In Focus: The GRE English Subject Test

Grad School Admissions | GRE prep

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of GRE Subject Tests"Wanderer above the sea of Scantron" (Friedrich painting public domain, "multiple choice" by Admissions360 CC-BY-2.0) composite work by Jonathan Evans CC-BY-2.0

  • Who?  You are an aspiring graduate school student applying to a program in one of many STEM fields, in Psychology, or in English Literature.
  • What? In addition to the basic GRE score, many programs (especially highly competitive ones) either recommend or require a particular GRE Subject test. The tests are knowledge-based. In other words, they test broadly your achievement levels in particular subjects. The standardized scores range from 200-990, though the highest score on different administrations of the tests can vary (e.g. the highest score might sometimes be 830; at other times it might be 910). Some of these tests include subscores in different subject areas. The tests are one section each and 2 hours 50 minutes in length. 
    • The tests offered are as follows:
      • Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology
      • Biology
      • Chemistry
      • Literature in English
      • Mathematics
      • Physics
      • Psychology
      • (A Computer Science subject test was formerly offered but was retired in April 2013)
  • Where? The subject tests are paper-and-pencil Scantron based tests offered at designated test centers.
  • When? All the tests are administered simultaneously on three different dates (usually) every year (usually).
  • Why? While flawed, these tests offer an indication of how broad and deep your knowledge is in particular subjects relevant to graduate studies. As a former literature graduate student myself, I can attest to how the GRE English Subject test levels the playing field somewhat for applicants, since many students even with identical undergraduate coursework and grades may have different achievement levels in the subject they wish to pursue. Further, students who may not have the coursework background in a subject can demonstrate an aptitude in Mathematics, for instance, with a high score on the relevant GRE Subject test.

In this post, I will discuss the structure and composition of the GRE English Subject Test and offer some tips and resources for preparation.

It was the Best of Tests, it was the Worst of Tests

While GRE General Test students have a variety of resources at their disposal, some better, some worse, once you delve deeper into the world of the subject tests, the resources available for preparation are both fewer and of lower quality. In other words, test prep companies dedicate far fewer resources to these tests than they do to their flagship programs. Some of these deficiencies come from the very nature of the tests themselves, since for the English subject test at least it would be difficult if not impossible to convey the knowledge of canonical literature necessary to master this test, but other deficiencies in some available "prep" books are just the result of companies wanting to get a product, any product, to market to capitalize on an empty niche.

In my own grad school application process, I remember wondering how to prepare for the English subject test beyond seeking advice on internet forums and pounding through Cliff's Notes of the hundred plus books knowledge of whose content is frequently tested. Needless to say, few satisfactory answers were forthcoming. With the benefit of hindsight and quite a bit of experience preparing students for other standardized tests, I would like to share a couple observations that you may find helpful.

  1. This test tests knowledge and familiarity with English Literature. As such, it is a bit of a double-edged sword for standardized test takers. For those who dread "aptitude" tests such as the GRE General test, the relative lack of shenanigans like below-the-belt trap answers and gimmicks may be refreshing. If you're well-versed in literary history, criticism, and theory, you can expect to do well on the English subject test based on your expertise. This is not to imply that you're off the hook if your brain turns to mush at the sight of a Scantron; the standard rules for predicting answers and working from process of elimination apply.
  2. For those (like me) who excel at tests like the SAT and GRE General, there are fewer creative strategies available to use in the event that one does not know the material tested. However, such strategies are still frequently useful.
  3. It is not essential to get every question right to score in the highest percentile. In fact, you can miss MANY problems and still remain in the 99th percentile. For instance, on the free practice test available on the ETS website, you need a raw score of 206 out of 230 to achieve a score of 750, the lowest score on this administration that received a score in the 99th percentile. Since the top score on these tests varies anywhere from 800 up to 990, the score itself becomes far less significant than it does in the case of a test such as the LSAT, in which though all the scores from 172 to 180 are generally in the 99th percentile, a 180 benefits from a certain je ne sais quoi that a 172 lacks. 
  4. This is not to say that you can just get 206 questions right through some combination of correct answers and random guessing. Though each question is worth one point, the English subject test conserves an old, now retired, convention from the SAT in which each incorrect answer deducts a quarter point, statistically making up for the benefit of random guessing. 

What's Tested?

According to the ETS website, the breakdown of the 230 questions by type is as follows: 

  1. Literary Analysis (40–55%)
  2. Identification (15–20%)
  3. Cultural and Historical Contexts (20–25%)
  4. History and Theory of Literary Criticism (10–15%)

These kinds of delineations are neither hard nor fast though. While the majority of questions fit into only one of these rubrics, there are many questions that combine two of these categories, such as Literary Analysis with Cultural and Historical Contexts, or Identification with Literary Criticism. 

Further, insofar as identification is concerned, a student with a passable knowledge of canonical texts will be able to identify texts simply by knowing the identities of the key characters, the styles characteristic of Melville versus Dickens, or some key theorists associated with certain terms (Said with Orientalism, for instance). It is not out of the question that the test could pull some random paragraph out of Thoreau's Walden and throw you to the wolves, but those kinds of identification questions will be in the minority, to say the least.

As a practical and statistical matter, if you don't know the answer to a question directly, especially one based on factual recall, you can expect at least to be able to knock out a couple wrong answers. For instance, Chaucer didn't write in Old English. If you can eliminate any  answer, it is to your benefit to guess. 

Because this test is such a marathon, the length will work to your advantage. Don't get hung up on any one question. If you're truly stuck, move on. You can get those points elsewhere. However, if you're feeling enterprising, you can use multiple questions over a single passage to make inferences about the others. If you identify a passage as by Pope, then you can reasonably suspect it's Rape of the Lock, and thence that it's a mock epic. 

 Selected Links

Two reading lists of note that I found are as follows: 

If you, like most, haven't read many of these texts in a while, don't fret. Give yourself some time to prepare, but instead of taking a brute force approach through texts you've missed or don't remember, begin by acquainting yourself with the broad themes, narrative, and context of the work. Make sure that you know a couple basic data points about the text and its author: literary school or movement, general date, other salient facts. Then investigate the most common and important excerpts from these texts. For instance, the English test will often excerpt passages that have in some respect become part of our cultural milieu:

Patriotism having become one of our topicks,
Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined
tone, an apophthegm, at which many
will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a
scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he
did not mean a real and generous love of our
country, but that pretended patriotism which
so many, in all ages and countries, have made
a cloak for self-interest.

As a departure point, you could do worse than to establish instant recall of quintessential passages such as the above from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. 

Bottom Line

The GRE Literature in English Subject test need not be for you the insurmountable edifice it once appeared for me.

  1. Print out and take the practice test on the ETS website.
  2. Score your performance and identify your strengths and weaknesses, whether by type of question or by content covered.
  3. Proceed to work from the basic texts and important authors to the less common minutia. Review and return to these texts by degrees. You might really have a hankering to dive back into Joyce's Ulysses. If so, more power to you, but this is not necessarily the most effective use of time for preparation (but by no means discouraged!). 
  4. Take a more analytical approach to the texts in question, cross-referencing the important topics, texts, and movements covered on the exam. Keep a notebook to track your progress and refer to as you progress.

Above all, don't panic; you're applying to a graduate program in literature for a reason! You should know that you're likely more than halfway to success on this test. Apply the principles from your preparation from the Verbal Reasoning portion of the General Test to some of the reading comp skills necessary for the English Subject test. Then proceed onto specific content preparation. As a last point of advice, your attitude and confidence are crucial elements of success on this and any standardized test. Regardless of whether you've prepared for this test until your eyes bleed or if you're going into it cold, go into it confident. If you've read this far in this post, I personally am confident that you have the patience and diligence necessary for success!

If you have questions about the GRE English subject test, please comment below or visit us on our Facebook Page. I will reply to all questions or comments. If you're ready to move forward with GRE General Test preparation, please consider one of PowerScore's excellent GRE preparation options.