The contents of this page are

  1. General Information about the Exam
  2. Sample Reading Lists
  3. Advice

FVS General Exam Information

The General Exams are an exciting (definitely not terrifying) event that's going to unfold before your very eyes in your third year. How nice for you. 

Here you'll find the program's general information on this event, including:

*Please note, some of the details here may change from year to year. Emily will send you updated information. 

Here is some additional information from Prof. Rentschler's 2015 Review of the Program:

The Written Examination

Students respond to questions prepared by exam committee members; they receive at least three essay questions for each section from which they choose one. The first day of the written exam covers the history section, the second day the theory and aesthetics section, and the third day the special topics section. Students receive the questions each day at 9 a.m. and submit their essay by noon. Normal standards regarding originality and citation apply.

Oral Examination (Two Hours)

The oral examination customarily takes place one week after the last written examination. Students are called upon to review, clarify, and defend arguments presented in the written examinations. Candidates also present and elaborate preliminary ideas and research for their proposed thesis topic. Students whose performance on the examination is not satisfactory are granted one opportunity to repeat all or a portion of the examinations.

Sample Reading Lists

Some sample reading lists from your fellow graduate students:

Sample 1

Sample 2

Sample 3: Part 1 and Part 2

General Exam Advice from your fellow graduate students

On Building Lists:

You're going to want to add too much. This is just a fact. A helpful tip here can be to not think of this as a chance to read everything you've ever wanted to read. Think about the fact that your list needs, in the end, to be able to produce a coherent written exam on a single question. The items need to be curated to have a relation to each other. 

The best advice I received in this regard was: when you're building a list, gather as much of the material together in one place as you can (physical copies or online). You'll probably still be deciding on items at this point, which is fine. Set yourself a timer of no more than 20 minutes for each item. Skim it, and look for its general area/object and its basic, overall approach to it. 

Once you've done this, you're going to find that certain items are clumping together, because of shared topics, or opposite approaches to the same question, or something. You can aim to break down your list into 4-6 of these smaller groups. This will help focus in on the major questions and ideas of your list, and help you weed out works that don't actually fit with these ideas or concerns.

Harvard's Policy on the number of items can be a little unclear. Check with your supervisor, but usually, you won't have much more than 30 items on the list, even if some of those items are articles and not books (don't make the mistake some of us made of think that a book's 'equivalent' is like, ten articles).


On Reading:

When you really start is going to be different for everyone, but you definitely don't need to stress about starting prior to September of your exam year. 

How you approach reading is going to depend on you and your supervisor's preferences. However, do give some thought to what kind of reader you are. Do you remember things better if you talk about them with someone? If so, you will want to aim to make meetings with your supervisor. 

Not every supervisor will go for this (which is why it's a good question to ask when you're looking for supervisors), but some are just waiting for you to ask for these meetings (and for you to do the scheduling work).

If you have built the sub-sections within your lists, this can be very helpful for organizing the meetings. If you schedule a meeting with your supervisor every three weeks, then you should have had time to get through a subsection, and you can organize your discussion around that group. *Note here, if you have three supervisors and are meeting each one every three weeks, then you're meeting one a week. This may be insane. Just a heads up.

Again, this is different for everyone, but many of us worked to complete the majority of the reading prior to the Reading Week before the exam. Then you're able to use that week to review and make outlines for your different exams.

*Note: There are copies of many of the main generals books in the FVS library, on the shelf in front of the librarian's desk. Remember to tip your hat to the first grads, who fought to get copies of these books. If you need new ones, make the request at a faculty meeting!


On Taking Notes:

Another great piece of advice I received for my generals was: Come up with 1-2 questions in advance of starting to read a sub-section. You'll probably end up changing the question as you read, but the important thing there is, you are giving yourself something to focus on as you approach the work. You can take notes to that effect.

In other words, you are not aiming to take notes on every aspect of the book here, or be able to remember every single thing it says. You want to have a broad understanding of the author's project, an understanding of how it relates to the other works on your list, and how it relates to your interest and approach to the list (the question).

Another great piece of advice, via Lindsey Lodhie: don't take notes as you read. Take a break after a good chunk of reading, and make yourself write out a paragraph covering what you've read. Here, you're practicing both recall and synthesis, as these are the kinds of skills the General Exams are all about. This was super helpful for me. 


On the Written Exams:

Again, this will depend on your supervisor, but most supervisors will discuss, broadly, your questions with you in advance of the written exam. For example, one of my supervisors had me suggest three different topics for questions, and then he wrote them based on those. Another had me write out the question with her, and then she changed elements of it for the exam. Having some sense of the questions in advance can be very helpful for making outlines.

Also, contrary to what you may think, the questions and your answers to them are not meant to address every single entry on your list. Usually, touching on a third of the works is considered a good amount. The question is, can you synthesize and bring things in interesting and concise ways?


On the Oral Exam:

It can be helpful here to think about this portion of the exam not as a test on whether you know the 'right' answers to questions, but rather:

Can you think on your feet, and draw coherent narratives and connections from the works you've read, in response to certain topics and ideas? Can you assert opinions and back them up? Can you position your own approach within the fields that you've just read about?

PS: I REALLY wish I had recorded my oral exam. You'll be surprised by the kinds of ideas you have during it. I would really consider organizing having it recorded!


On the Relation to the Prospectus:

Some students have an idea for a dissertation topic before they start building their lists, some are figuring it out as they write their prospectus. It's going be different for everyone. For some of us, it has been useful to use the Special Topics list as a way to explore the area that we think constitutes the theoretical or historical background of the topic we are generally interested in. That's vague, of course - all I mean to say here is, you are meant to be in a much better position to come up with a specific dissertation topic after you've done the exams, so don't worry too much if you don't feel like you have a clear topic to organize your lists around. Things will get clearer after you've done all this reading.

Another, secondary, concern to think about when organizing your lists is: will something here help me position myself on the job market later? If, for example, you feel like there are areas that you know you going to want to teach in later, or that are expected as standard knowledge in the departments you want to apply for, you may be able to work those in here, on one of your three lists.


After the Exam:

Laura Frahm gave me really good advice, which I didn't follow as strictly as I should have, and I regretted it later! This advice was: your brain is going to be so full of good stuff right after the exam, make yourself sit down for a day or two and write out as much of it as you can. 

Believe me, if you don't, you are going to be kicking yourself when it comes time to write your prospectus. 

The Generals are intense, but you are going to feel so smart for a glorious (brief) time afterward, it's almost worth it.