Senior Comprehensive Examinations

The senior comprehensive examination is taken 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. A breakfast of eggs, bagels, donuts, and fruit are provided by the department, though students are free to supplement these items.

Students write their essays on their computers or in blue books. The examination is conducted under the honor system and students are not allowed to look for information on the internet or consult notes. Only print non-English language dictionaries are allowed.  

In the months prior to the exam, students are encouraged to consult all the previous years' questions and the non-English passages in binders in the departmental office.

The exam itself is composed of two parts.

1. Explication de texte

The first part of the exam is the explication de texte, an exegesis or interpretation of a literary passage. Unidentified short literary passages, often poems, will be provided in the non-English languages studied by seniors majoring in Comparative Literature. If no faculty in the department know that language, we go outside the department or even the university to find someone who can provide a passage in that language. If the language is very unusual, and a student lists it as their weakest language, we may chose not to provide a passage in that language, but we will do that in discussion with that student. Languages with non-Roman alphabets will appear in those alphabets, although Chinese will appear in either simplified or traditional characters (as requested by the student). When the department asks seniors to specify a language, it may be wise to specify the period and place they most studied (e.g., seventeenth-century Latin; Egyptian Arabic) to aid the faculty member selecting a passage.  

There is only one passage in each language (e.g., one passage in French, one passage in classical Arabic). These are brief texts without titles or authors or any other paratextual material; students are not expected to recognize the author or title of the text; such knowledge is treated as a bonus.

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 with them to the examination print non-English language dictionaries (whether only in that language or with English translations of words) for all their languages (as you never know what passage will most strike your fancy in the moment); electronic versions are not allowed.  Typically, test-takers spend 60 minutes composing their explications and 20 minutes revising.

2. Two Questions on the Reading Selection List

The second part of the exam consists of students writing two answers out of six questions, using works from their Reading Selection List.  Each answer should be concise and may not exceed 5 pages (2,500 words) long.​​ This would allow students to spend some time reviewing their answers before submitting. Test-takers are encouraged to spend 60 minutes composing each answer and 20 minutes revising it.

Typically, the exam questions begin with a short and flexible observation from some literary critic concerning some aspect of literature, and students are asked to demonstrate the relevance of this remark to works they choose from the Reading Selection List. If you disagree with the observation, you are free to write why you disagree with it, using examples from the reading list. That is, the question is intended as a prompt to writing something interesting, not to test students' knowledge of theory or obedience to any paradigm. 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. 

Students bring neither their personalized reading list nor the books themselves; the department provides students with a copy of the entire Reading Selection List as an aide-memoire.  In these brief essays, students may refer to any text on the Reading Selection List. When preparing your reading list, please do let the Director of Undergraduate Studies know if there are any glaring omissions (every year we add a few texts that had not been on the list).

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. Students should not discuss texts on the reading list that were the main subject of their JPs or senior thesis. That is, if your senior thesis was about Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia, do not use that text as an example on your exam. The purpose of the exam is to show that you can explore beyond your independent work. 

Preparing the individual reading list is a major part of your preparation for the Comps and will help you identify gaps and continuities in your knowledge. Once you have your list in hand, you can start thinking about the kinds of connections across time, place, cultural context, and so on that will help you answer questions for the exams. Remember, as you read, that you're not just trying to remember plot but trying to think relationally, about the sorts of big/ broad questions you're likely to encounter in the exams, and how they play out or are reflected in the respective works.


Students write the last four digits of their Princeton University ID numbers on the exam; their names do not appear.  The faculty member who provided a particular non- English language passage for the explication grades the essays that responded to that passage. Two faculty members of the Department of Comparative Literature grade the second part of the exam without consulting each other; these grades are averaged. In the case of a significant discrepancy, a third reader is consulted. An average of both parts of the exam (each account for 50 percent of the grade) are used to arrive at the final comprehensive grade. Grades are keyed to the last four digits of the University ID and posted within seven days.

The Comparative Literature Reading Selection List assists majors in reading historically important texts across literary genres.  The list should not be seen as prescriptive, and majors are not encouraged to shape their course work around it.  Rising sophomores and juniors should devote some of their time during the summer to reading the listed texts of particular interest to them.

In consultation with their advisers, second-semester seniors are expected to create a list of forty texts, combining titles from the Reading Selection List and other titles from their own area of expertise that are not included in the former: twelve fiction works, twelve poetic works, two epics, seven dramatic works, and seven nonfiction works (essays, criticism, travelogues, memoir, and so on). Students specializing in film & other media can include up to five works in any of the five foregoing categories, as appropriate. Textual and visual materials can be read either in the original or in translation. Students should avoid including works that receive extensive treatment in the senior thesis.