took the three seminars you will be tested on. If any of the courses were more than two years ago, we recommend you consult with the professor about the expectations for the exam.

    - Consult with students who have passed the exam

    - Review course materials, tests and papers; review textbooks used in classes; be aware of key issues and authors in the field

    - Study over an extended timeframe (20-40 hours)

    - Consider creating or joining an exam study group

    - Do some timed writing in a practice situation

While taking the exam:

    - 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

Consider this advice we adapted from the UNO Masters Degree of Public Administration webpage:

  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 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. 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.

  8. If your life is falling apart, do not take the examination at that time. Too many people have subsequently failed.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.
  • 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 core seminars to answer questions from that you think you will do best on.
  • 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.

Political Science MS Comprehensive Exam Dates:

Spring, 2012: Monday, April 9
Summer, 2012: Monday, July 30
Fall, 2012: Monday, November 12

Spring, 2013: Monday, April 8
Summer, 2013: Monday, July 29
Fall, 2013: Monday, November 11

Spring, 2014: Monday, April 7
Summer, 2014: Monday, July 28
Fall, 2014: Monday, November 10