Senior Comprehensive Examinations

The senior comprehensive examination is taken in 010 East Pyne over two days in mid- May, usually shortly after Dean's Date. Students are allowed up to four hours each test day in order to write and polish their essays. The exam runs from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. both days. Students write their essays in pen in "blue books;” neither computers nor books nor notes are allowed.

Students write the last four digits of their Princeton University ID numbers on their examination booklets; their names do not appear.  Four 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.

The exam itself is composed of three main parts:

(1) On the first day of the exam, students are asked to answer two of six questions by writing essays 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. 

(2) The second day of the exam begins with 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.  It is important, both for this exercise and for the other parts of the exam, to be able to recognize basic poetic meters and structures.  However, students are not expected to recognize the author or title of the text; such knowledge is treated as a bonus.

A text in every non-English language studied by seniors majoring in Comparative Literature that year 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 at the beginning of the second day of the exam and choose at that moment the text they prefer to analyze.  Students should bring 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.

(3) The final section of the exam consists of three questions, from which the student chooses one. These questions often begin with a short critical observation, and have as their focus literary genres and periods, as well as the limits of such definitions.  A typical question might ask how well the term “Romanticism” applies to any three or four works normally classified under that rubric, and why it falls short in particular instances.  A crucial difference is that the answers do not necessarily involve works drawn from the Reading Selection List.  Students are asked to avoid discussing the same texts on both days of the exam, and they are also cautioned against analyzing works which they have treated extensively in their senior theses.  Students usually spend 90 minutes composing a response, and 30 minutes revising it.

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.  On both days of the exam, students should bring several pens, and they should also have their foreign-language dictionaries on the second day.  Food and drink are provided by the department, though students are free to supplement these items.