Department of English at Winthrop - Studying for the GRE

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The Graduate Record Examination

Studying for the GRE

Based on material compiled by Ashley Carmichael, '08, and updated January 2011

For graduating English seniors, especially prospective graduate students, it is difficult to balance end-of-semester papers, projects, and exams with researching graduate programs and studying for the GRE. Here are some tips to help take some of the guesswork out of the process.

The Graduate Record Examination tests your verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and writing skills. Think of it as similar to the SAT: it is a standardized test that measures the knowledge you have acquired over the course of your college career, and you are required to take it to be accepted into graduate school. Please keep in mind that we are only talking about the general test, which again has a verbal, math, and writing section. These changed radically in August 2011, so you can't just go on old-school lore about the tests; you're going to need to do some research, critical thinking, and studying to prepare for them. The analogies and antonyms are gone, replaced by more reading comprehension questions, and the way the online test operates has also changed as well.

You need to time your test-taking carefully to maximize your success in applying to graduate school. Most programs will have early deadlines (often in late December or early January) if you want to apply for assistantships and scholarships. That means you need to have your GRE scores in hand by early December, so you need to take the test no later than October. That way you can retake the test in November to improve your scores if necessary.

The GRE Subject test is anything but basic. It tests your overall knowledge in a specific field, which, for us, would be literature. Do not underestimate it just because it is what we have been studying for four to five years, though; it's quite difficult. You want to use the reading list in the English Major's Notebook to make sure you have covered the major works across the literary periods (see below) and to identify which areas you'll need to work up in more detail. Don't just read about these works; the subject test often asks you to recognize lines of poetry or passages of prose, so you need to know the works pretty well if you want an outstanding score.

Fear not, however! Our wonderful English professors and our graduate assistants have provided some helpful tips for taking both tests. To make this easier, we'll break this section into three parts:

The General Test

The Subject Test in English Literature  

Suggested Study Resources  

General Test

For the GRE general examination, all of the professors and graduate students interviewed suggested that you get an updated GRE practice book to study with. They contain sample GRE tests and different drills and strategies you could use to at least familiarize yourself with the test. If nothing else, you can get a clear picture of what the test looks like, the kinds of questions it asks, etc. The GRE website also has online testing materials you can use for practice.

Dr. Gerald also mentioned, that if you have time, you should try to enroll in a class that teaches you how to take standardized tests as a whole. There are strategies to these things, after all, and both the subject and general tests are timed. If you had all day, you could probably answer most of the questions correctly, but since you don't, you need to have a strategy. The Center for Career Development and Internships can often refer you to these courses.

Most of you will take the test online, so you should probably take some of the practice tests online. They provide online practice tests on the Kaplan website, as well as the GRE website. This is also a great strategy for those of us who are not quite so skilled in math. Yes, math is, indeed, a scary, scary thing. Do not tell anyone, but Dr. Naufftus said that graduate schools rarely find the math score important (Winthrop, in fact, no longer requires it). Do not go into the test thinking this, however; some graduate students have mentioned that their math scores were oddly somewhat higher than their verbal. And don't forget there's an analytical writing section; you should score at least a 4 on this section to impress a graduate school, so make sure you prepare for it thoroughly!

That being said, some more good advice is this: the GRE is important if you want to be a graduate student and be awarded an assistantship or a TA position, but do not freak out. If you are not ready to take it, do not take it yet. However, do allow yourself some time to study adequately for the exam. Honestly, beginning to study two months (or two weeks) in advance is not in your best interest; if you know you want to take it at the end of the fall, start studying for it in the summer. That probably sounds a little outrageous but it is a good way to make sure you are mentally and physically ready to take the GRE. This is also a good way to make sure your sanity is still intact when it is finally time to take the exam. Panicking, stress, and weariness do not a good grade make.

Subject Test in English Literature

Besides, if you want to panic about something, panic about the subject test. The GRE literature subject test can be quite difficult. It basically expects you to know more than half of what you've learned as an undergraduate, and that is why you should also begin reviewing more than a few months ahead of time (see why you need that reading notebook?). According to, each edition of the test contains approximately 230 questions on poetry, drama, biography, the essay, the short story, the novel, criticism, literary theory, and the history of the language. The test draws on literature in English from the British Isles, the United States, and other parts of the world. It also contains a few questions on major works, including the Bible, translated from other languages. The test emphasizes authors, works, genres, and movements.

The questions may be somewhat arbitrarily classified into two groups: factual and critical. The factual questions may require you to identify characteristics of literary or critical movements, to assign a literary work to the period in which it was written, to identify a writer or work described in a brief critical comment, or to determine the period or author of a work on the basis of the style and content of a short excerpt. The critical questions test the ability to read a literary text perceptively. You will probably be asked to examine a given passage of prose or poetry and to answer questions about meaning, form and structure, literary techniques, and various aspects of language. The approximate distribution of questions is:

  • Literary Analysis: 40-55% Questions that call on an ability to interpret given passages of prose and poetry. Such questions may involve recognition of conventions and genres, allusions and references, meaning and tone, grammatical structures and rhetorical strategies, and literary techniques.
  • Identification: 15-20% Recognition of date, author, or work by style and/or content.
  • Cultural and Historical Contexts: 20-25% Questions on literary, cultural, and intellectual history, as well as identification of author or work through a critical statement or biographical information. Also identification of details of character, plot, or setting of a work.
  • History and Theory of Literary Criticism: 10-15% Identification and analysis of the characteristics and methods of various critical and theoretical approaches.

The literary-historical scope of the test follows the distribution below.

  • Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925: 5-10%
  • British Literature to 1660 (including Milton): 25-30%
  • British Literature 1660-1925: 30-35%
  • American Literature through 1925: 15-25%
  • American, British, and World Literatures after 1925: 20-25%

Dr. Richardson's advice was to obtain the syllabi from all the English survey courses that is, World literature, British literature, and American literatureand familiarize yourself with major authors, works, and periods discussed in those classes. She, Dr. Naufftus, and all of the graduate assistants that took the subject exam said that you should grab a Norton or Longman Anthology and read all of the introductions for the periods. Familiarize yourself with the themes of those eras, what was important, some of the historical aspects, and how they affect the works of literature.

Dr. Gerald mentioned that you should review what you are already familiar with and try to acquaint yourself with themes, literature, and authors you are not as comfortable with because the subject test asks a variety of questions of just about everything you can think of.

Dr. Smith advised that you should go through a good literary handbook and review the words and definitions. Some of the questions on the subject test will ask you about certain pieces in relation to certain literary terms, so it would be beneficial to keep the handbook close. Since literary theory turns up on the exam, you'll want to review your (or someone's) ENGL 300 notes before you take the test as well.

I sincerely hope that this information is helpful, and I wish you good luck on your GRE testing.

Study Resources

Last Updated: 8/20/20