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The GRE Literature Subject Test


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Hello, everyone! I am new to this forum, so this topic might have been exhausted; for that, I apologize.

I am applying to English graduate programs in the fall, so I will be taking the literature subject test in October. I've been studying all summer, reading the Norton chronologically, etc., but I would like to hear from veterans of the test. Was there material on it that surprised you? Was there a particular author and/or work that was mentioned frequently? Any general advice/tips?

Thank you *so* much for your time!

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I haven't taken the subject test yet either, but I've heard that, in addition to what's in the Norton, you're going to want to brush up on some theory. Also, there are some questions on non-English works (works in translation such as the Bible, Homer, etc). I've also heard that you want some basic knowledge of Greek/Roman mythology. Also, Milton is a big name that shows up quite a bit, or so I've been told. I don't know it you've checked out the resources on the ETS website, but they have a lot of good suggestions for both test preparation and test-taking. One thing they stress heavily is that you are not expected to be able to answer every question. In fact, it is to your advantage to answer only questions that you know the answer to or for which you can eliminate at least two answer choices.

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Check out the hapax legomenon website: http://lasr.cs.ucla.edu/alison/hapaxlegomena/index.html This has a bunch of flash cards you can use. There are theory questions. Basically, they'll have a short reading of a text and you identify the school of theory. It's very simple theory and very obvious, heavy-handed readings, so don't overthink it. There will be passage identification questions. Chaucer and Beowolf usually make an appearance. Early modern texts are pretty big too, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Marlowe (just the big hitters usually). Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is historically popular. There are also more reading comprehension questions than there were previously, so if you have an older test prep book, those practice tests will have more passage identification and less comprehension questions. That can throw off your time management in the test. However, I would recommend getting some prep books. I found them useful. Also, most importantly, try not to freak out! I'm usually a good test taker and was scoring 98-99% on practice tests before I took the actual test, but I had a bit of a panic attack and ended up in the 92%. Just try to do some meditation or something before you take it because you can never prepare perfectly for this thing and you might get thrown by a series of unfamiliar questions at first, BUT odds are really high you'll know lots of other ones. You don't have to score anywhere near perfectly to get a high score, so don't fret if you hit a rough spot early on. Also, use process of elimination, BUT if you can't get it down to two options you feel pretty confident about, I'd leave it blank given the point penalty for wrong answers. Good luck!

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Yeah, I've got to sign up for this and start getting ready once I'm done with the general GRE this week. The book I have told me most students feel like they've just been mugged when they're leaving the testing center, hah. Also my huge lack of knowledge in Brit Lit is probably going to kill me here, I have a giant hole in my knowledge between renaissance lit and 20th century Brit Lit. A huge portion of the test concentrates on that compared to my specialty in American Lit. Hope admission councils take that into consideration! Haha.

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Check out the hapax legomenon website: http://lasr.cs.ucla....mena/index.html This has a bunch of flash cards you can use. There are theory questions. Basically, they'll have a short reading of a text and you identify the school of theory. It's very simple theory and very obvious, heavy-handed readings, so don't overthink it. There will be passage identification questions. Chaucer and Beowolf usually make an appearance. Early modern texts are pretty big too, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Marlowe (just the big hitters usually). Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is historically popular. There are also more reading comprehension questions than there were previously, so if you have an older test prep book, those practice tests will have more passage identification and less comprehension questions. That can throw off your time management in the test. However, I would recommend getting some prep books. I found them useful. Also, most importantly, try not to freak out! I'm usually a good test taker and was scoring 98-99% on practice tests before I took the actual test, but I had a bit of a panic attack and ended up in the 92%. Just try to do some meditation or something before you take it because you can never prepare perfectly for this thing and you might get thrown by a series of unfamiliar questions at first, BUT odds are really high you'll know lots of other ones. You don't have to score anywhere near perfectly to get a high score, so don't fret if you hit a rough spot early on. Also, use process of elimination, BUT if you can't get it down to two options you feel pretty confident about, I'd leave it blank given the point penalty for wrong answers. Good luck!

Thank you for stressing the importance of staying calm even in the midst of unfamiliar questions. I have to tell myself everyday I study that I won't know everything, but it's helpful to hear it from someone who really knows that's true.

Thank you for your help!

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This website helped a lot: http://www.duke.edu/~tmw15/

Reading the Norton Anthology cover to cover is probably a waste of time. You should focus on making note cards and familiarizing yourself with canonical poetry (as well as the test question format). I recommend this YouTube channel for learning important poems: http://www.youtube.com/user/SpokenVerse

You might also find that it's helpful to watch adaptations of important Shakespearean plays you haven't seen before. For biblical questions, it's helpful to watch the Ten Commandments.

In my experience, the theory questions you encounter won't extend beyond "What kind of theoretical approach is this?" If you have a working knowledge of Marxist theory, Deconstruction, New Criticism, etc. you should be fine.

Finally, as a point of reference, it's a good idea to keep in mind that the highest scores on the subject test often come from test takers who have earned an MA. My own score went up 200 points (!) in the five years between earning a BA and applying for a PhD.

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+1 for the vade mecum.

Remember that you only need the "fun facts at a cocktail party" level of knowledge of anything you've read in order to take the exam. You may actually be better off shacking up with some Bloom Masterplots than the Norton anthology.*

*You will never hear me say this in any other context.

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I took the test in April. I was really nervous after hearing how hard it was, but I actually felt that the exam was very much in line with what I expected based on Princeton Review tests, Vade Mecum, and other study guides. Rote memorization is key, but don't forget to take a step back and think about the larger scheme of things, too. As others have said, keeping your cool in the test is the most important. I thought I missed a LOT of questions, but I ended up doing well anyway. Just keep moving through the questions, even if you didn't have any time problems on the practice tests. It's a tough test, but soon you'll be done! Good luck!

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I don't mean to stir up concern, as clearly a lot of people had an okay time with the test. My experience was different, and frankly, it was the most frustrating part of the application process for me.

I studied (almost) every day for about six months; I was nailing the practice tests, and had compiled and memorized a ton of flash cards. In short, I was super prepared with the trivial knowledge stuff and ready to go and kick its ass. The problem that I ran into was that what was on the test (I sat it Sept 2010) was quite different from the practice tests (especially the ETS ones), and there was a lot of material not on any of my study lists. But the most damaging part for me was that the breakdown of subject areas provided by ETS was completely off-base. I'd say that about 85% of my test was straight-up reading comprehension, making the six months of canonical study pretty worthless. Combine this with the fact that I was in an overcrowded room (they overbooked it by 23 students and the next test taker was less than 2ft from my face) with loud construction right outside the window, and several people right next to me tapping their pencils, hammering calculators (they mix test subjects from various fields), some were even sounding out words under their breath, and I found I couldn't concentrate at all. And because of the much higher amount of reading comprehension than advertised, the ability to concentrate was key. In short, I didn't stand a chance.

Although I did well on the standard test, both the subject and the reading comprehension part of the standard did illuminate a flaw in my academic capabilities: I really need a quiet environment to concentrate on what I'm reading, nor can I absorb a whole page of text by simply reading the first five words. Although I was fortunate to still get very generous offers from PhD programs, but I do think that my lousy subject score hurt my chances at other places.

So were I you, I'd be somewhat skeptical about what the ETS tells you is on the test, and prepare yourself for a potentially much larger amount of reading comprehension questions than canonical knowledge; speed reading and test taking strategies are key. Also, for me, the theory was way more in depth than I was led to believe. I'd taken a ton of theory courses, including a comprehensive historical survey, so I felt 100% fine answering the kind of questions that were coming up in the practice tests (a simple matter of knowing who to attribute certain terminology/tone of writing to). The kind of stuff I was getting was more along the lines of "Who is Judith Butler responding to in such and such a work?" or "The focus of Deleuze's Rhizome is on a) multiplicity B) arbitrariness c) cheese" etc. In other words, it was way more complex than anything I'd seen in the study guides.

Again, this was the most disappointing aspect for me because I was more than prepared for the test; I worked really hard and invested a lot of time and effort into it. But the horrible environment I took it in, combined with what appeared to be a whole different group of readings, really messed me up. Having talked to several others who took the same test I did, it seems that that one was an anomaly and there were several questions that we still don't know the answers to. Hopefully they've gone back to testing what their website says they'll test you on. So if I were you, keep doing what you're doing, but just be prepared for a possible crap shoot of material. Best of luck to you!

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Sorry to hear the test was so frustrating for you, truckbasket.

One reason I second recommendations for websites like the vade mecum and hapax legoma (sp?) are that the study information comes from crowdsourcing, not the ETS. Actual English grad applicants who have taken the exam write these sites, and other applicants share corrections/updates/comments to help the webmanager improve them.

So yes, my advice to those still studying would be to put a lot more stock by some of the websites fellow gradcafe'rs are suggesting, and less by some of the prep books out on the market.

Edited by runonsentence
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So, are there really a lot of programs that required the subject test? So far, all of the schools on my narrowed down (still narrowing a bit) list don't require it.

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Yeah, most of the schools I applied to required it, but maybe more schools are changing to not require it. I would just say that if you're choosing not to take it, make sure to check very closely that all the schools you are applying to don't require it.

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Truckbasket,

I totally feel you! I've taken the GRE general test twice, and both times I had similar testing experiences with the people who ran the testing center, as well as the test takers themselves. My testing room had people taking all sorts of different test, from teacher certification exams, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, it was nuts. It doesn't help that behind the big glass window was the testing center staff, a bunch of giggling twenty-something girls, who I had to put up with on both occasions. The second time I almost got myself kicked out of the exam because I left the testing room to chew them out b/c I could hear them laughing through the glass wall that separates us. After threatening to waste my $160 bucks just to make sure I got complaints filed against all of them (which I did anyway after I left and called ETS) they offered me EARPLUGS. I'm dead serious. Plastic wrapped, individual little packets of ear plugs they keep on standby. Oh, and one time my computer froze for like ten minutes. The test proctors couldn't explain it, but yea. I don't think I've been that scared to possibly see a blue screen in my entire life. After about ten minutes, it started working again.

The Lit subject test is only being offered here at one university campus testing cite, I'm expecting it to be packed. But after giggling proctors and fellow test takers with little respect for the quite atmosphere of a testing facility, I think it's safe to say the worst is over. What does suck is that the Lit subject test is only offered on Saturdays here, and in the morning. And I'm not a morning person.

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The standard test wasn't too bad for me as it was in a dedicated testing facility, so I got a little cubicle thing. There were still lots of distractions, but it wasn't awful. I'm just not great at reading dense blocks of text on a computer screen (it hurts my eyes), and so, of course, I got slammed with three separate sets of reading comprehension questions (despite the study guides saying there would only be two), all on unreadable, poorly written technical jargon. And keep in mind that the accompanying questions are designed to make you fail by either tripping you up with semantic trickery and sucking up all your time -- so you have to be on your toes and watch for subtle nuances or inferred statements.

The subject test environment was very different. It was in a classroom designed to hold 40 students, but they had a headcount of 63. They tried to set up tables for people in the hallway, but didn't have enough staff to monitor the overflow test takers, so we were asked to share desks with one another; the noise from the other test takers and the construction was simply unbearable. (I probably should have asked for earplugs, but I was hardly in a rational frame of mind. Plus, the sixty seconds it would take to ask / get the plugs would have probably cost me a good five or so questions.) The whole thing was a farce, but it's not like I was expecting much from the ETS.

As for schools not requiring the test, there are several now. And from what I understand, that number is increasing rapidly. When I was doing my research, there were several top-tier programs that stated that the score was not required, yet still urged people to send it (if they did well). There are a couple of programs (Columbia being one) that outright and vociferously reject it, and more seem to be heading in that direction. However, there are still plenty of programs that still rely on it as an initial chopping block -- even though it's not a key part of the application.

I take consolation in the fact that the GRE is not indicative of any useful skill in the humanities, and that the widespread disdain for the test within the profession is fairly common. Could you imagine if programs actually placed value in speed reading, inane analogies, writing formulaic five-paragraph essays, cutting as many corners as possible, and analyzing texts based solely on the the first sentence of a page? Aside from the time-saving pragmatic function of turning living, breathing applicants into quantifiable statistics, the only thing the ETS does well is maintain their choke hold and make a shit-load of money.

Cynicism overload!

But on the positive side, my vocabulary got a significant boost.

Edited by truckbasket
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Truckbasket,

I totally feel you! I've taken the GRE general test twice, and both times I had similar testing experiences with the people who ran the testing center,

Me too. I think I've mentioned before on here that when I took the subject test last year they moved the test center without telling anyone! Or at least possibly some people were told, but I certainly wasn't and neither were the 12-or-so others manically running through Test Center Town, without a map, trying to follow some scribbled instructions they'd left taped INSIDE a door (which of course no-one noticed until it was almost too late).

Not to alarm this year's test takers or anything... but, yeah, be prepared for lots of general administrative incompetence (ETS themselves were actually great and very organized, but the people they contract out to...huh.)

Edited by wreckofthehope
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For those interested, here are some schools I've looked at organized by sub-test/no sub-test requirements:

No subtest required: UNC, Duke, Chicago, Columbia, Brown, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Rice, UCSD

Subtest Required: UVA, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, UT Austin, Notre Dame, Boston College, WUSTL, NYU, Cornell

I know I've looked at others, but I don't have more info handy. It might be pretty useful to keep a running list somewhere to keep updating, though. For posterity's sake...

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None of the schools I am looking at currently require it: Brown, UMass Amherst, UMinnesota Twin Cities, UC Riverside, Emory, Buffalo, Stony Brook, Albany, Penn State, or UF.

From what I've heard, the subject test is falling out of fashion. It is arbitrary and focuses too much on canonical, and mostly British writing, which doesn't apply to half of the PhD applicants.

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Okay, so with the new format, I'm not sure how to edit my last post, so I want to add that at UMass Amherst, it's not necessary if you are doing the American Studies concentration, which is what I'm considering there.

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Okay, so with the new format, I'm not sure how to edit my last post, so I want to add that at UMass Amherst, it's not necessary if you are doing the American Studies concentration, which is what I'm considering there.

You may have had trouble editing because (in both the old format and the new) the site only allows the author of a post to edit within 60 minutes of the post's publication.

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  • 2 weeks later...

DEFINITELY use the Vade Mecum! I haven't taken the test yet, but I found this little gem of a website last summer, and had a ton of fun just going through each author page by page. I find it a lot less overwhelming than the Nortons, if only because you don't have three or four gigantic books with thin pages that don't like pen sitting in front of you!

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I am REALLY nervous about taking this subject test. I'm wondering if I should make flashcards of the info on Vade Mecum or what. Does anyone have tips, especially if you weren't as familiar with a LOT of the info on that website?

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I am REALLY nervous about taking this subject test. I'm wondering if I should make flashcards of the info on Vade Mecum or what. Does anyone have tips, especially if you weren't as familiar with a LOT of the info on that website?

I'm planning on making flashcards of the Vade Mecum stuff (as well as some stuff not on the Vade Mecum that's on the Hapax Legomena site). I've already turned my compilation of both into an epic study guide (typing things out has always been my preferred method of memorization), and I plan to either write out or type out flash cards to review, now that I've given myself a basic overview. I also plan on reading/skimming over some of the works that are commonly featured on the exam (esp. Milton and Chaucer), because I think that's really the best (only?) way to get their style firmly grounded in my head. (Firmly grounded? Does that even make sense? :) ). I'm starting to kick myself for not taking the Milton class I was registered for last year. I just didn't want to take Milton AND Shakespeare the same term!!

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