MFA Exam

The MFA Exam, Rationale, & Reading List Explained:

The MFA exam is an important benchmark in the poetry program. Students are expected to sit for the exam in the summer between their second and third year of study. For poetry students, sitting for the exam is the chance to develop ideas and demonstrate knowledge of the genre after much preparation and consideration, and before taking on thesis studies.

Preparation begins with a drafted and submitted reading list and rationale.


An MFA reading list is a compilation of 20 poets' names created in preparation for the MFA exam (usually taken the summer after completion of the second year of study) and presented for approval, along with a rationale, prior to sitting for the MFA exam. Students are encouraged to begin compiling their reading lists early. In this way lists help shape student's reading and coursework even in the first year of study. Faculty are happy to advise students as they draft lists, even before committees are assigned.

Please note: Students must submit reading lists and rationales prior to registering for their first three hours of thesis (ENGL 799).


  • An MFA reading list should consist of 20 poets.
  • At least 10 of the poets on the list must be writers we are willing to consider "major" in the context of the exam. A "major" poet is defined as a writer who has a significant body of work and about whom there is a substantial body of secondary literature.
    • The categories "major" and "minor" are necessarily ambiguous. There can be no doubt that Sappho, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Yeats, Rilke, Williams, H.D., Moore, and Eliot are "major" by our definition. Amy Lowell, on the other hand, was certainly influential among her contemporaries but does not, today, appear to have a great deal of "enduring interest." In 1750 or 1850, John Donne was considered a poet of limited interest and of little influence beyond his time; by 1950 he was a poet of "enduring interest and demonstrated influence" about whom there was immense secondary literature.
    • Your list will, or course, reflect your own tastes and contain poets who have been important to you as a writer. But the importance of the poet to you is not relevant to the major/minor criteria.
  • One good way to compose your list is to begin with the poets you would like to include and then do a little research in standard library references such as Contemporary Authors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, and Contemporary Literary Criticism. Who were the important influences on those poets? And who were the poets they rejected? For example; if you begin with William Carlos Williams, you will find that John Keats was an important early influence. You will certainly want to include Walt Whitman, and you will need to learn about the Symbolists, Imagists, and Objectivists. You will find that William Carlos Williams had important connections to Spanish poetry. Among Williams' fellow-travelers you will find H.D., Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore; among the poets he couldn't abide, T.S. Eliot and the poets of the New Criticism; among the poets he influenced, Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg.
  • With rare exceptions, all poets on the list must have published at least two books.
  • Should students include poets in translation, those students are expected to have considered multiple translations (where available) and/or to have made some effort to appreciate the poetry in its original language. Students are urged to include no more than four writers in translation. Students whose lists are weighted heavily toward work in translation should be prepared for exam questions about the art of translation and the difference among translations of a given poet.
  • At least five poets on the list must have written their work before the Twentieth Century. At least two poets must have written their work before the Nineteenth Century, meaning poets who died prior to 1800 or who wrote all of their poems before 1800.
  • Poets on the list may not be current Mason faculty.
  • Lists are expected to include both men and women and to reflect aesthetic diversity; other kinds of diversity are also encouraged.


  • Lists should be attached to a completed cover sheet
  • Poets on the list should be grouped in two columns: major and minor
  • Within each column (major and minor), poets would be listed by full name and in chronological order, with birth and death dates after each name.
  • A rationale should be attached to the list.


A rationale is a 250-500-word paper discussing the reasons for the selected names on the list and the various lines of influence and affiliation among the poets on the list. Every poet on the list need not fit into a seamless scheme. Several lines of interest, as well as affiliation and influence, will form a typical reading list. In many cases, a couple of names will not fit into a scheme at all. Rationales are required and must be submitted with reading lists for approval.


Lists and rationales should be submitted for approval any time after the completion of 12 credit hours of coursework in the MFA program. More typically, lists are submitted shortly after thesis director assignments are made, usually in the spring of the second year of study. Lists must be submitted for approval before completion of 36 credit hours.


One of the traditional components of a terminal degree is the comprehensive exam in which students demonstrate master of the literature in the field. The MFA exam is meant to showcase MFA poetry candidates' command of their genre and motivate fresh ideas and critiques of long discussed works of poetry. It is an opportunity for MFA poetry candidates to demonstrate what they know. The faculty hope that students will take pleasure in the kinds of synthesis and writing the exam invites. They hope it will be (as Wallace Stevens says in "of Modern Poetry") the finding of satisfaction.


The MFA exam is a four-hour written exam. Each exam is written based on a student's MFA reading list. The exam itself has three sections, with a choice of questions in each. Students are asked to write on one question in each section.

It is important to note that "major" poets from a student's list are not necessarily emphasized on the exam. That is, the faculty do not have a policy of asking more questions about "majors" or of giving such questions more weight. The faculty are interested in the whole list and the whole exam, the list as a whole and the exam as a whole. That said, the faculty make every effort to write the exam so that a student will have an opportunity to respond using any of the poets on his/her list.

Most questions on the exam allow a student to choose the works he/she will discuss. That is, most will not require a student to write about specific poems. There are of course exceptions to this rule.

Students cannot base answers to multiple questions on the same poet.

In taking the exam, it is important that students pace themselves. The most common cause of failure is failure to finish, or producing a third answer that is too short and slight to be acceptable. Students need to answer the questions asked and not just offer everything they can remember about the poet or poem about which they are writing.

If a student fails the exam, he/she may schedule a second attempt at the exam for the following semester. A second failure means no degree.

The exams are graded pass or fail. On rare occasions, a mark of "high pass" will be recorded. Thesis directors will let students know when they have passed the exam. The normal grading period can last anywhere from a week to the length if the summer break.

Please note: Students may not register for their final three credit hours of thesis until they have passed their MFA exam.


After MFA reading lists have been approved, students are expected to begin MFA exam preparation.

By the time of their MFA exam, students are expected to have read "all" of the work by the poets on their lists. That means all the poetry as well as significant or representative work in other genres (such as fiction, drama, autobiography, literary criticism, etc.) Students should read criticism of the poets on their lists, and where available, biography.

Students have access to a master list of questions from past MFA exams. Students are encouraged to read the master list. Most exams consist of questions from this master list and some new questions, although each exam is different and is composed by the MFA candidate's thesis committee for the student. The master list simply introduces students to the kinds of questions they may encounter and the kinds of thinking and writing that may be called for.

Students may opt to take practice exams based on questions from the master list. Students may give themselves an hour per question on the practice exam.

All students are encouraged to take Poetry Planet (ENGH 684) to read for the exam. Students are also encouraged to form informal study groups.

The best exams have been created for students who compiled detailed study notebooks on the poets on their lists. Students should be precise in their note taking, giving full citation for books and journal articles and reviews, and careful in distinguishing their ideas from those of the critics and poets they are reading. These notebooks will be useful to students in preparation for their exams and throughout their careers as they teach, read, and think about poetry.


MFA poetry students should take their exam the summer after their second year. Students must have formed their thesis committees of three professors by March 1 and must schedule their exams with the program manager by April 1.

Students can take their exams in May, June, July, or August so long as their committees agree to the date and an exam can be ready by the planned date. In rare cases, students take their exams toward the end of the fall semester. This is not ideal and only allowed in rare cases.

Students may begin their exams anytime between 9am and 1pm. When students contact the graduate programs manager they should have a date and time in mind to schedule. In most cases, proposed dates and time will be confirmed and honored, assuming there is staff in the office to proctor the exam. Exam dates can be rescheduled, but last minute rescheduling is discouraged.


Students are allowed to bring an anthology of poetry with them to the exam. For more information on the anthology, read the poetry anthology guidelines.