The senior comprehensive examination is taken in 010 East Pyne on one day in mid- May, usually a day or two after Dean's Date. Students are allowed up to four hours to write and polish their essays. The exam runs from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Students write their essays in pen in "blue books;” neither computers nor books nor notes are allowed (except for print foreign language dictionaries).
Students write the last four digits of their Princeton University ID numbers on their examination booklets; their names do not appear. Two or more faculty members of the Department of Comparative Literature grade each question without consulting each other; these grades are averaged. In the case of a significant discrepancy, a third reader is consulted. Grades are keyed to the last four digits of the University ID, and posted within seven days.
In the months prior to the exam, students are encouraged to consult all the previous years' questions and the foreign-language passages in binders in the departmental office. Students should bring several pens. Food and drink are provided by the department, though students are free to supplement these items.
The exam itself is composed of two parts:
(1) The first part of the exam is the explication de texte, an exegesis or interpretation of a literary passage. Students are provided with unidentified short literary passages, often poems, in various foreign languages. There is only one passage in each language. Students are not expected to recognize the author or title of the text; such knowledge is treated as a bonus.
A text in the non-English languages studied by seniors majoring in Comparative Literature will be provided. Languages with non-Roman alphabets will appear in those alphabets, although Chinese will appear in both simplified and traditional characters. Students equally strong in two or more literatures may survey the assembled passages and choose at that moment the text they prefer to analyze. Students should bring print foreign language dictionaries with them to the examination; electronic versions are not allowed. Typically, test-takers spend 90 minutes composing their explications and 30 minutes revising.
(2) The second part of the exam consists of students answering two of six essay questions on texts from the Reading Selection List. Students bring neither their personalized reading list nor the books themselves; the department provides students with a copy of their previously submitted reading lists and / or the entire Reading Selection List as an aide-memoire. In these essays, students may also refer to any text on the Reading Selection List. Typically, the exam questions begin with a short and flexible observation concerning some aspect of literature, and the students are asked to demonstrate the relevance of this remark to works they choose from the Reading Selection List. Occasionally the question stipulates that the texts must involve more than one genre or time period, or asks about the applicability of a statement over time.
These questions never insist upon specific texts. Students are strongly encouraged to avoid plot summaries, and to focus instead on analyzing texts and making thematic and argumentative connections between them. It is generally recommended that students spend about 90 minutes composing each essay, and 30 minutes to revising each one.