Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.
August 21, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Applying for PhD programs. My GRE scores have expired, and I'm signed up to take both the general test and the EngLit subject test within a month of each other. Is this insane?

Firstly. My general test date is less than a month away. I've hardly studied. This will be my second time with the GRE, as I took it six years ago, so I sort of know the ropes.

But. The lit GRE is a monster. Difficult to get a seat, only held a few times a year, crazy breadth of reading. I've got a seat lined up for October, before I leave town for three weeks. My first application deadline is in early December. Also, I was a lit major. But that was a while ago now.

Also, will be away for 3 weeks mid-Oct to early Nov.

Is this insane? Should I postpone one of these tests? Thing is, all the programs I'm applying to require the general GRE; only one requires the lit. It happens to be my top choice.

Studying-wise, where should I focus my energy right now in order to do reasonably well on both tests? Note: my verbal and written scores are important to these programs. Math is not very important, but failing the math section wouldn't look too good. I'm also horrible with math -- have a number-related learning disability -- and had a math tutor the last time I wrote the GRE, when I thought the math score was more important than it was. Verbal-wise, I scored above the 95th percentile last time and am not terribly worried. I've got study guides for both tests.

Is anything from, say, Khan Academy useful here?

Totally stressed out. Any advice would be much appreciated.
posted by Miss T.Horn to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, go ahead and take the tests. It would be insane to do them both on the same day. Which is what I did. I did fine.
posted by pickypicky at 10:45 AM on August 21, 2012

I took the English Lit GRE and did reasonably well on it. It's not insane to try to take it in October, but you WILL need to study hard. From what I recall, it was mostly breadth and not depth. What I did was create a list of periods of literature, and various movements within those periods, and various authors within those movements. Then I memorized basic stylistic/biographical/historical detail about all of 'em, as well as familiarizing myself with the author's MOST-famous works (the test does NOT get needlessly obscure). This is a test which favors old-skool style flashcard preparation. Good luck!
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:45 AM on August 21, 2012

I'm assuming you're applying to grad programs in English? If so, you're right, the math part shouldn't matter. I had high 90s in both the verbal and the logic part of the general GRE and just above 50 in the math part (hell, I hadn't taken a math class since I did calculus in high school, so I'd forgotten a lot!). I also scored in the high 90s on the lit GRE (which I took on the same day, like pickypicky). Got into programs, with full TA ride, no problems.

I remember coming out of those tests and saying to my friend, "THIS is why I used to read The Book of Lists as a child! THIS is why I've always liked Jeopardy!" Seriously, that's what it feels like, and in that light, julthumbscrew's study advice is spot-on.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:54 AM on August 21, 2012

I'm a program coordinator in an PhD Program in English. We require the GRE general and subject test. Here's the skinny: our Admissions Committee is interested in the strength of applicants entire application packets and for the most part the GRE general test is an interesting factoid (very high or very low gets noticed but is not determinative) and the Subject Test, even less interesting. In our Program you will be accepted if you have an excellent writing sample, a complelling personal statement, solid letters of rec and transcripts regardless of the GRE scores. But if you have a only a good writing sample, an okay personal sample, reasonable letters of rec and transcripts and so-so GREs, probably not. So, my advice to you: take the exams now and do the best you can (when I took the GREs I learned 250 new vocabulary words in 2 weeks using flash cards) then focus your energies on your writing sample and personal statement and getting solid letters of rec.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:55 AM on August 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

You ought to at least take a practice test (preferably a computer test that completely simulates it). I just did some GRE prep with some of my students, and one of the things I reminded them was that almost everyone does better the second time they take a test. The GRE was changed a LOT in August of 2011, so the fact that you took it six years ago is not that helpful. (The bones are the same, of course, but some types of questions are completely gone. If those were ones you did well on, you may need to reconsider.) I strongly suggest that you get some decent test prep software now so that you aren't taken by surprise on test day. You don't have to be obsessive about it, but just get familiar with the new structure. Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 11:21 AM on August 21, 2012

I don't know if you have the practice books for the subject test, but if not, definitely get them! I think I had two different ones from different publishers (IIRC, one was by the Princeton Review, and one was called Cracking the GRE). They were extremely helpful, as were my Norton Anthologies--specifically, the intro sections to the authors and to the general time periods. I literally went back and read all the intros in all of the Nortons, outlining as I went. I guess it's a testament to my dorkiness that I thoroughly enjoyed this.

I also did poorly in the math part of the General (52%). Doesn't matter.

Do as many practice tests as possible for both Subject and General. I wished I had done more practice tests for the General.

Best of luck!
posted by désoeuvrée at 12:09 PM on August 21, 2012

Everyone says the GRE math is pretty comparable to (if not actually easier than) SAT math, so if you know it's a real weak spot, you might want to take an SAT practice math section or two, get the College Board official guide to the SAT, and use Khan to help figure out the stuff you got wrong.

He also has a GMAT math section, but it's way, way, way in excess of your needs.
posted by SMPA at 12:12 PM on August 21, 2012

I don't think your plan is insane, at all. I took the general GRE and English Lit subject GRE back when both were paper-and-pencil only, so it's possible my information is out of date, but I think julthumbscrew has the right approach. For studying for the subject test, get the Oxford Companion to English Literature and as many sample tests as you can. Do a sample test and take note of every question that you got wrong, or that you got right but were unsure of. Look up the relevant entry in the Oxford Companion. Then take the next sample test and repeat. I found that although the subject GRE tests for breadth of knowledge, it doesn't actually cover all that huge a range of domain knowledge from year to year; if you can get sample tests from recent years, you'll get a sense of the GRE canon. Most of the questions on specific literary works are answerable with a superficial knowledge of the work in question; you just have to connect "Nabokov" or "Essay on Man" in the question with "Humbert Humbert" or "heroic couplets" among the multiple-choice answers. Obviously it's best to go in (to the GRE and to grad school) having read widely in the literature itself, but for the purpose of the test you can paper over quite a few holes in your knowledge with the Oxford Companion or Wikipedia or SparkNotes, which means you don't have to study too strenuously.

Don't sweat the general GRE. Your math score doesn't matter at all. Not even "flunking" that section will really hurt your chances with a lit program, unless you're specifically applying to do some kind of unusual quant/statistical/data-mining stuff, which you're not. You have no reason to worry about the verbal section since you aced it last time. Maybe study a bit for the analytical section, but don't overdo it.

As Pineapplicious says, other parts of your application package are likely to be much more important to the admissions committee than any of the GRE scores. I think the main danger with the GREs is that you could become so preoccupied by studying for them that you'd take time away from preparing the rest of your application. So, guard against that: maybe designate certain days of the week for GRE study and other days for working on the rest of the application. The personal statement and writing sample are crucial and need to be really polished. Put your time into those.
posted by Naiad at 6:45 PM on August 21, 2012

Nthing to worry more about your writing sample and SOP and, to a lesser extent, your letters, than studying for the GRE. I'm a Lit PhD student and from what my advisers have said GRE scores are a very minor consideration to admissions committees. However, the university itself might have stricter requirements than the department, so you want to avoid biffing it completely. From what I understand, a low score won't keep the department from being able to accept you, but might make you ineligible for certain sources of funding. Emphasis on the "might." A poorly written writing sample or vague statement definitely will keep you from being accepted, so spend most of your time and energy on those.

I took the Lit GRE and the GRE within a month of each other and it was totally fine. I was scoring well on verbal practice tests, and completely bombing the quant practice tests, so I pretty much gave up on studying for the GRE and focused on the Lit test. I ended up with a 98% score on the Lit, 5 on the analytical writing section, ~95% Verbal and a fabulous ~25% Quant. USA! USA! I got into a program that is an excellent fit, with full funding and health insurance for 7 years, so my strategy worked great for me.

I used the Cracking the Literature GRE book and the Vade Mecum website and made flash cards. I also skimmed the Norton English and American lit anthologies. When taking the test I found that if I didn't know an answer outright then I could eliminate at least two options, then figure out the answer from there. It was actually kind of fun.

Good luck! It's a really difficult test to study for because you never know what that year's test is going to focus on. Just do your best. You have plenty of time to prepare.
posted by apricot at 8:24 PM on August 21, 2012

Another English PhD student here, at a school that requires the subject test (though I have colleagues who never took it, oddly enough!), nthing that as long as your scores aren't truly terrible, you'll be fine. I have worked in the office during admissions season at another program, and the same was true there. Scores that were so low as to indicate serious lack of familiarity with the canon were marked, but as long as the scores were reasonable, it didn't matter much.

Everybody knows that it's impossible to actually test the skills that matter in and English PhD program in a test of that kind, and that the GRE canon is a weird and limited canon that definitely privileges certain periods over others in a way that makes it especially difficult for, say, anyone who wants to study c20 lit. Or theory. Or plenty of other genuinely important and interesting fields.

And seriously don't worry about the math. You might want to take a quick tour through a prep book, but don't freak out. It's not crazy hard, and it matters very little.

Advice for test-day: don't let yourself start trying to second-guess the adaptive test system and figure out what it means that your questions are getting harder or easier. Taking the test this way is pretty bizarre, but it seems to work better if you just ignore the fact that it's responding to your answers and tailoring itself to you.
posted by dizziest at 6:33 AM on August 22, 2012

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