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. Oral examinations take place during Reading Period, and students will be informed of the date and time of their examination by mid-April.

This page details what to expect before, during, and after the exam.

Before the Exam

  • Compiling Oral Exam Materials: In consultation with their tutor, each student must compile a list of five topics for emphasis in the examination.
    • Each topic must 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 are due by the deadline in mid-April. Sample topics lists can be found at the bottom 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: The student will have a 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 they would like to reconsider, or to make a reflective statement about their time in History & Literature.

After the Exam

  • Criteria: The following criteria are used in the evaluation of oral exams: the strength of the student’s prepared materials, especially the topics list; 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.
  • 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. The student will receive a letter from the History & Literature office with their final concentration honors grade shortly after Reading Period ends.