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Tips for Successful M.A. Exam Preparation

A. How to Study: You should obtain the French M.A. list upon entering the program and keep an electronic and paper copy filed and clearly labeled. This is the list on which you will be examined, so it is important to make sure you have a record of it as the lists sometimes change as professors update them. Upon entering the M.A. program you also should look at the lists for the different areas and make decisions with regard to which classes will best help you prepare to meet your exam and educational goals. Class syllabi are generally available just before classes start, or you can register for classes and go to them to find out more about what will be read and what periods will be covered. Classes teach you about a period, a topic, and a specific text. It is important to get all of this information to be well prepared. Have a master copy of the reading list that you use to check books and periods off. This way you will know what you have studied. It is important to be organized with regard to which texts and periods you have covered in classes and on your own, so be sure to keep records of this. Form a study group with others who are on the same schedule as you. This will help you study a little bit each semester and take advantage of the summers to study more. For each area of specialization on which you will be examined, keep a three-ring binder divided by time period and then, within that, author or topic (or, in the case of linguistics, concepts). You may ask the professor in charge of a given exam for sample questions to help you prepare.

B. Major and Minor area choices: Please look over the MA reading list carefully. It is very long, but you are not expected to have read every single work on the list.

  • All students must read all the works in part I. This section includes two or three major works from Medieval through 20th century French literature and Francophonie. This section is intended to give students a historical overview of major literary works.
  • From Part II (sections A through O), students should choose one area for their Major exam and two areas for their Minor exams.

C. Exam Structure: Exams are scheduled by the advisor, in agreement with the student. They are given over 2 or 3 days. The Major exam occurs on the first day (4 hours). The two Minor exams last (2) hours each. Students will be informed of schedule and dates well in advance of the exam dates. You will have a choice among questions. Be sure to read the exam well to know how many questions you are expected to answer in each area so as not to answer too few or too many. This means you should choose the questions that you are best able to answer. Questions will be organized by time period and also by related texts. Examples include questions about classical theater; Romanticism in post-Revolution France; realism and the realist novel; existentialism and literature; etc. By grouping texts and concepts as you study, you will best get the reading list under control. Group the texts according to genre; then according to generation; then according to texts produced in a specific period (baroque vs. renaissance; realist vs. naturalist). Since the list is long, it is unlikely that you will be able to provide an outstanding synthesis of every single’s texts importance and to analyze every single text. Yet you should be able to address most texts, authors, and concepts to best prepare for each sub-field. You should prepare to answer questions of this sort by grouping texts into time periods, related authors/texts; genres; generations, etc. For literature and culture (French and Francophone), you need to be able to address the formal and socio-historical aspects related to each text on the reading list. You should be able to discuss texts and their contexts. Example: Baudelaire must be understood in his socio-historical context as well as in his literary context (that is, with regard to his relationship to the literary traditions within which he was writing). Only within this context can we understand Baudelaire (or other authors) as an innovator. You should be prepared to write a textual analysis of a short text (a poem or a fragment from a prose text) and to explain the importance of that text in its socio-historical and literary contexts. You should include at least a few examples of the critical literature pertinent to the text, the period or the movement.

D. How to Answer and Prepare for Questions: Look at the sample questions provided to you. While the questions are unlikely to be repeated exactly, they do give you a sense of how the exam is structured and of the focus of questions. Questions are often a reflection of the professors’ approach to literature, which should be familiar to you because you will have taken courses with the professors. If you have not taken a course with a professor charged with writing questions for your area, then you should procure syllabi and notes from other students to best understand that professor’s approach to teaching and to literature. Be sure to stay on topic when answering questions. During the semester of your exams, it is important to speak with individual professors to state your intent to take the exams. This way you have the opportunity to get one-on-one advice. The most important thing of all is to inform the graduate advisor of your intent to take exams and areas of examination. As with other exams, disabled students need to contact the advisor to request appropriate arrangements depending on disability and special needs.

E. What to Expect the Day of the Exam: Where and when exams are given: The graduate advisor will tell you where to meet him or her the day of the exam. You will receive this information approximately two weeks before the exam via email. Major exam times vary; Exams are given over 2 or 3 days. The Major exam occurs on the first day (4 hours). The two Minor exams last (2) hours each. Exams usually are given in a conference room near faculty offices or in faculty offices if such space is available. What to bring:

  • Lined loose leaf blank notebook pages. No blue books, no spiral notebooks, no unlined paper. If you use thin paper and write with an ink pen, please write on one side of the paper only. The exams have to be scanned and are illegible when the ink shows through the other side.
  • Writing implement. Pen or pencil acceptable as long as you write hard enough with a pencil for responses to be totally legible when photocopied.
  • Water or another drink for the exam session. You may bring lunch but you will also have the chance to go out for one hour to get lunch and rest.
  • You may bring a dictionary with you to the exam. This includes a bilingual dictionary or a French dictionary or both. These are the only external resources allowed.

F. How to Take the Exam: Take the first few minutes to read the entire exam and organize your time. When planning your time, give yourself 10 minutes of proofreading time for every essay. Every single question should be answered specifically without providing extraneous information. Be sure to get to the point and be sure to argue something in every single answer. Remember: the M.A. exam is simply a long exam, which means that every answer must contain a coherent essay in which analysis and argumentation are clear. If you get stuck or feel panicked about a section, just move to the next section. This will likely help you calm down. Do not forget to return to the previous section and complete the questions. All answers must be in French except in the case of linguistics, which may be answered in either English or French.

G. The Oral Exam: Professors receive a copy of your exam within 24 hours of your completing it. Graduate advisors will schedule the oral exam which is usually held within 3 weeks of written exams. The examinee will also receive a copy of her/his written exam so that s/he has the chance to reread them before the oral exam. The oral exam is a chance for the professors to ask the examinee for clarifications or further development of written exams; it is also a chance for the student to expand on their written exams after having reread them. The student will be asked to wait during the committee’s deliberations. The decision of the committee will be announced to the student immediately after deliberations.

Possible grades: High pass: This is a pass with distinction. It means that you answered the questions thoroughly and extremely well. It is the equivalent of a high A. Pass: This is the equivalent of a high B or a low A. This means you answered the questions sufficiently but the writing may not have been strong or all concepts may not have been covered. Low pass: This is the lowest passing grade possible. Answers were not strong and sometimes may even be somewhat illogical. Yet basic information was stated in a way that allowed graders to understand that you had the concept covered sufficiently so as to pass. This is the equivalent to a low B or a C. Fail: The equivalent to a D or an F. Students receiving this grade often answer in lists, not paragraphs or essays (in the case of literature/culture sections); answer incorrectly; fail to answer a question completely; disregard the question asked and answer a different question that does not appear on the exam; and generally do not exhibit sufficient knowledge of the topic. Possible outcomes: Pass: You pass (with a low pass, pass, or high pass) all three exams and are free to be cleared to get your M.A. if all other requirements have been met. Pass + fail: You pass one area (for instance, linguistics) and fail another (e.g., 19th century). In this case you must repeat the 19th century exam. A student who fails an area in the spring will be eligible to re-take that area in the summer (August). Fail + fail: Obviously not a desirable outcome. You will need to re-take all exams. A student who fails in the spring will be eligible to re-take that area in the summer (August). Partial fail: you might partially fail one area, such as 20th century literature. In this case, you will only retake the area indicated to you by the advisor.

MA Comp FAQ’s

  1. When can I take exams? You must finish your coursework before being able to take exams. The exceptions to this are language requirement classes, which may be taken simultaneous to examination period. If you have questions about your planned graduation date, please contact the graduate advisor.
  2. Do most candidates pass? Yes.
  3. Do candidates fail a section? Yes. This happens with some regularity but is not extremely common.
  4. Do people partially fail a section? Yes. This happens when students do not take appropriate coursework (e.g., they do not take a course on Francophonie but choose a Francophone area for their exam) and do not prepare for an area.
  5. Can I appeal my grade on the exam? If you feel that the grade is not warranted, please make an appointment with the graduate advisor to discuss your opinion on the matter. In advance of the meeting, the advisor will express your desire to appeal with the corresponding faculty, discuss the rationale for your grade with them, be prepared to discuss the exam with you.
  6. Why do candidates fail? They answer in lists, not paragraphs for literature/culture exams. They do not answer the question. They answer a question we did not ask. They do not make an argument and instead provide lots of background information that is not requested.