The Master's Essay


Writing and Formatting         

Review and Evaluation         

Last Steps         



The capstone of the Master of Arts in English degree is the master's essay course. Rather than a thesis or dissertation, the essay provides an opportunity for lengthy reflection about selected works or authors. The purpose is to give students a final opportunity to develop an area of expertise while they refine their writing, revising, and editing skills. The essay, presented to a review committee of a faculty advisor and two additional faculty readers, should demonstrate a high level of cogency and stylistic grace. The Master’s Essay (GENG 699) is its own course with its own unique registration and counts for 3 credits toward the Master of Arts in English degree.

Choosing a Topic

The Master’s Essay is designed to refine your skill in substantially re-thinking and re-envisioning a previously considered idea.  Ideally, the topic should evolve from a paper already written for a graduate course, although it need not be the final or major paper for the course.  Revision is an important part of the writing process; the best essays inevitably result from getting started early, allowing time for this important revision step.

Choosing an Advisor

Once you have determined your topic, you should approach a faculty member whom you would like to have as your advisor for the project.  Students should seek an advisor one full semester before they plan to write.  The advisor must have expertise in the subject and should ideally be someone who has taught you in a graduate course.  When a faculty member agrees to supervise your essay, you will establish together how often to meet and when drafts of your work will be completed for review.  The essay advisor will read the primary text(s), recommend secondary materials, and offer feedback and guidance during the writing and revision process.

Choosing Readers

In consultation with your advisor, choose a secondary reader--a person generally familiar with the subject area of the essay.  A third reader may be another UST faculty member or an academic from outside the UST community. This third reader should be someone from an outside expertise. These readers, together with your advisor, form the Review Committee that will read the essay and participate in your review conversation upon completion of the project.


Once an advisor and readers are confirmed, a Masters Essay Proposal should be completed with a 500-word description of the proposed essay, discussing the nature of the research, goals of the study, and a bibliography of the texts to be read, including at least ten annotated references. The proposal should be signed by the advisor and submitted to the Graduate English Coordinator according to the timeline.

The Annotated Bibliography

At least ten of the bibliographical references submitted with the proposal should be annotated. An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to books, articles, and documents followed by a brief descriptive and evaluative paragraph. Additional information about the annotated bibliography can be found on the Cornell University Olin & Uris Libraries website. A sample Annotated Bibliography is available here and will be distributed at the information session.

Timeline & Registration

The Master's Essay has its own timeline for registration and completion. Refer to the appropriate timeline for details: Spring 2020, Summer 2020, Fall 2020. A required information session is the first item on the timeline and is scheduled well in advance of the start of the writing semester to allow time to complete the annotated bibliography.

The next step is to advise the Graduate Program Director of your intent to write your essay for the designated semester.  This should be done one semester prior to the writing semester.  Students will be provisionally enrolled by the Coordinator, and then confirmed once the proposal has been approved by both the advisor and the Graduate Program Director.  

Writing and Formatting

Writing the Essay

Working closely with your advisor, rethink and reshape your original paper, adding to or extending your ideas into new areas, deleting or altering material in order to reflect the depth of your current research.  In short, while your Master’s Essay evolves from the “germ” of your original class paper, it should ultimately be a substantial revision of that paper, creating a new entity.  Revisions are a natural part of the writing process--you should expect to take your paper through several drafts before completing the final version.  The finished essay should be approximately 20-25 pages, double-spaced, including notes and bibliography. You may use either current MLA or current Chicago documentation style.

The Abstract

In addition to your essay, a descriptive abstract of your paper should be written for use as part of the library's indexing and archiving of your Master's Essay. It is one paragraph of about 100-150 words that introduces your readers to your topic and provides a brief summary of your major thesis and its supporting points. The abstract should be included in your final copy. Colorado State University offers helpful information about abstracts on its writing website. A ‌ is available here and will be distributed at the information session.

Formatting the Master's Essay

The following guidelines are designed to give students an easy reference for preparing the Master’s Essay and to ensure that each manuscript meets library standards for description and archival standards for permanence.  Your final submitted copy should meet the following requirements:

Page Order

The pages of the manuscript should be assembled in the following order:

Title Page (no page number appears on this page)     
Acknowledgement page (optional)     
Abstract (100-150 words or three paragraph summary of manuscript)     
Body of the work     
Bibliography / References

Page Numbering

All pages which precede the body of the work are numbered with Roman numerals, beginning with the title page (although no number should appear on it).  Roman numerals on other pre-text pages are centered without punctuation 3/4 inch from the bottom of the page.  All other pages, including the bibliography are numbered continuously to the last page, with your last name preceding the page number (Smith 1) and placed one-half inch from the top of the page and flush with the right margin.  A sample of correct page numbering can be found on the Master's Essay First Pages document‌.

For step by step instructions on using different page number formats for different sections, visit this Office Support Website.

Title Page

The title page elements should be centered on the page left to right and top to bottom  Title can be either in case or in all capitals as the writer prefers.  If there is a subtitle, there should be a colon (:) after the primary title.  Avoid the use of symbols, formulas, superscripts, and subscripts as they hinder computerized searching.  The title page should be formatted as noted below.  See the Master's Essay First Pages document above for a sample title page.                                                          


Essay Title


Author's Full name

A master’s essay submitted to the faculty of the
Graduate Program in English in partial fulfillment 
of the requirements for the degree

Master of Arts in English

University of St. Thomas
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Month and Year (of graduation)


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Review and Evaluation

The Review Committee

Your advisor and readers together form the Review Committee.  When the essay is ready for review, the student is responsible to schedule the members for the review meeting.  Approximately ninety minutes in length, the essay review is an extensive discussion between you and your committee members about the essay, the revision process, and the essay’s relation to your curriculum and future interests or plans.  Once a date and time have been agreed upon, students can contact the Graduate Program Coordinator to arrange for a room.


As the culminating project for an advanced degree in English, the Master’s Essay is evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • Strength and development of a thesis statement
  • Careful synthesis and use of primary and secondary sources to refine the argument
  • Use of appropriate methodology or critical lens
  • Clear, logical, and effective organization of ideas
  • Smooth, efficient, graceful, error-free prose

In addition, a brief evaluation is made of the student's oral presentation of the work according to the following criteria:

  • History of the project and self reflection in introducing the topic
  • Personal reflection of the writing process
  • Exploring nuances of questions and providing detailed answers
  • Reflection on the possible contribution of the project to the discipline
  • Depth of knowledge in chosen field

A Review Results form is completed by the advisor following the approval of a final draft.  The signed form, along with the final electronic copy of the Master's Essay, must be submitted to the Graduate Program Coordinator before the degree is officially conferred.

Master’s Essay Presentations

At the end of each semester, students writing the Master’s Essay speak about their experiences during the writing process and detail their research and findings at a special event that is open to interested students and faculty, family, and friends.  These conference-like presentations both celebrate the writers of each Master's Essay and give current students the opportunity to pick up helpful insights as they look ahead to writing their own essays.

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Last Steps

Submit to the Department

Your final essay is due to the department by the final day of the academic term. That day can be found on the proper calendar on the University's Academic Calendar. The final day of the term is listed as the Undergraduate "Final Exams End" date.

Your final essay should be submitted in PDF format to the Graduate Program Coordinator, Soren Hoeger-Lerdal, at

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Talk to other students.  At the beginning of the process, get in touch with other students who are working on their essays.  The writing process can be slow, frustrating, and solitary!  Since writing the essay does not include the consistent interaction and discussion with others that a classroom setting provides, you may find it helpful to set up informal meetings with other writers.  Get together once a week, or every other week, and share your topics, methods of research, thesis development, troubles and roadblocks, breakthroughs, and discoveries.  Although your papers may differ widely in content, you may find new avenues in your writing by sharing your ideas out loud. It also helps to know that other writers have bad days, good days, setbacks, and leaps of progress – just like you!

Begin early.  Try to have your thesis nearly formulated by the 3rd week in the semester, but if you do find yourself behind schedule, DON’T PANIC!  Allow yourself a day, or even a week, away from the library or the computer.  Talk over your mind-blocks with your advisor and discuss your ideas to help pinpoint what you really want to write about. Don’t be afraid to ask your advisor, another faculty member, or a friend to hear you out!  Editorial comments on your drafts are helpful, but discussing your ideas in the abstract can also help to narrow and refine your pursuits. “Talking out” your ideas before you begin to write and at points along the way can help push your creative thinking into new areas.  A wild thought that you initially think is just free-association or a “literary stretch," if backed up confidently and effectively in your writing, can mean the difference between a good paper and an original paper.

Re-read and review.  In preparation for the Essay Review, re-read your own introduction.  Recall why you chose the subject you did--what was the first “spark of interest” that led you to your topic?  Be ready to state your thesis, intentions, and main arguments in a few sentences.  Be ready to talk about the process you went through in researching and writing your topic.  How does your subject relate to the courses you have taken, your graduate English program as a whole, and the studies or work you plan to pursue in the future?

Think discussion, not defense.  Think of the committee review as a discussion of your paper, rather than a defense of its argument.  You may find yourself defending certain points, but you will undoubtedly be prepared to do so if you are well-versed in not only what you wrote, but what you decided not to write.  Go over your early notes, and be ready to discuss avenues from your research you did not pursue.  Consider your paper in its larger spectrum of related literature, criticism, and theory.  Note places in your essay where you made a strong assertion and be prepared to rephrase the argument.  Be aware of contradictions or statements that go “against tradition," and be prepared to explain them.