Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Literature Subject Test: Problems, Advice

I took the Literature in English GRE Subject Test today. And of course I can't stop thinking about it.

This test is, I've heard from several sources, the hardest standardized test or at least the hardest of the GREs. It used to be one of the be-all end-alls of the graduate application, but over the past ten or fifteen years its weight as an indicator of a student's literature-learning/analyzing potential has been reduced significantly. Is there something wrong with the test? Is there something wrong with English major undergraduates?

I think the answer is a little bit of both. The books, the former test takers, the successful applicants who squeezed out the best score they could and then put all their eggs in the writing sample basket, all seem to agree it's tough as hell. It's also impossible to really "study" for. There is no way of knowing what you'll be tested on, save a few of the GRE folks favorite authors. And this test isn't only about literature. It's about English monarchs. It's about Greek mythology. It's about interpreting passages from the Bible.

I'm sure in biology, math, or engineering there are certain questions you know you'll see, or at least certain specific topics you know are necessary to know inside and out. I imagine the undergraduate work in these fields probably offers a good foundation for the exams. I saw some of the students' guidebooks with neat vocab lists and diagrams in them. Each of those terms or pictures would require the student to know the deifnition, and know how the thing in the picture works. I don't think they would have to know the entire history of the thing, interpret the thing, or place the thing in some other context. Do they identify scientists and mathematicians by looking at fragments of their formulas? I wonder.

I'm not saying the other kids have it easy, I think they just have a better chance of doing well on their tests. I have seen, on the general graduate admissions sites at different schools, the required scores for engineering applicants, psychology applicants, etc. They are expected to score very highly. This indicates it not only must be possible, but that the very good students do score highly! Their tests are perhaps good indicators of their abilities or at least their knowledge in their field.

Now back to the Lit test. Many schools no longer require it, which shows it's fading as an indicator of student potential. Only half of my schools require it, and I have it already on the way to those who do. I am waiting for the scores to decide if I will send it to those who don't! Perhaps many low scores are coming in. Perhaps schools took some chances by ignoring a few of those scores, and were pleasantly surprised by their picks. Whatever their reasoning, the people who evaluate candidates, the most important judges in this application process, seem to have trumped ETS. A faceless testing entity (who sends out half-trained hired guns as proctors) is no longer in control of our fate, so that seems like a good thing.

Part of the fault for the decline of the Lit test may lie with undergrad English programs. At my school, and at many others, there is not much specific required work for earning that English degree. We take all the same Gen Eds of course, but we are not required to toil over novels and poetry anthologies the way a biology student toils over anatomy coloring books and forty pound texts. This is in a couple ways a good thing -- for our self-development (which humanities students are likely to consider) we get exposed to many other disciplines and get a liberal arts background, and for our development as English scholars, we have the chance to soak up all the contexts we will have to consider when we do eventually sit down with our own forty pounds of sundry books. But the downside to all this "elective" freedom is a lack of focus, and certainly a lack of reading! We don't read nearly as much as we should. And they don't try to make us. They don't even really suggest it.

Lucky for me, I'm a philosophy minor (reading! reading! reading!), I am older so I've read more over the years, and I am in a very small program where I get a lot of personal attention. I may not have done the copious reading of an undergrad at some prestigious liberal artsy school, but between Nietzche, Marx and pals, the ten years since high school, and the suggested outside readings I get from professors in both departments (ENG and PHL) I think I was in a little better shape than some. But not the best shape.

So in short, I think there must needs be (I like that idiom) more required period work, author-specific courses, and theory at the undergraduate level for any student to EVER be even half prepared for this test. I say half prepared because you should be expected to do a significant amount of work and reading on your own. But it's really very hard to do most of it on your own, without your college experience functioning as a good guide for what to study and how.

For the record, the only person I know who scored very high on this test was a Yale M. Phil. holder at the time, and he'd already been teaching college for 20 years when he went back to take the test for re-admittance to the Ph.D. program. If that's the only kind of (amazing) dude who can get a high score, I don't think the rest of us have anything to be ashamed of.

Whatever be the reason,
if it's all on ETS, or a discipline-wide malaise,
the test is something to be taken
a little more lightly these days.
I know I was not making this face during the test.

So here's the advice portion. I think it can be said that this is a test on anything that can be "read," save technical scientific work. The scope of it is daunting, to say the least, and even the depth of it can get intense when the GRE crafters really sink their teeth into a period or author.

So you can count on something from every "period" in the last 2000 years, and some Greeks as far back as 2500 years. And not just the literature, but the essays, the history, the politics.

Hwaet! You can count on more than just literature "in English." That includes translations from French, Spanish, Italian, Old English, and they don't even translate the Middle English for you! Know your funny OE/ME characters.

They got hung up on two periods on my test (I won't say which in case ETS comes after me. Let's wait till I get the scores.). One of these periods had a lot of similar almost indistinguishable writers (for someone who doesn't focus on them), and none of the works were something a student was likely to have read in class. The other period was, I will admit, one that bores me to death. But I was lucky enough to have taken a class on it in the spring. Point being, if you have already focused in on a period and it dominates your reading, don't bet on it being on the test. Make sure to read some stuff you hate a few months before.

There will be myths on there, but there's no way to know which. Exciting! Dammit.

The final words: THEORY and MODERN POETRY. I'm not giving away specific information about my test here. These are things that are on every Lit test in significant amounts. I know a lot about theory because I like it, but you may hate it. Read it anyway, or at least get some handy guide to it. The modern poetry had me scared shitless, but I studied up on it in a couple of nights. I know I missed a couple of them, but for the most part it was easy after just reading a bunch of the poems. The stuff is so weird, it all looks the same at first, but learning poets by simple little idiosyncracies is probably good enough, if you also know some history.

(I think I will grow to like these poets so I'm glad I threw myself into it. Even so, for today Robert Frost was "Frosty Trees and Apples," Carl Sandburg was "Mr. Chicago politico," and Wallace Stevens was "All colors and birds." Silly mnemonics, but they worked.)

Driving home I realized I totally fucked up by giving a postmodern poem to Countee Cullen, which meant another one or two answers was wrong. At least I realized it, and at least I thought about it. No matter what, I know I did really well on the first huge chunk of it and any guess I made was an educated one (that is, until they called, "Twenty minutes!"). I did get a little gift at the end, when I was frantically racing to finish and turned to a page with ALL the questions about one favorite author's passage. Score!

Now we shall see. (And so will Boulder, Cornell, Princeton, and a few others.)


  1. Goddamn Countee Cullen.

    This is seriously one of the best posts I've read... and I'm sure you did great!

  2. thanks for sharing information really it is very useful

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