The Exam

The Common Exam is based on ten works—a mix of novels, drama, poetry, nonfiction, film, and theory—particular to each class of English majors. The works are each class’s reading in common, works the faculty in the English Department value and teach and want students to know. Our hope is to make not just a reading list but a community of conversation across a diverse major.

Here is how it works:

Each fall, every faculty member proposes a work that he/she/they feel is important for the study of English, and that he/she/they plan to teach at least once over the course of the subsequent two years. The list is updated annually, with faculty members assigning the work a teaching term in the following two years and any distribution requirement(s). The list is driven by teaching, but faculty additionally associate themselves with any work/author proposed by other faculty, which they might consider teaching and about which they would be happy to talk to students. 

From this long list, the Committee of Departmental Study (CDS) chooses ten selections each year (there may be repeats between years). CDS chooses for a representative diversity of genre, authorship, origin, and period, keeping in mind as well the distribution requirements. 

When students sign in to the major, they receive that year’s list of ten works/authors proposed by faculty, as well as an estimate of when those works/authors will be taught and in what courses in the following two years. 

Over junior and senior year, each class of majors will have ample opportunity to read and think about the ten works for their class, in several different contexts:

  1. The works will be taught in courses, at least once, and often twice, in the two years. Majors do not need to take the courses in which the works are taught; the class sessions in which the works are taught will be recorded and available to watch.
  2. There will be panels, conversations, and other events organized around the works. If any students would like to initiate a particular event or discussion, please let the DUS (Professor Johnson, 2021-22) and the Outreach Coordinator (Jackie Campbell, 2021-22) know.
  3. Students are also encouraged to visit the office hours of the faculty who are attached to the individual works to speak to them at any time in the next two years.

And what will the exam itself be like? It will take place in McCosh Hall; all seniors will be give university laptops to write on. The exam is open-book, which means everybody should bring the eleven Common Works with them to the exam. (No other books, however, will be permitted, nor internet access.) The exam is in two parts, each four hours long, administered on successive days in May.

The best way to get to know the questions the exam will ask is to study this sample.

It is incomplete: CDS will be adding essay questions for Day 2 this spring, and questions for the eleventh work—to be chosen by the rising seniors in May—will be added as well. But it gives a sense of the test’s architecture and expectations. (Essay questions will be similar to those asked in previous Comprehensive Exams, sample of which can be found here.)