Orals FAQ

Q. What will the oral examination be like?

A. The exam is two hours long. You and your partner will be asked a series of questions by a committee of three professors, including the Chair. The professors will take turns introducing lines of inquiry and will focus on works included on your list, though you may also be asked to go “off list” once or twice. Your professors might direct questions to you, to your partner, or to both of you. The best oral exams will evolve into true conversations among the faculty and students. However, sometimes questions will “stump” you or your partner; generally, when that happens, it is acceptable for the student who has an answer to respond and assist the struggling student. It is also usually appropriate to interject after your partner has had a chance to answer a question or questions if you want to share an answer of your own. Note that the exam is formal: professional self-presentation, including professional dress, is encouraged. You will not bring notes into the examination room, but you may bring a copy of your orals list.

Q. What kinds of questions will I be asked?

A. You will be asked an array of questions, falling mainly into two categories: interpretive and literary-historical. The former type of question will focus on your ability to recall and analyze details of plot, characterization, form, and style from the works on your list. You will be asked to close read from memory and “on your feet,” especially when the shorter works on your list come up. The latter type of question will assess your ability to connect works on your list with broader literary and historical phenomena, like genres, forms, intellectual and artistic movements, and eras/periods. (A common line of questioning is, “How does Work X exemplify Period Y [or the Y Movement],” or “I see that you classified Work X within Period Y, yet you could also have associated it with Period Z. Defend your decision,” or “Explain how Work X reflects a cultural change between Periods Y and Z by discussing it in relation to Literary Concept W.”)

Q. How should I make my list?

A. Consult the Core List and study it. Choose works that you want to read, re-read, and learn more about. Ensure that you understand the literary eras represented on the list and that you can define the terms associated with those periods before you even begin to draft a list. When you do start drafting, try to create a well-developed list: make sure you do not avoid literary periods, genres, or styles that you perceive as “hard” or with which you lack experience. On the contrary, challenge yourself to use your time studying for orals to strengthen yourself in areas you are less familiar with as well as to gain real mastery over areas with which you are already well-versed. Eschewing longer, denser, or less obvious works, or whole periods, genres, or styles of work, in favor of shorter, simpler, or better-known works, or periods, genres, and styles with which we know you to be very comfortable, will not go unnoticed: instead, such evasions will provoke questions that may uncover major deficiencies in your preparation.

Q. How are orals scored?

A. The three faculty members making up the exam committee confer after the exam to assess students’ performance in a number of key categories. Faculty then assign a score of “High Pass,” “Pass,” “Low Pass,” or “Fail.”

Q. What could cause a failing score, and what happens if a student fails?

A. If a student cannot recall textual details, cannot analyze details accurately, cannot define key terms associated with the works on his or her list, cannot speak knowledgeably about periods of literary history and their characteristics, or shows other major deficiencies in preparation or performance, he or she will not pass the exam. Depending on the area(s) of weakness, non-passing students will be given mandatory assignments intended both to help them remedy the weakness(es) and to demonstrate learning and growth in the problem area(s). Assignments might include close reading papers, thesis-based essays, short-answer essays, and other written or oral projects.

Q. How should I study?

A. You should approach studying for orals as a long-term research project. Endeavor to make a draft of your list early enough that it is possible to read and re-read the works you have chosen. We expect to see deep familiarity with key passages from longer works and with short lyrics, and we encourage students to commit to memory a great deal of literary material from the works on their lists. To ensure understanding of literary context, review class notes from courses in which you studied works on your list, but do not over-rely on your notes or use your class notes as your only study aid. Instead, also plan to conduct independent research and to make use of a range of study materials, like the bibliographies from your upper-level courses, books in the library, subject encyclopedias, scholarly articles, guides to literary history and literary terminology, and textbooks (e.g., the Norton Anthologies). (See also the list of recommended resources at the bottom of this page.) Use study techniques you know work for you (like note-cards or group studying) and try new ones, too. Finally, spend plenty of time thinking about and studying your list and ask yourself and your partner lots of different kinds of study questions. What connections can you make between and among specific, maybe even apparently unrelated, works on your list? Why (aside from personal preference) did you choose the works on your list instead of other works? How do literary works reflect or influence certain cultural contexts, or how do literary concepts develop over time? What changes do you observe in the English language throughout the works on your list, and how do different writers use language differently? These kinds of questions will come up during the exam, so you should think about them as you plan for it.

Q. I’m nervous. What if I’ve studied but during the exam I draw a blank?

A. It is natural to feel nervous, excited, and anxious before an oral exam. In fact, adrenaline can help you think faster; nervousness will not necessarily incapacitate you and may even give you a mental boost. If you have prepared well, you will be able to articulate answers even to challenging questions, but it can also help to have some “stalling strategies” in mind in the event that you do draw a blank. If you are asked a question you can’t immediately answer, it is usually fine to ask for a moment to think. It is also permissible to ask your professor to re-ask or re-phrase the question. Even simply saying, “That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about it before, but …” can buy you a little time as you call up the information being asked for. Sometimes nerves begin to get in the way when you aren’t sure about a professor’s intention in asking a question, or when you receive a series of questions you haven’t prepared for. Try not to assume that any questions (especially simple ones) are “trick questions”: often, the question that’s stumping you really is as direct and basic as it seems, even if the “right” answer is concrete and complex. Finally, sometimes your professors will ask questions out of curiosity or interest, or to see you think creatively in the moment, and may not have a prefabricated or “right” answer in mind: try not to perceive this kind of questioning as sinister, and engage with it as best you can.

Q. When will my exam be, or when will my list be due?

A. You will be contacted in the spring of your senior year to schedule your comprehensive exams. You will be instructed at that time how and when to submit your list to the Department Chair.

Recommended resources

Consider reading the following books as you study for orals.

  • M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms
  • David H. Richter, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends
  • Pat Rogers, The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature



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