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Preparing for the MFA (Poetry) Reading Exam

  • These suggestions are meant to supplement, not replace, consultations with your thesis director and committee. 

  • These methods are not the fantastic imaginings of sadistic faculty, but have been devised over the years by MFA candidates. The notebook method described below was pioneered by a group of students in the early 1990s who prepped for the exam together. All passed solidly and several passed with Honors. Those who passed that year with Honors were also the first to practice test questions at home.
  • You may want to form a study group, based around reading several poets in common or perhaps just on moral support and caffeine. If you share several poets, you might also want to share the labor of hunting down and screening secondary sources for those poets. Working together also helps you remember that reading and writing are acts of community first and always, academic tasks only for the passing moment.

  • In the past, many students complete part of their exam preparation by taking a semester of Directed Reading (ENGL 798). We are currently encouraging students to enroll, instead, in the Poetry Planet exam prep course offered in Fall semester.

  • We also encourage you to prepare for the exam by taking literature courses. may be in the form of literature seminars.

  • Full official guidelines re: the exam may be found in the MFA program handbook.

1. Keep two notebooks. In one keep only poems, without any notes or marginalia. This is the notebook you will use as an anthology during your exam. Choose for each poet on your list a selection of key poems you may want to write about in the exam.

In the other notebook keep your reading notes, your own ideas, photocopied criticism and interviews, notes on poems, cross-references, etc.  Use a loose-leaf notebook with tabbed dividers. This may, in fact, become several notebooks as you accumulate material. This notebook will help you study but will also become a long-term resource for teaching or writing about these poets. 

Be sure to keep  thorough citations for all your sources -- full bibliographic information, page numbers, plus where you found it -- GMU library, Library of Congress, EPC web site, Academic ASAP, etc. Also, be careful to distinguish in your notes between your own ideas and others’. This may be clear to you as you are writing your notes, but imagine coming back to them three years from now and trying to distinguish where someone else's ideas leave off and yours begin.

In the exam, by the way, if you can't remember who said something, or want to cite an
idea that many people have expressed, you can use general phrases, such as “it has been argued...” or “critics have said...”

2. Hunting secondary sources. The launch pad from which to find criticism for your poets is the library reference room and its electronic simulacra. You can look up your poets in standard reference series such as Contemporary Authors (now on-line only) to get the basic information and (sometimes) a short statement by the poet. For many you will also now find web pages with resources of varying quality. 

Don't forget citations for your web sources, including the date the page was updated and the date you accessed the page. Pay particular attention to whose page it is, who wrote what you're reading. There are scads of grad and undergrad term papers now on the web, whose authors may or may not know more than you do.

If you aren't familiar with general poetry web sites, many of which have extensive
“Author pages”, links to interviews, etc., you can start here with my page of links.

The best single starting place for criticism, however, is still the reference series
Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC), in GMU and other libraries. Much is now on line. The annual volumes of this series reproduce extensive excerpts from critical books, articles, reviews, and sometimes interviews. They thus offer a quick introduction to the range of opinion and information available on each of your poets, and you can easily identify critics whose work you want to read in full. The volumes are cumulatively indexed; citations to this series are also given in Contemporary Authors. CLC is international in scope, so be sure to look here for British, post-colonial, or translated poets on your list.

3. For poets who are too young (or too whatever) to show up in standard reference works you will have to work the web and the periodical databases directly. You should do this anyway for poets you really want to study thoroughly. If you have classmates interested in the same poets, ask them what they've found. If you know one of your poets is associated with a particular magazine, try its web site or back issues. 

4. Ask faculty and other students for reading suggestions. Look for on-line syllabi. Students who have taken the exam probably have strong opinions re: what helped them and what wasted their time. Faculty usually have a bibliography of criticism and biography for their favorite writers and for those they frequently teach.

To identify appropriate faculty, look at the course lists for several semesters to see who
teaches what -- Elizabethan poetry, Romanticism, 20th century British poetry,
African American poetry, Modernism, etc. You may also find course syllabi, from this or
other universities, on line.

5. Many exam questions are drawn from a massive Master List, though we compose new questions and variations every year. A copy of the Master List should be on reserve in the Johnson Center under the course number 799. Another copy is often available from the Writing Program director or assistant, and one usually hangs on the wall near Peter Klappert's office. It is very important that you read some of these questions to get an idea how the exam works.

All members of your committee compose questions. Your thesis director compiles and organizes it.

6. The exam itself. In your exam, you will have four hours to answer three questions (which you will choose from a longer list of possible questions) using a desk-top computer in a faculty office. In general we suggest that you spend an hour on each essay, assuming the additional hour will be absorbed by getting organized, choosing your questions, going back to fix things, and so forth. 

Students who do well on the exam often prepare by taking test questions at home. To do this, simply choose a question and decide which of your poets you could use to answer the question, then sit down and give yourself an hour to write an essay. Besides helping you focus your thoughts and test your recall, the practice also helps you figure out how much can (and can't) be written in an hour. The most common reason for failure of the MFA exam is devoting too much time to one or two essays so the third essay barely gets written

7. A typical exam cover letter includes these guidelines:

Mechanical procedures

You may take short breaks when you need to, but you may not converse with anyone you may happen to see in the halls or restroom. If you see friends, just tell them you are in the middle of your exam and excuse yourself.

You may consult the books or photocopies you brought with you, but you may not consult any other books or materials which may be in the office, nor may you go on line. Danielle should have checked your materials for notes (not allowed) and initialed them. She will collect these materials from you when you have finished, so that they will be available to your committee should we wish to know what you had reference to while writing your responses. They will be returned to you later.

When you have finished, take your exam, your diskette, & your books or photocopies to Danielle. If you do not show up at the end of your four hours, she will come to get you.

The exam itself

The exam is in three parts. In each part you have a choice of questions, and often the questions themselves contain additional options--such as which authors you will write on or which area within a larger subject you will address. In essence, you are asked to design your own exam, based on the choices offered. Here are the rules and guidelines.
1) You must write three essay answers in four hours. We recommend you spend one hour on each essay.

2) The questions have been divided into three groups, and you must choose one question from each group.

3) Your first task will be to decide which questions to write on and which authors to discuss in each question. Read the questions carefully and take adequate time to plan your exam. Take time to read and think through each topic, make notes if you wish, make outlines: whatever will help clarify and draw out your thoughts. Keep in mind the following:
  • Often you will be asked to choose two or more poets from your list to concentrate on in your reply. In most cases it will be to your advantage to choose poets who exemplify the issues in different ways. This gives you more scope to demonstrate what you know and to demonstrate that you understand the various ways a theme, problem, style, subject, or influence can be manifested.
  • Each of your essays must be on different writers. Although you may refer to writers in more than one essay, do not discuss a writer in depth more than once nor repeat analyses from one essay to the next.    
  • You must give equal weight to each of your answers. Set time limits for each essay. We recommend you spend an hour on each essay, then use the remaining time to proofread and fine-tune your answers. Don’t waste time revising extensively for style.

Some tips:
  • This is not a memorization test. Be as specific as possible in your examples and explications, but do not leave out a poem or other work simply because you can’t quote it from memory and did not happen to include it in your photocopies. Cite the poem instead of quoting it.
  • Even though you may have quoted or cited a poem, be sure to tell us how your example demonstrates your argument. Do not assume that stating an idea then quoting a poem will make your argument self-evident.
  • As in any essay, be sure to distinguish between your ideas and those you have assimilated from critics or the classroom. Be sure to do this even if you cannot remember what critic originated the idea you are presenting.

What happens next?

Once they have read your exam, your readers will report their results to your thesis director, who will get in touch with you. If you have questions in the meantime, please direct them to your thesis director rather than to your other committee members. Be sure your thesis director knows how to reach you during the summer.

If your readers disagree on Pass/Fail or on Pass/Pass with Honors a third reader will break the tie. This is often but not always the thesis director.

Under the old regime, most exams were evaluated and results reported within a week. Because our new extended "exam season" stretches over summer, a time when faculty members may be traveling, researching, or otherwise not immediately available, we can no longer guarantee that you will hear results promptly. In some cases, you may not hear until around the start of classes. If you take your exam at the last possible moment (last week before classes resume in August) you may not hear for a few weeks, as your committee members will be busy getting the new semester under way.

We encourage you to take your exam, hand it in, and then forget about it. You have poems to write and (yes, even more) poems to read. So get on with it, and we'll see you at the end of August.