Amanda's Area Exam

EGO » How-To Guides

Here are some tips that I learned from my Area writing and exam taking experience; these tips are also informed by the experiences of friends and and colleagues in the department.

Writing the Areas:

1) Create your lists early on, and know that they will change. I don't think it's ever too early (well, maybe your first year is too early) to begin compiling your area lists, especially if you are one of those graduate students blessed enough to know your interests. By your last semester of course work, you should aim to have your two reading lists drafted, as well as two faculty members willing to work with you on your areas. Once you've finished course work, it is easy to lose your work ethic and sense of purpose: DON'T! One way you can combat post-course work malaise is to have these lists tentatively worked out. So, how do you figure out what to put on your lists? Ask your area faculty advisors, other graduate students, look at other grad student area lists, etc. Put stuff you've already read on there if it's relevant to your field—this is a highly recommended time saver. It is also important to note that, once you have your list ready and begin reading, you may decide that texts you originally thought might be relevant are no longer. Have no mercy: delete them. And remember, if you don't feel comfortable talking about a particular text in public during your exams, don't put it on the list (or, more responsibly, learn it!)

1b) Draft lists with dissertation in mind. Yes, you will be compelled to write a dissertation after you finish the areas. You should think of them as the doorway to this larger project, and compile them with the future in mind.

2) Write as you read, and read, and read. As you tackle your now complete reading lists, don't forget to write every day or so. Summarize what you've read, comment on it, critique it, whatever; just so long as you write something. Once you actually start drafting your rationales, these notes will be priceless and will save you a lot of time (ie. questions like "What was that book about? What didn't I like about it?). Think about it like you're doing ground work for your dissertation.

3) Don't stress too much over form, length, etc. As Ann wisely remarks in her Area advice page, the form of your area papers may vary widely depending on your topic and who you're working with. You will not be able to address everything you've read in your papers, as they are (should be) short. A general outline: 1) Establish knowledge about the "conversation" around your topic and outline the important scholars/issues that relate to it; 2)what is your interest/argument/potential intervention in the field? lay this out, you might do some close readings, etc. 3) lastly, pose questions, difficulties, issues that you'll need to address in a future project….the dissertation.


1) Prepare yourself, but don't overload your brain. Remember that you, more than likely, know more than the faculty members on your committee about this topic, or at least the information is freshest in your mind. Look over the notes you took diligently during your reading process, and make sure that you can intelligently discuss any fiction/poetry on your list that you did not address in your rationales.

2) The exam is, for the most part, rationale centered. As stated above, your committee members may ask you to develop your argument/ideas in relation to the literature that you did not discuss in your rationales. They almost certainly will never ask you about theoretical texts that you included on your reading list but did not discuss in your rationales. Of course, all bets are off if you're strictly a theory person, or if you have very theory-oriented faculty on your committee. In general, the rationale will serve as the focal point for your discussion. And, unless you have an inordinately cruel committee member, the exam should feel more like a conversation than a question and answer session.

3) Get sleep the night before, if possible. Sleep, of course, is a good thing for the mind. You know this.

4) Prepare an opening statement. At the beginning of the exam, they will ask you if you have an opening statement. You will. This is a great way to take control of the exam and show your articulate self at your best, before the blustering, blundering fool you will inevitably become in the midst of the exam. Make it short (no more than 5 minutes or so). Things you may want to address include: how you came to your topic, ideas you have been thinking through since you finished writing, the direction you would like the exam to go (questions you might want to think through), potential problems, issues you may face in the future. It's best if you can memorize something or just go in with some talking points. This should not feel like a presentation.

5) Relax. Especially when you get a hard question. There may come a point when you are absolutely stumped by an incoming question. Feel free to take a minute to think about it; indeed, all faculty members that I spoke with before my exam encouraged me to take time out if necessary. This shows that you are a thoughtful person, not a dumb one. You can also ask your faculty advisors beforehand what kinds of questions they might ask; they will usually help you out with a few suggestions. If you really don't understand something that is asked, you can ask them to rephrase or repeat it; again, sign of a thoughtful mind. Yet there may come a time when you have absolutely no idea what to say; save this for your "one pass" (ie: "That is a really provocative idea, and one that sounds like it has a lot of relevance to my project. I haven't had the opportunity to think it through yet, but I would love to hear more about your thoughts…etc). If they suggest something, write it down. Again, you are a thoughtful person.

6) Wow them with snacks. When all else fails, bring snacks (pastries in the morning, savory snacks in the afternoon. NO WINE). This is not a requirement, and no one will think the less of you if you don't bring food; they may, however, protest openly if you do that "you shouldn't have." But this is a nice gesture. Moreover, the whole thing is a lot less threatening if they're eating cookies.

7) Follow up with thank-you notes.

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