Senior Comps

Timetable for Comprehensive Exams, Fall 2020

Registration Deadline: Sunday, January 24
Informational Meeting: N/A
Essay-writing Workshop: Tuesday, January 26, 12:00 – 1:00 pm (on Zoom)
Poetry Workshop: Thursday, January 28, 12:00 – 1:00 pm (on Zoom)
Mandatory Pre-exam Meeting: Thursday, February 4, 12:00 – 1:00 pm (on Zoom)
Exam Day: Saturday, February 6, 8:45 am – 12:00 pm (taken at home)

Please contact Wren Williams at with any questions or to sign-up.

Why Senior Comprehensive Exams?

From the faculty’s point of view, Comprehensive Exams help the department maintain a balanced offering, indicate areas of weakness in emphasis or teaching, and give an excellent indication of the abilities of our students. But Comprehensive Exams are of value to the student as well. They require students to review four years of study and to pull together an overall view of literary history, terms, concepts, ideas, and values; they ensure that Department of English graduates will leave UNC Asheville with a real sense of accomplishment. The exams are not limited or tied to the content of required courses taken in the English major; they are not intended as a big “final examination” covering work assigned in courses. Instead, they assure that students graduating with a degree in English are competent in English, no matter which courses they have taken, or where, or with which instructor. No course is designed primarily to prepare for the comprehensive. The learning which must take place for students to complete the exams satisfactorily is their responsibility; the synthesis of materials from diverse courses and from other reading and thinking must take place in the student’s mind and under their own supervision. Faculty members in the department are always happy to discuss literary issues with their students, but they are not responsible for providing a review or for limiting the contents of the examinations to what they know has been taught in a particular class.

Senior Comprehensive Exams Guidelines

Senior Comprehensive Exams are required of all students in all tracks of the English program. The following guidelines will apply:

1. The Senior Comprehensive Exam is given once in the Fall Semester (usually in September) and once in the Spring (usually in February). Grading is pass/fail, although some particularly outstanding exams are sometimes awarded a “High Pass.”

2. Students who pass are not allowed to re-take the exam merely to improve their performance.

3. Students who fail the exam must register to take it again during the next regularly scheduled offering. No special or individual make-up exams are given.

4. Students who need a professional internship or student teaching should plan their schedules in advance so that if possible, the internship and Senior Comprehensive Exam are not taken in the same term.

5. The student is responsible for knowing this set of guidelines and for understanding the general content and purpose of the exam as is explained on the English Department website.

How to Prepare for Senior Comprehensive Exams

All tracks: Literature, Creative Writing, Teaching Licensure

  • Access and study terms on the department website
  • Print out terms; use literary terms dictionaries; make flash cards; study
  • Consult Norton anthologies
    • Review introductions to each period, e.g., Renaissance, Romantic
    • Review names of important writers and their works from each period
    • Review names of major writers from 5th century BCE Greece
    • Review names of major writers from Roman Empire, e.g., Ovid, Horace
  • Review syllabi and notes from courses, e.g. Readings in Fiction, American Literature, historical surveys.
  • Know 8-10 longer, canonical works from different periods really well (novels, plays, epic poems)
    • Review main characters
    • Be able to summarize plots
    • Know significant themes and conflicts
  • Practice by writing. Start out with shorter writings on focused themes and then extend your responses. Take the practice exam, including writing timed essays, and see how you do. Exchange these practice exams with other students and offer feedback. Then make up your own questions and try responding to those.
  • Consider joining a study group that meets regularly and take turns teaching each other material. The literature student lounge is a good space for that (the timeline will be posted on the wall).
  • Attend the fall workshops on essay writing and poetry.
  • Attend the mandatory pre-exam meeting in the fall.

Long Range Preparation

When the opportunity is offered, students should choose paper and test topics that allow them to bring experience from one course into another. They should examine the sample test copy after each term’s work and note the new materials and ideas that they can now use in completing the test questions.

For students who have been doing good work in their courses and who have worked seriously on their writing skills, the Comprehensive Examinations should not be a source of worry. Still, students should make both long range and short range preparations.

Soon after deciding to major in English, students should ask the department assistant for a copy of one or two previous exams and study the entire test. They should try to understand the scope of the questions and how the test is designed to discover both knowledge (specific and general) and skills in organizing and interrelating. In all classes, they should note the ways the instructor is often preparing them not only for the work immediately at hand but also for interrelation with other works, other genres, and other periods. Students should ask questions that will touch upon themes that come up in several classes, appear in different periods, and which are expressed in fiction, poetry, and drama. As E. M. Forster wrote, “[O]nly connect.” The ability to see relationships and distinctions is one of the highest functions of human intelligence.

Short Range Preparation

Students who have followed the advice on long-range study will notice that the sample test has asked them to look at literature both in specific ways and in broader, more general ways. The most important preparation for both already will have been accomplished, but a month or two before the scheduled exam, students should begin a systematic review.

Experience has shown that students who form study groups often do best. By throwing questions at each other, and by engaging in extended literary discussions, they find themselves invigorated and fully prepared. Each student individually might want to select several specific plays from different eras and different genres (comedy, tragedy, etc.), several works of fiction from different eras, and a collection of major poets to quickly skim back over, to review class notes on, and to have at-the-ready for examples and discussion on the exam. But note that it is not a good idea to memorize long sections of poetry, drama, or fiction. The exam does not expect students to remember everything, only to apply their general intelligence and learned literary skills to specific ideas, issues, and values that good literature addresses.

Sample Comprehensive Exam, Rubric, and Study Materials