Comprehensive Exam Guidelines

MA in Criminology students may choose to complete a comprehensive exam in place of a master’s thesis. Criminology students who wish to complete an exam instead of the thesis take two elective courses in place of the Thesis Research courses.


Content and Format

Exam Questions

  • Exam material covers topics in required coursework — typically criminology courses, not forensics.
  • Questions are designed to test students’ knowledge of criminological theory, empirical studies and/or criminal law.
  • Advisors will coordinate the exam by soliciting faculty to write and read questions. Advisors will also determine when the exam will be taken.
  • A faculty member will write one question and will also evaluate the student’s response to that question. A second faculty member will read and evaluate the same question. The second faculty member will also write a second question, and will evaluate that question along with a third faculty member. The student’s current advisor may serve as one of these three faculty members.
  • No faculty member will be asked to write more than one question per exam, unless a question needs to be retaken by the student.


  • The comprehensive exam is a written, take-home exam consisting of two essay questions.
  • Responses should be typed, double-spaced, in 11- or 12-point font.
  • Final exams must be no longer than 40 pages, excluding references.



  • Students are responsible for contacting their advisor early in their final semester to initiate the exam process.
  • Students must complete the exam during their final semester, no later than the 11th week of classes.
  • Exams must be taken during the fall or spring semesters. Exam administration during the summer is permitted only under unusual circumstances.
  • Students receive exam questions at noon on a Thursday and must return their responses by noon the following Monday.



Grades for each question are High Pass, Pass, Conditional Pass or Fail.

  • In order to receive a High Pass on the entire exam, the student must receive a High Pass on both questions.
  • Students who receive a Conditional Pass on any question will be required to revise their answer in response to the readers’ criticisms. If they successfully revise the problematic answer, they may receive a grade of High Pass or Pass on that question. If they receive a Fail on the revised answer, they will be required to answer a new, substitute question.
  • Students who receive, on any question, a grade of Fail will be required to answer a new, substitute question. Students who retake a question must do so by the last week of classes in their final semester.
  • If a student fails a question on the second attempt, the student fails the exam and is terminated from the program.


Exam Evaluation for Program Accreditation

In order to comply with requirements from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the GW Sociology Department must also complete an accreditation evaluation of every comprehensive exam taken by our MA in Criminology students. The evaluation is separate from our internal grading system, and serves as one way of determining whether the learning outcomes for our graduate program have been met. The results guide our strategies for improvement.

Evaluation scores are not intended to be shared with students. These data are collected so that we may evaluate the department’s strengths and weaknesses, not the individual student’s. However, students are welcome to inquire into how well their work has met departmental objectives after taking the exam.

Learning Outcomes to Be Analyzed
  1. Students demonstrate a sociological and criminological knowledge of and analytical skills in the area of criminology.
  2. Students are able to explain the process of sociological and criminological research; critically consume research-based information; and collect, code and analyze sociological and criminological data using qualitative and quantitative research methods.
  3. Students are able to articulate sociological and criminological theories, evaluate the limitations and strengths of a variety of theoretical approaches and apply theories to the analysis of social life.
Exam Evaluation Rubric

Each student’s exam will be evaluated in five main areas. Each area is assigned a score of 1–5, for a maximum total score of 25 points.

  • Knowledge of appropriate theoretical perspectives
  • Ability to critically analyze key theoretical/conceptual perspectives
  • Understanding of, and comprehensiveness of response to, the specific issues raised in the exam
  • Capacity to critically address criminological issues using appropriate social science tools

Quality of writing and use of citation style that conforms to discipline conventions.