Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Grad School: GRE Prep

I went by the office yesterday, and said hi to the student assistant and another student in the little library. They were trying to figure out how to study for the GREs, but feeling overwhelmed. They'd just started. So, after making sure they knew about the horrible employment issues and opportunity costs, I talked to them a bit about preparing for the exams.

Here goes, then, tips for preparing for the exams.

Take a pre-test. Yep, you can get those on the GRE site. Then go through it to figure out where you're weak, and focus on those areas. That may seem obvious, but it's not. Most people want to study what they like to study.

But here's a caveat: if you're going into the humanities, you may think no one cares about your math score. Maybe they don't. But you also don't want it to stand out on the low end, right? And if you're thinking of something like history, then good math scores may be a lot more important than you think at first, because historians use lots of statistics, and you can learn a lot by understanding math well.

In English lit, the only way to really do a bubble test exam is to be pretty canonical. That means some of those courses in really cool lit by marginalized folks won't be represented well. That sucks, and is one of the problems with a test like the GRE.

But since you can't change the system before you get into it, you need to know how to play the game. Do the pre-test, and figure out your areas of weakness. Compare with the statistical breakdown on the site. If you haven't taken a Brit lit survey from 1660-1925, and are weak in that area, recognize that the GRE site claims that the 25-35% of test focuses on that area. Your payoff for studying that area is relatively bigger than for working on the same level of weakness in classical lit.

Also pay attention to the sorts of questions you missed. Do you make the connection between a parody of a work and the work? Do you miss the poetry conventions?

Most of my students are weakest on poetry. They just don't study much poetry here, and when they do, it's usually 20th century poetry, so they aren't at ease with earlier conventions (which sometimes means they don't get the way 20th century poetry plays with those conventions, but don't realize it). Remember, though, that poetry's usual shortness (compared with triple deckers, anyway) makes it lots easier to use on a bubble test.

Once you've figured out your areas of weakness, you need to hit the books. The thing is, you don't need to read deeply for this sort of test, but widely. Get some anthologies. (I used the Norton's a lifetime ago, but Longman's would also be fine.) Read the introductions, especially for the periods you're weak in. Take notes (since writing helps you remember). Read the headnotes for works, and read the works. Think about what makes Marlowe feel different from Shakespeare, what makes Jonson different from Johnson, and so forth. Try to build a sort of scaffold for yourself, and think about how writers fit into broad periods, where they fit in relation to one another. What makes Wordsworth suck romantic? Why can't Spenser spell?

You don't need to read the whole of The Faerie Queene, but read enough of the first book to get a feel for the verse. (And then you can read the whole thing as a treat someday when you can't get your usual drugs, and try to figure out the circularity of time in Book I.)

Get a list of the 50 most important novels/plays, and then visit your local academic library and look at Masterplots/Masterpieces. (These are a series of volumes with abstracts or summaries of works of literature. Because, really, do you want to read Dickens?)

If you can get a group together, get a group together. When I studied for the GREs, my group assigned a different piece to each person for presentation. I still remember Tintern Abbey with something less than hatred because the guy in our group loved it so much that I got a little bit of that.

All that work for a stupid test?

Yeah, I don't know. My score went up by 100 points from the pretest to the real thing after most of a summer of studying, and I think my test scores helped me a lot getting into a better grad program, especially since I was coming from a little regarded regional university and competing for a spot with folks from ivy league schools. (The grad studies person in the department once commented on my scores, so I know he had paid attention to them; I was also one of--I think--4 people from a public school in my entering class of 28, and that counts Oxbridge as a public school.)

The really worthwhile thing about the summer of studying was that I got a broad overview of literature in English, and that was a great starting point for graduate study in English. After taking that test, the next year's classes (while I was applying to PhD programs) just made so much more sense in terms of patterns of repetition, change, and development. It's like the richness of my experience made literature even more interesting.

What do you recommend for students preparing for the GREs? How do your recommendations for the subject test (especially in non-lit) vary?

What's the single most useful tip you could give?


  1. I will preface this by saying that I test well, in general. I was always good at standardized tests.

    But, it's been ten years since I had a math course. And I wasn't hugely comfortable with the analogies and things.

    So I got one of those prep books. I wish it were here now so I could say which one it was, but it was awesome. It was from the Princeton Review. It basically taught a bunch of tricks to game the test, and had a bunch of practice questions in it as well. It worked really, really well.

    I did some dabbling for about three weeks, and then one week of winter break and very intensive studying. I expected a score in the low 700s based on my practice tests, but I got 790 on the verbal and 760 on the math. I about wet my pants when my scores came up on the screen.

    In short, I can't recommend that book enough: it was really helpful, especially since I haven't had to take one of those tests in eons. Totally worth the $30 or whatever it cost.

  2. Hey, don't hate on the Romanticists ;)

    I was lucky because I couldn't care less about 20th century/contemporary literature, and did very well on the GRE. You are right that poetic forms from medieval through high modernist are really the sweet spot for studying. And also about memorizing skeletal plots and character sketches of major novels.

  3. I'm glad you wrote this because I was advising one of the MA students in our program on how to study for the lit subject exam and I essentially said all of this stuff. But, since you're a Shakespeare prof (her thing) and I'm an Americanist grad student, she'll listen to what you have to say before she listens to me. :)

    I took the GRE lit exam on a day that was between the two parts of my MA comprehensive written exams. A few of us had an exam studying group and did essentially everything you outlined here -- over the course of nine months or so (we met every week for 3-6 hours each week). We all passed our MA exams, and the two of us who were taking the GRE lit exam did really well.

    I think the single most useful tip I could give is to really conventions in poetry -- which is what you said -- for all the reasons you noted.

    Also, for students out there, if there's a question about cyborgs, the answer is "Donna Haraway". :)

  4. These are great tips! Thank you for sharing them. Oh, and I think Wordsworth sucks, too. :]

  5. Some really great tips for students here. I especially like your point on making sure you don't just study what you're good at/like most! It's also really great that you emphaised the importance of linking your GRE prep to your proposed next course of study.

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  6. Here's a *really* important tip for all the GRE subject exams: DON'T SIMPLY GUESS. You're penalized for wrong answers and rewarded for right answers, but blanks are neutral. So if you have no freakin' clue and can't figure it out, LEAVE IT BLANK.

    However, if you can narrow down to 3 answers or fewer, statistically speaking the odds are in your favor. Then you may guess.

    The narrowing strategy is good in general -- it's psychologically beneficial to say "I know it's not *that*" and also statistically beneficial to your chances of getting it right.

    But some question types are tricky and more deadly to your score than others on the subject test. There's one type where you have 5 passages and have to match up the right passages with the right titles or authors or whatever. On those types of questions, the narrowing stategy doesn't work. So answer the ones where you're confident of the answer, but if you're not sure of some or all, you're better off leaving them blank, because getting one wrong could screw up all the others.

    Case in point: I took the full sample test so that I could better talk to my students about it, and one of the 'match these five passages' questions was all about modern drama. I know *jack* about modern drama, so I left them all blank.

    And on a different note, my students last year reported that there were surprisingly more 20th century American texts than they expected, so maybe the test is ever so slightly changing, or maybe that year was a fluke.

  7. Er, my last three paragraphs were more specifically about the English Lit subject test, but the advice not to guess (without narrowing) still applies to all the subject tests.

  8. Oh, and also, I think your percentile score matters more than 200-800 scale score. That is, it matters how you did relative to the other test takers, and some years performance isn't all that great, so a 640 score, for instance, which doesn't sound all that hot, might still put you in the 95 percentile. So if you walk out thinking "WTF?!" chances are other test-takers feel the same, which means that you probably did better than you think.

    Keep this in the back of your mind as you take the test, so that you don't angst over questions you don't know. Go through the test and answer what you DO know first, to build your confidence and save time (just be sure to line those bubbles up right!!!). Then go back and see if you can do some narrowing on the ones you don't know. Again, this is also good strategy because blanks don't hurt you, so if you don't get to all the ones you didn't know right off the bat, that's OK.

  9. I think this is a field thing, but I don't even remember taking hte subject exam in history -- my grad program was only interested in the aptitude part (or whatever they call it). And from what I've heard of people in history at top places, they pay a LOT of attention to the reading score, less to the math. It's especially helpful if you come from a lesser known place because it provides a comparative framework. (Are you really as terrific as your teachers say, or are you the only reasonably bright bulb in 5 years?)
    Also in history, I think the essay you write matters a lot.

  10. Anonymous1:33 PM

    Just another literature person here. I cannot imagine taking the subject exam without using a prep book of some sort-- I used the Princeton one that's been mentioned above, and I'm positive that helped me get a decent score (650, 85%). I don't think first and second-tier grad programs care much about utterly sky-high scores (although they probably don't hurt), but I do think they like to be comforted by solidly high percentiles...hitting 700 is best, generally. So, aim for tropospheric scores in lieu of stratospheric, and you should be fine :)

  11. Anonymous1:49 AM


  12. Those are the same tips I'd give to people taking the USMLE, MCAT and written board exams.

    The one thing I'll add is that when you're taking the test, don't think too much about the questions. On multiple choice tests it's very easy to talk yourself out of a right answer by overthinking things.

  13. Shane in Utah12:21 PM

    Let me echo the advice to read the Princeton Review Book. It was especially helpful for me, who hadn't had a math class in years, to get through the math bits. In essence, the PR strategy is not to try to solve the problem, but to rule out obviously wrong answers. Reading the book raised my scores by quite a lot, and gave me a healthy contempt for standardized multiple-choice testing in the process.

  14. Thank you, Bardiac, for this informative and encouraging post; and thanks to everyone else for their input. I have been studying wtih the Kaplan book, but since I haven't taken the [general] test yet, I don't know what effect it will have on my score. Suffice to say, its given me a lot of tricks and pointers also, and a great number of practice Q's. As for the subject test, that's next, but I find it a bit more enjoyable to prepare for.

    I didn't even consider taking one of the "classes" they offer, due to the price. I know someone who did, however--and between you, me, the fencepost and the entire internet-I don't think it made much of a difference. Perhaps someone else has an opinion on that.

    I appreciate your point about taking notes, etc. Instead of preparing flashcards for the "most common GRE words" I prefer to write them out by hand. Time-consuming/pain-staking, yes; but it gives me the feel of the word more so than just flipping a card back and forth (that goes for studying in general, if you ask me)

    PS forgive me if this is a double post. Blogilliterate.

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