In Focus: The GRE English Subject Test

Grad School Admissions | GRE prep

GRE Subject Test Overview"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

  • In contrast to the GRE General Test, which is required for many if not the majority of grad school programs, GRE Subject Tests are intended specifically for graduate applicants to programs in many STEM fields, in Psychology, or in English Literature.
  • 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)
  • The subject tests are paper-and-pencil Scantron based tests offered at designated test centers.
  • All the tests are administered simultaneously on three different dates (usually) every year (usually).
  • While these tests are not perfect, they offer an indication of how broad and deep your knowledge is in particular subjects relevant to graduate studies. As a former literature graduate student, 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.

GRE Subject Test Preparation

While students preparing for the GRE General Test have a variety of resources at their disposal,  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 the more popular GRE General Test. Some of the difficulty preparing for the subject tests is due to the style of the tests themselves, since for the English subject test, for example, it would be difficult if not impossible to convey the knowledge of canonical literature necessary to master this test. However, often the available test preparation products are also not top quality.

In my grad school application process, I wondered 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. Few satisfactory answers were forthcoming. With the benefit of hindsight and my 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. If you dread admissions tests such as the GRE General test, you might find the more straightforward nature of these tests 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. However, good test-taking skills are still essential; the standard rules for predicting answers and working from process of elimination apply.
  2. For those 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 or the GRE General Test, in which students and admissions committees tend to emphasize the score itself in addition to the corresponding percentile. 
  4. Unfortunately, even if you get 206 questions right, you are not guaranteed a raw score of 206. 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 possible the test could pull some random paragraph out of Thoreau's Walden, but those kinds of identification questions will be in the minority.

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 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 worry. 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.

To begin your preparation, you may wish to focus on memorizing and identifying quintessential passages such as the above from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. 

Next Steps

The GRE Literature in English Subject test need not be for you an insurmountable edifice.

  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. 
  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, be confident! 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 on to specific content preparation. 

If you have further questions about the GRE Literature in English or other subject tests, please join us on our free GRE and Graduate School Admissions Forums. Expert PowerScore staff are ready to respond to all your questions.

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