Free-Standing Master of Arts



  • Registration: 2 Residence Units

  • Advising: 2 meetings per semester between student and assigned adviser

  • Coursework: 8 graded graduate-level courses (30 points), with grades of B or higher, and which must include:

    • Fall: MA Seminar (GR5001x)

    • Spring: M.A. Thesis Tutorial (GR5005y)

    • At least one 6000-level seminar or equivalent (may include seminars taken outside ENCL, as well as independent studies and 4000-level classes taken for seminar credit)

  • Over the course of the degree program, Freestanding MA students must take at least one course in two of the following categories:
    • One course in literatures and cultures pre-1500
    • One course in literatures and cultures from 1500-1800
    • One course in literatures and cultures since 1800
  • In addition, one of the required 8 graded courses must have a Comparative Literature designation such as CLEN, CPLS, CLFR, CLHI, etc.
  • To graduate, Freestanding MA students must prove Certification of Proficiency in a Second Language
  • To graduate, Freestanding MA students must receive a positive Spring Semester Evaluation by the Committee on Graduate Education
  • Please note: the requirement of a minimum of 8 classes and 30 points of credit is a state mandate and cannot be relaxed by the Department or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).

There are two tracks through the M.A. program at Columbia: sequential and free-standing. Sequential students are admitted as potential candidates for the M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees. Free-standing students are admitted as candidates for the M.A. degree only.

This webpage is for free-standing M.A. students. Click here for a guide to the sequential M.A. program.

Free-Standing M.A. students who wish to apply to the M.Phil.-Ph.D. program may file a new application through GSAS Admissions. Acceptance is not guaranteed; indeed, it is the rare exception.

The Department of English and Comparative Literature follows the Graduate School of Arts and Science's policy on transfer credit. Please note, however, that consistent with rules on departmental autonomy, the Department does not offer advanced standing toward the M.A. degree.

Free-standing M.A. students must register each semester for a Residence Unit (RU) consistent with their full- or part-time status. Free-standing M.A. students may register for a full, half, or quarter RU. See the GSAS website for a guide to registration categories including full and part-time registration.

The primary adviser for practical questions concerning coursework and degree requirements is the Associate Director of Graduate Studies (ADGS).

In addition, during the first week of the fall semester, all M.A. students are assigned a faculty adviser. Every attempt is given to match students with advisers from their own fields, though sometimes faculty with research leaves or administrative duties make this impossible.

Advisers and advisees should meet in person twice per semester, once during the registration period and again before classes end. The first meeting will focus on course selection, while the second meeting gives the advisee a chance to say how things are going generally, to discuss any specific issues or problems, and to begin to think ahead to the next term.

Advisers have a responsibility to schedule meetings promptly and to respond to student inquiries made via email within a week, even during breaks. It is, however, the advisee's responsibility to communicate with the adviser and to initiate meetings. Advisers in turn are expected to make it a priority to find time to meet when asked, during office hours when mutually convenient, or otherwise at another time. At least twenty minutes should be allocated for each of the two required meetings each semester. Both advisers and advisees should not hesitate to be in touch with the ADGS, Department Administrator, or Graduate Studies Coordinator whenever questions arise that the adviser cannot answer, or when an issue arises that should be brought to the attention of those who are overseeing the graduate program.

M.A. Seminar (ENGL GR5001)

This 4-point seminar serves as an introduction to graduate work in literary studies. Generally, it has a broad focus on theory and method rather than on a single author or specific strand of theory. This class is available only in the fall term. Currently, two sections are offered, and students are assigned to each section by the ADGS, consistent with their interests, class schedule, and the balance of students between sections. If you wish to change sections or request a particular section, send an email to the Associate DGS.

M.A. Essay Tutorial (ENGL GR5005)

This class is a 4-point independent study designed to give the students time to research and write the M.A. Essay. Although the ADGS is the instructor of record for the M.A. essay tutorial, your grade in this class will be assigned by the faculty sponsor under whose direction you write the M.A. Essay. Sequential M.A. students must take the M.A. Essay Tutorial in the spring semester.

The Department offers three types of graduate classes:

4000-level Lectures (3 points)

These twice-weekly courses serve as introductions to the literature of a particular period (Medieval, Victorian, etc.) or literary movement (modernism, psychoanalysis, etc.). 4000-level lectures are offered to both graduate students and upper-year undergraduate students. Professors may not require graduate students to write long research papers for 4000-level lectures.

5000 and 4000-level seminars (4 points)

4000-level designation is used for both graduate students and upper-year undergraduate students.

5000-level designation is used only for required classes for first year students: the M.A. Seminar and M.A. Thesis Tutorial.

6000-level seminars (4 points)

Once-weekly seminar classes open only to graduate students and involving intensive explorations of special topics, specific authors, or distinct time periods. The reading load for 6000-seminars is demanding; in addition, students are generally expected to do some writing during the semester and to produce a long research paper (typically 20-25 pages) at the end of the course. Students are never advised to take more than three 6000-level seminars in any given term.

In English and Comparative Literature, all graduate seminars (5000- and 6000-level) are worth 4 points of credit and all 4000-level lectures are worth 3 points.

However, some Columbia departments and programs apply different point values to their classes—e.g., 4 points for a lecture or 3 points for a seminar. Be sure to check that your course of study will add up to 30 points over two semesters and will not exceed 18 points in any one semester.

Lectures for Seminar Credit

If desired, a 4000-level course can be taken for seminar credit, with the permission of the instructor and ADGS. The student and instructor should agree on the writing of a seminar-style research paper, or its equivalent. The instructor should e-mail the ADGS and GraduateStudies Coordinator to signal agreement to this plan. The Graduate Studies Coordinator will then coordinate the student’s registration.

Seminars for Lecture Credit

Conversely, with the permission of the instructor and ADGS, a student can take a 6000-level seminar for lecture-course credit. Under such an arrangement, the student will do the reading and participate in discussion, but complete fewer demanding writing requirements. The instructor should e-mail the ADGS and Graduate Studies Coordinator to signal agreement to this plan. The Graduate Studies Coordinator will then coordinate the student’s registration.

Courses in Other Departments

Students may take relevant courses in other departments, but these courses must be approved by the ADGS if they are to count toward the degree. Students must submit a brief rationale, the course name, instructor, course description, and syllabus.

Courses through the Intra-University Doctoral Consortium (IUDC)

IUDC courses at universities such as NYU and Princeton are not open to M.A. students. On rare occasions—e.g., when faculty in a key research area are all on leave—M.A. students may petition to take an IUDC class. In this event, permission must be granted by the ADGS and by the Dean of Academic Affairs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to the general requirements and required classes, students in the Freestanding MA Program must complete at least one course in two of the following categories:

  • literatures and cultures pre-1500
  • literatures and cultures from 1500-1800 
  • literatures and cultures since 1800

If you do not know what period your class falls in, please ask your instructor. The test used for requirements is whether the preponderance of assigned reading comes from the period in question – e.g., you cannot satisfy the pre-1500 requirement by writing an essay about Plato in a class on 20th-century fiction.

The most extended piece of written work required of M.A. students is the M.A. Essay, which develops an extended argument over 25-30 pages. Sometimes, the M.A. essay is expanded from a seminar paper written in the fall semester.

Although the ADGS administers the M.A. Essay program, students work primarily with a faculty sponsor who has knowledge of the essay topic. The sponsor assigns the student’s grade for the M.A. Thesis Tutorial, though the final essay is also evaluated by a second reader. (A third reader is added if there is a substantial divergence between the evaluations given by the sponsor and second reader.)

The M.A. Essay Program has the following requirements:

  • Attendance at the fall semester M.A. essay workshop led by the DGS or ADGS

  • Securing a faculty sponsor before the late January deadline set by the ADGS

  • Regular advising meetings with sponsor, to a schedule satisfactory to the student and sponsor 

  • Submission (with sponsor’s approval) of an M.A. essay proposal by the March deadline set by the ADGS

  • Submission (to sponsor’s satisfaction) of a 20 page essay draft by an April deadline set by the ADGS

  • Submission of a final essay draft by early an May or late August deadline set by the ADGS, depending on the student's preferences

Final deadlines for each year's M.A. essay program will be distributed by the DGS or ADGS each fall. Failure to complete any of these requirements will affect a student’s grade for the M.A. Thesis Tutorial, up to and including receiving an “F” for this required course, with the result that the student will not receive the MA degree. 

For more information on the M.A. Essay, please refer to Forms and Resources.

By the end of the M.A. program, each student must demonstrate a solid reading ability in a language other than English. We accept in our program any languages that students can show will be relevant for their scholarly work—e.g., languages in which much theoretical and scholarly discussion is carried on (French, German, Spanish, Chinese), classical languages that English-language writers often cite (Greek, Hebrew, Latin), the other literary languages of the British Isles (Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic), and languages of major colonial and post-colonial populations closely engaged with England (Arabic, Hindi, Zulu). This list is not exhaustive. Any language may be offered, so long as it bears a clear relevance to the candidate's prospective work.

Students may not use proficiency in machine languages (e.g., Python, C++) to satisfy the M.A. language requirement.

Students arrange the completion of the language requirement with the Graduate Studies Coordinator, who can refer them to the ADGS in any cases of uncertainty as to whether a language is appropriate. Our standard for reading ability is the ability to accurately translate a page of literary or critical prose in two hours, using a dictionary.

This standard is measured using one of three methods. Please note that, with the exception of foreign-language graduate courses (4000-level and above) that are taken for a grade of B+ or above, none of the following classes can be counted towards degree credit.

Language Exams

Several of the language departments offer periodic "proficiency exams" throughout the year, including within the first 2-3 weeks of the fall term. Consult with the Graduate Studies Coordinator regarding the dates of exams. If the language you wish to be examined in is not one offered on a regular basis, you should consult the individual department directly or contact the ADGS to inquire about other means of assessment.

Intermediate Undergraduate Language Classes

The language requirement can be fulfilled with a grade of B+ or better in an intermediate undergraduate language class designated as proficiency level (for example intermediate French II, but not intermediate French I). A grade of B+ or better in a graduate class whose language of instruction is in the language in question; in both cases the language class must be taken during the student's enrollment in the Columbia graduate program—i.e., the language requirement cannot be met through transfer credit. Before enrolling for the course, contact the Graduate Studies Coordinator for written permission that it will satisfy the language requirement.

"Rapid Reading and Translation" Courses

Rapid Reading and Translation Courses (e.g. Spanish 1113, Italian 1204, French 1206) are designed to give students proficiency suitable for graduate study. In some cases, these classes offer final exams that are identical to the relevant language proficiency exam.  If the department offers this kind of final in Rapid Reading courses, and notifies our Graduate Studies Coordinator of the mark of Pass on the exam, the Rapid Reading final exam will satisfy the M.A. language proficiency requirement.

Written Work

With the exception of the M.A. essay which may be developed from a paper originally written for course credit, no written work in the M.A. program may be submitted more than once for credit. Students are responsible for avoiding plagiarism and following the letter and spirit of the Graduate School's guidelines on academic integrity.

Letter Grades

Students and faculty should consider that both the A and the A- are truly positive grades. Grades of A- do not indicate a lack of satisfactory progress, but simply register good work that can be taken a step further in future.

Grades of B+ signal work that raises concerns, and in the case of a sequential M.A. student, a pattern of B+ grades would indicate someone who shouldn't go on in the program. The rare grade of B signals an active recommendation that a student is not suitable for further graduate study. The grade of B is the minimum grade for counting a course toward degree requirements and is used only for work that is barely satisfactory.

Pass / Fail Grades

Courses taken as Pass / Fail, i.e. non-lettered grades, do not count toward the M.A. or MPhil degrees.

R credit and Auditing

Audited courses and courses taken for ungraded 'R credit' do not count toward the M.A. or MPhil degrees.

Incomplete Grades

The Department’s policy on incompletes (INC) is stricter than that which applies to the GSAS students generally. The following rules apply:

  • M.A. students are not generally allowed to take incompletes.

  • The exception to that rule: when a student registered for the MA Essay Tutorial is granted permission by the ADGS to submit their MA Essay by the optional late August deadline.

  • In exceptional circumstances (e.g., serious illness, family emergency) M.A. students may request permission to take an incomplete. Permission must be given by the ADGS and the instructor of the course in question.

  • For incompletes taken in the fall semester, all work must be submitted by the first day of the spring semester.

  • For incompletes taken in the spring, all work must be submitted by June 30, except when a student registered for the MA Essay Tutorial is granted permission by the ADGS to submit their MA Essay by the optional late August deadline .

  • Students who take incompletes in the spring cannot take their M.A. degree until the October graduation ceremony.

These regulations take precedence over the common GSAS regulations.

End-of-the-Year Evaluation

Each spring the faculty members of the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) meet to evaluate the work of freestanding M.A. students and to certify them for graduation. This meeting takes place around May 10; all work must be completed in time for faculty to submit students’ grades by then. Free-standing M.A. students must also make sure to complete the language requirement by this date.