Comprehensive Examination

Like the Thesis and Capstone Project options, the Comprehensive Examination is the student's opportunity to demonstrate his or her understanding of the history of the United States, the ideas underlying its government, and how each effected the other. Unlike the Thesis and Capstone Project, in which the student devles deeply into a narrow aspect of history, the exam demands mastery of a broader range of events and ideas.

About the Exam

The exam is composed of five extended essay questions.  Students may then select three questions to which they will respond. Each question requires the student to think critically about people, events, political philosophies, social movements, and economic trends across American history.  Most questions refer to original documents, which may include speeches, laws, newspapers, editorials, and court decisions, among other possibilities.

Students are expected to show understanding of the topic addressed in the question; in doing so, students should also demonstrate a sophisticated analysis of both the documents provided and other sources which the student may have studied in the program. Responses should show the student's ability to think broadly and clearly about major themes in American history and government, make connections and note distinctions among important arguments and issues.

Taking the Exam

The exam may be taken once the student has completed all core and elective requirements, a total of 32 semester credit hours. The exam may be taken concurrently with the student's final course if that course is already in progress at the time the exam period begins. In no case may the exam be taken prior to the semester in which all other requirements will be complete.

The exam is offered once per semester, generally about six weeks prior to graduation. The questions are released to the student on a Friday afternoon. The student has three weekends to draft responses. Responses must be submitted by the third Monday at noon Eastern time. Exam dates for upcoming semesters may be found on the schedule webpage.

The exam may be completed from home and it is not necessary to travel to campus. There is no charge to take the exam.

Students who wish to take the exam should register to do so early in the semester during which they wish to graduate. The student will be provided with that semester's exam dates and will be provided with general expectations. The student will also be informed of where he or she may download the exam and also how the exam will be submitted. Students should also register for graduation with the university's registrar at this time.

Each student will also be assigned a member of the program faculty who will serve as his or her exam advisor. The exam advisor is available to address concerns about the exam questions, strategies for responding to the questions, advice on proper citation and avoiding plagiarism, or other curricular concerns. The exam advisor will not proofread draft responses nor will the advisor provide detailed feedback about the quality of your writing or argument. Questions related to registration, graduation, and exam submission should be referred to the program director.

Exams are graded on a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory basis.  In the event that the student's exam is judged to be Unsatisfactory, the student may retake the exam at the next regularly scheduled administration. In the event that the student does not receive a grade of Satisfactory after the second time, the student may face dismissal from the program.

Faculty Spotlight


Professor Mackubin T. Owens is Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College. From 1999 until 2010, he was also Associate Dean of Academics for Electives and Directed Research. He is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. He specializes in the planning of US strategy and forces, especially naval and power projection forces; the political economy of national security; national security organization; strategic geography; energy security; and American civil-military relations. In addition to the core Naval War College course, he has taught electives on The American Founding, Strategy and Policy of the American Civil War, The Statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, Sea Power and Maritime Strategy, Strategy and Geography, and US Civil-Military Relations.

Dr. Owens is a contributing editor to National Review Online and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, writing primarily on security affairs. His articles have appeared in International Security, Orbis, Armed Forces Journal, Joint Force Quarterly, The Public Interest, The Weekly Standard, Defence Analysis, US Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval War College Review, Marine Corps Gazette, Comparative Strategy, National Review, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, the Jerusalem Post, St. Louis Lawyer, The Washington Times, The Claremont Review of Books, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Post and New York Daily News. He is co-editor of the textbook, Strategy and Force Planning, now in its fourth edition, for which he also wrote the chapters entitled "The Political Economy of National Security," "Thinking About Strategy," and “Strategy and the Logic of Force Planning.” His book, US Civil-Military Bargain after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Millitary Bargain was published in January 2011 by Continuum. He is also completing a book for the University Press of Kentucky tentatively titled Sword of Republican Empire: A History of US Civil-Military Relations.

Before joining the faculty of the War College, Dr. Owens served as National Security Adviser to Senator Bob Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Nuclear Weapons Programs of the Department of Energy during the Reagan administration. Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1994.