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English Department Comprehensive Examinations - Orientation and Advice
The English Department Comprehensive Examinations represent a test of the candidate's breadth of preparation for the Bachelor's degree. (The Capstone Seminar explores the candidate's ability to examine a narrow topic in depth.) The Comprehensives consist of two parts: a three-hour written exam, with one question (chosen by you from at least two options) in each of three pre-selected categories; and one-hour oral exam. Essays in the written exam will be scored by two members of the Department. The oral will normally be conducted by all full-time members of the Department and – at the option and choice of the candidate – an outside examiner, who should normally be a full-time faculty member in another Park department.
Questions on the written portion of the exam normally (this is not a guarantee for every case) fall into two broad patterns: (1) a proposition is offered from a perspective in literary history of criticism, and you are asked to discuss it as it applies to particular works; (2) a particular work is cited, and you need to discuss how it fits into a broader critical or literary historical picture.
Remember that the Comps are organized around historical periods or generic identifications – that are themselves historically based. Unless specifically invited to do so by a specific question, avoid bland assertions of literary value or claims about the unchanging human heart. Situate works in their historical and cultural contexts and discuss them accordingly – in contemporaneous terms or in terms that show your awareness of the difference between the works' original context and our own.
Some further advice on the written exam:
DO answer the question asked, including all its parts or subtopics
DON'T get hooked on a topic dear to your heart or repeat a prepared answer.
DON'T offer clichés, generalizations, or "appreciations" in place of critical judgments
DO offer a complete, one-hour discussion, including as much specific detail as possible from particular works
DON'T write one or two quick paragraphs for a one-hour task; use your time carefully.
DO take time to plan your essay, introduce your thesis, arrange the discussion clearly into paragraphs.
DON'T write stream-of-consciousness; avoid tangents.
DO leave time to reread each essay, correcting obvious editing blunders and oversights.
DON'T submit notes or freewrites; the comps are – as all documents in the field are – contributions to professional discourse.
Some advice for the oral exam:
- RELAX. This is the easy part
- Look closely at the comments on your written exam; prepare responses to issues raised there, and be prepared to expand on the content of your essays.
- Ask questions or raise issues yourself. Make it a real conversation.