Senior Oral Exam

All History & Literature seniors who are eligible for an honors degree recommendation, have completed a thesis, and have a concentration GPA of at least 3.0 take oral examinations at the end of their final semester.

Oral examinations are one hour long and administered by three faculty members from the Tutorial Board and Committee on Degrees. The examination includes questions about the student’s thesis, as well as questions about his or her course of study as a whole. The following information details what to expect before, during, and after the exam.

Before the Exam

  • Degree Recommendation:  Senior oral exam committees confirm concentration honors on the basis of the student’s performance in the oral exam. A Committee on Instruction (COI) subcommittee provides each student’s oral exam committee with two honors options: one recommended (or strongly recommended) grade, and another possible grade. Grades range from summa (highest honors), magna (high honors), cum (honors), or no honors. Students will be informed of the COI subcommittee recommendation when they receive their thesis readings. The senior oral exam committee will assign one of the two possible grades. A student must have a strong performance on the oral exam to earn the higher grade.

    The COI subcommittee recommendation is determined by combining the student’s concentration GPA and the thesis readings. To be eligible to graduate with highest honors in History & Literature, a student must have a summa-range concentration GPA and receive at least one summa-range reading on the thesis. Grades for courses taken in the spring of the student’s senior year are not included in the concentration GPA.
  • Compiling Oral Exam Materials: In consultation with his or her tutor, each student must compile a list of five topics for emphasis in the examination. Each topic should consist of six to eight sources (at least four primary sources and two secondary sources) relevant to the student’s History & Literature coursework. Students are encouraged to include a wide-ranging set of forms (i.e. fiction, drama, film, poetry, visual culture, speeches, archival documents) and sources that address a diversity of perspectives in each topic. Students who have declared a subfield will be examined on it during the senior oral exam, with at least one topic specifically addressing the subfield. Joint concentrators are encouraged to incorporate texts from the allied field into their topics list.

    In addition to the topics list, students are also required to compile a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources relevant to their History & Literature coursework, a list of courses relevant to their History & Literature degree, and a program statement. Five copies of the oral exam packet, signed by the student and the tutor, are due in the History & Literature office by the deadline in mid-April. Sample topics lists and bibliographies can be found on the right-hand panel of this page.
  • Examiners’ Preparation: In the weeks before the exam, the examiners will make themselves familiar with the student’s oral exam materials, the student’s record, and thesis readings.

During the Exam

  • Materials: After entering the exam room, the exam committee will give the student a paper copy of the oral exam packet for reference during the exam. 
  • Examiners: Each student will have three examiners.      
    • At least one member of the exam committee will have read the student’s thesis. 
    • Often one examiner will have a background in history and one will have a background in literature, but the exam will not be divided into two distinct parts. Rather, examiners will alternate, asking clusters of questions that promote a general discussion. 
    • In the case of joint concentrators, one member of the exam committee may be affiliated with the student’s allied field, but this examiner may not be the student’s adviser. 
  • Timing and Format: The oral exam lasts one hour for each student.
    • Thesis Response (approximately 10 minutes): Students will be invited to begin the oral exam by offering an overview of their senior thesis. Students will be asked to respond to the thesis readings and to questions raised by the examiners.
    • Topics Questions (45 minutes total; approximately 9 minutes per topic): Examiners will question students about how they conceived of each topic and how each topic’s texts relate to one another. They might also be asked to consider thematic overlaps between their different topics. Additionally, students should be prepared to engage in close reading and formal analysis of specific texts. Sample questions can be found with the lists and bibliographies on the right-hand panel. Summa-eligible students may be asked to move beyond the topics list to the student’s cumulative bibliography. Any bibliography questions will be grounded in the discussion of the topics list.
    • Conclusion (approximately 5 minutes): The last five minutes will be the student’s opportunity to address any other topics, to return to any questions which he or she would like to reconsider, or to make a reflective statement about his or her time in History & Literature.
  • Criteria for Evaluation:  The following criteria are used in the evaluation of oral exams: the ability to articulate the argument of each topic, the amount of concrete detail used to support answers, the level of creativity in the design of topics, the inclusion of challenging and/or surprising texts, and the overall level of intellectual range and dexterity.

After the Exam

  • Evaluation: After the student leaves the exam room, the committee will discuss the student's performance on the examination and determine whether the student should receive the recommended (or strongly recommended) grade or the other possible grade.

  • Concentration Honors: The student will learn of the final concentration honors grade by picking up a letter from the History & Literature office shortly after Reading Period ends. For distinctions between concentration honors and College honors, please see the Harvard College Handbook for Students.