Senior Comprehensive Examinations

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 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 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 in pen in "blue books;” neither computers nor books nor notes are allowed (except for print foreign language dictionaries). Students should bring several pens. 

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.

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 wises 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 foreign 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 90 minutes composing their explications and 30 minutes revising.

2. Essay Questions on the Reading Selection List

The second part of the exam consists of students answering one of the four essay questions provided using texts from the Reading Selection List.  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 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.

It is generally recommended that students spend about 90 minutes composing the essay, and 30 minutes revising it. 


Students write the last four digits of their Princeton University ID numbers on the outside of their examination booklets; their names do not appear.  The faculty member who provided a particular foreign-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 accounts 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.