Monday, August 29, 2011

Exams-Part I


This time last year I was a little over a month out from taking my comprehensive written exams and about two months out from my oral exams. On this side of that experience I've been able to encourage friends who are getting ready to conquer their exams this year, and a number of them have suggested an all-exams post. So...here we go (please note that the following advice is based on personal experience, not any kind of aggregated data or something more official):

The final month

In the month or so leading up to your exams hopefully you'll be pretty close to done with reading the texts on your lists. If not, it's time to make sure you're at the very least familiar with the basics of all of the unread texts (don't stop reading). If you are finished reading, it's time to begin trying to make explicit connections across texts.

Run back through your lists and think about the major themes, formal characteristics, etc. of each text. The key here is to keep this revisiting analysis to a few key phrases, or maybe a sentence or two at the most. For example: Doctorow's Ragtime gives me the chance to talk about historiographic metafiction (which I can't do without talking about Linda Hutcheon's work on postmodernism), race in American fiction (here I can channel Gates, Morrison), the theme of patriotism, etc. As you come up with these phrases/sentences, also think about what other texts on your lists connect well with this text. So in this example, what other texts rewrite history, deal with race as a major theme, or complicate nationalism?

MAKE CONNECTIONS! SYNTHESIS! Do you have basic arguments about the texts that stand out to you most? Remember, you're not going to be able to write about everything on your lists! So, while you want to have a basic series of phrases or sentences that would help you talk about any text at a moment's notice, there are probably 15 or so books that have stood out to you and that you've thought more deeply about. Good, but make sure you have something to say about them beyond merely noting their major themes/contributions.

MEET WITH FRIENDS AND TALK TALK TALK SHARE SHARE SHARE! Ask each other questions and try to answer each other's questions. This was absolutely invaluable to me!

Taking the exams

1. Don't freak out when you get in the room. You're going in there to do one thing, there's only one thing to do, and you're going to do it!

2. Take a deep breath and read all your questions very very very very very very very carefully. My friend Jacob suggests underlining particularly important words/phrases such as "in three texts from three different centuries."

3. Go ahead and decide which questions you will answer.

4. Plan out all of your answers before you start writing your the first answer.

5. Opinions here differ: I say take on the easiest question first to build momentum, confidence, and so as not to get bogged down and spend the bulk of your time on one answer. Others might disagree with me and say take on the toughest question first. This is just my opinion.

6. Remember to craft an ANSWER to the question. I struggled with this on one of my secondary examination areas. My answers to the actual questions were implicit in my textual analyses, but I never really articulated a direct and clear answer to the question as it was posed on the exam.

[Look for Part II on Wednesday. It'll cover the time in between written and oral exams, taking the oral exam, and the aftermath of oral exams]


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