Hello, all. What does December remind you of? I think of birthdays, Christmas, winter solstice, snow, darkness, and candles. Also, because I spent rather too many years at university, I think of exams. And of all the exams I’ve written, there’s one that will always send a chill down my spine.
During my PhD program, I had to write two comprehensive exams, aka comps: they were supposed to make me a specialist in English literature in general, and Victorian literature in particular. Think they can’t test you on all of English literature? You’re right. But they can try, and that’s even more frightening.
The process began in May, when my fellow candidates (hello, Katharine and Tanya and Sean!) and I received suggested reading lists from our professors. We read hundreds of books – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, lit crit, history. We researched ideas and movements and philosophies and clubs and quotations and obscure sidekicks and and and and… you get the picture. This would all culminate in two 4-hour exams in December.
It’s fair to say that we all went a little crazy, that summer and fall. I developed a thing about colour-coded index cards. I tested pens for nib size and ink flow, and practiced handwriting as much as possible so I could write for 4 hours straight without cramping up. I made a nightmare of a timeline (17 pages!) to represent the history of English literature and refused to take it down, even though it freaked out my officemate (sorry, Katharine). I calculated how much time I should spend on each subsection of the exam. I wrote practice exams. And I read. I read like I’d never read before, and never will again: with anxiety digging its nails into my shoulders.
The first exam – the General – went smoothly. I even thought I’d passed, though actual results would take a couple of weeks. The next day, we sat down for our Specialist exams. I opened the sealed envelope and took out 3 blank booklets, for writing my answers. And… nothing. No questions.
I looked inside the envelope: still nothing.
I looked around the exam room: the other 3 had different exams and were all busily reading through their questions.
My first thought was, “They’re messing with me.” My second was, “This is an elaborate game. They want me to create my own questions, as well.” My third, “I’m doomed.”
It took me a long time to persuade the invigilator that I had thoroughly checked my envelope and that yes, I was very, very, very sure that I didn’t have any questions. She then left the room for what felt like 3 days, in search of the missing questions.
I was in a blind panic. The only thing I could do (apart from weep) was to write a list of every Victorian novel I’d read in preparation for this exam. I was on page 2 when the invigilator came back with the missing exam.
It’s a happy story in the end, friends. I wrote. I passed. (With distinction, even.) And I haven’t written an exam since. But every December, I think about that exam, and about exam-takers everywhere. If you’re in the midst of finals right now (or will be soon, in January), I’m thinking of you, too. Best of luck!