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Graduate Program

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The Field of Comparative Literature at Cornell University offers a Ph.D. in all major areas of literary study.  The application and additional information about graduate study at Cornell is available through the University Graduate School's Website. The Field of Comparative Literature normally admits only students intending to take the Ph.D.

Cornell University expects all applicants to complete their application materials without the use of paid agents, credentials services, or other paid professional assistance. The use of such services violates University policy, and may lead to the rejection of application materials, the revocation of an admissions offer, cancellation of admission, or involuntary withdrawal from the University.

The application must be submitted online. All supporting materials (including the writing sample of 15-20 pages) must be uploaded to your application.  Recommendation letters should be uploaded by the recommenders.   If your letters are stored with a credential service such as Interfolio, please use their Online Application Delivery feature and input the email address assigned to your stored document, rather than that of your recommender’s. The electronic files will be attached to your application when they are received and will not require the letter of recommendation cover page. If circumstances prevent your recommender from submitting a letter electronically, we will accept the letter in paper form mailed to:

The Department of Comparative Literature
Graduate Application
Cornell University
240 Goldwin Smith Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-3201

Scan transcripts from each institution you have attended, or are currently attending, and upload into the academic information section of the application. Be sure to remove your social security number from all documents prior to scanning. Please do not send paper copies of your transcripts. If you are subsequently admitted and accept, the Graduate School will require an official paper transcript from your degree-awarding institution prior to matriculation.

Required test:
Applicants should take the GRE's. We do not require a Subject Test.  Cornell University's code is: 2098.
Please plan ahead when scheduling your test date. You are required to self-report your test scores on the application AND instruct IELTS to send your official scores to us.  The committee will not make any admission offers without having the official scores.

International applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language by submitting offical test scores from TOEFL or IELTS.  Graduate School minimum scores are required. For more information, please view the Graduate School's English Language Requirement.

Scores over five years old are no longer valid.

Data may be saved and edited until the application is submitted, at which time no changes may be made.

Applications must be submitted by January 10. Offers of admission and financial aid are made by April 1.


For a list of frequently asked questions about graduate admissions, click here (PDF).

The Program

Graduate programs at Cornell are organized around the "special committee" which is composed of three or four faculty members and endowed with significant autonomy in guiding and determining the particular program of each graduate student. The graduate program in Comparative Literature uses the flexibility inherent in this arrangement to its full advantage. First, the program imposes no required courses, thus allowing the student maximal latitude in composing a program of study. Second, the program sets minimal restrictions on the composition of the special committee, requiring only that the chair of the special committee belong to the graduate field of Comparative Literature, so that the remaining 2 or 3 three members of the committee can be drawn from the graduate field of any discipline.

These two defining aspects of the graduate program permit the graduate student, in consultation with the Special Committee, to compose a program tailored precisely to her interests as these evolve and become refined in the course of study. The graduate program’s flexibility has fostered cutting-edge interdisciplinary approaches and allowed students to explore emergent fields of study.


During the first year the student's work is normally directed by the Field Committee with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) as chair. (In the event the student forms her or his Special Committee early in that year, the Special Committee takes charge.) The Field expects students to have a strong undergraduate major in literature, some introductory familiarity with literary theory, and the ability to do advanced work in two languages and reading knowledge of a third language. Together, the student and the DGS examine the student's preparation and interests to determine an appropriate course of study. By the end of the first year the student, again in consultation with the DGS, should compose her or his Special Committee.

From the third term onward the chief responsibility for the student rests with the Special Committee. This committee normally consists of three members. All of them must be on the Cornell graduate faculty; the chair must be a member of the Field of Comparative Literature, and it is strongly recommended that a second committee member also belong to the Field. Students are required to meet with the members of their committee for the Second-Year Review by the end of their third term, and they are encouraged to meet at least once a year thereafter to formulate topics and compose reading lists for their A-exams and to discuss their progress toward completing the dissertation. It is the student's responsibility to see that this continued contact is maintained.


The student should have a good reading knowledge of the languages of choice; this involves at least two foreign languages, since one of the literatures may be English. It is strongly urged that she or he acquire fluency in speaking one of the foreign languages, especially if a concentration in a foreign language is chosen.

The student normally takes 12 courses during her or his doctoral study . The student selects the courses in consultation with the Special Committee. Of the total number of courses, 10 must be taken for a grade.

Each candidate is required to do at least one year of classroom teaching.

The Second-Year Review and Examinations:
The Second-Year Review. This review is intended to enable students to begin focusing on the topics and the fields of research that will form the basis of their A-exams. To help ensure a substantive and constructive meeting with their special committees, students will prepare a relatively brief statement of research interests and proposed areas of course work up to the A-exam and will supply a piece of writing that represents the current or future shape of their research. The writing sample would consist of previously written work and would not be an essay newly composed for this meeting; it might be a section of a recently completed seminar paper, not necessarily the entire essay. One purpose of the statement would be to reflect on the place of this writing sample in the constellation of a student's interests: to address its relation to future work, to frame it as part of a coherent project, or to use it as a springboard to discuss the comparatist parameters of the anticipated research. The review would take place in the third term as a precondition of registering for the fourth term of courses.

The A-exam:
The purpose of the A-exam is twofold: first, to certify the student’s competence in his or her fields of specialization, particularly with a view to preparing the student to seek employment in a single-language department, and second, to lay the foundations for the dissertation. Scholarship in Comparative Literature is increasingly interdisciplinary and includes a variety of language areas, each with its own disciplinary protocols. The fields of specialization are thus determined by each student in consultation with the Special Committee, which is also the ultimate arbiter of the nature and content of the A exam questions. The fields often entail concentration in a particular period of the major literature, emphasis on a particular genre and on theoretical or methodological approaches. 

The following examples from recently completed A exams roughly follow this pattern:


  • first field: English modernist novel
  • second field: German modernist novel 
  • third field: Psychoanalysis and deconstruction


  • first field: Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean Modernism 
  • second field: Harlem renaissance 
  • third field: Postcolonial theory and theories of modernity 

Student programs with a more prominently interdisciplinary focus might configure the fields somewhat differently, as in the following examples:


  • first field: Melodrama in Hindi film and television 
  • second field: Salman Rushdie and postcolonial theory 
  • third field: Theories of global modernity 


  • first field: Modernism/Postmodernism
  • second field: German and Spanish 20th century experimental novel 
  • third field: Literature, Painting and the Body 

The fields, typically three in number, form the basis of three reading lists. For each list, the student drafts a question which is the starting point of an essay. The essays can range from a survey of a field to a focused analysis that functions as a dry run for a dissertation chapter. Once the essay portion of the exam is completed, an oral exam is scheduled. The A-exam must be taken before the student's seventh term of residence. 

The student must complete an acceptable dissertation. The work is directed by the chair of his or her Special Committee and must be approved by all members of the Special Committee.

The B-exam: 
This oral examination deals with the dissertation. It is administered by the Special Committee

Recommended timeline from the A-exam to the job market (PDF).

Graduate Student Awards

We are happy to award Elizabeth Wijaya the first Comparative Literature Essay Prize for her brilliant essay "To See Die, Again: The Act of Filming and The Act of Killing." This essay analyses the film "The Act of Killing" in the framework of state-legitimized mass killing. She looks at what she calls "the intertwining of performativity, re-performance and action in political and cinematic events" in the reenactment of murders by perpetrators in Indonesia. The essay subtely explores the complex problem of testimony and witnessing in the film and brings to bear theoretical concepts with a careful literary sense and political awareness. This is an important essay in the field and an outstanding example of the best writing in Comparative Literature.