One of the more daunting parts of the graduate school application process is the GRE Literature in English test. While not always weighted the same among schools, this score, together with your regular GRE score, will often tell the admissions boards your level of knowledge in literature. Students may take from three to six months to prepare, so give yourself ample time to study before the test.

Practice Tests and Flashcards

Take a practice test before you begin studying to see where you stand in terms of your score along with any particular weaknesses. The Educational Testing Service gives one sample exam for free when you apply for the exam, and several study books are available that have practice exams as well, such as "Cracking the GRE in Literature" from Princeton Review, and the "Research and Education Association" guide. Quiz yourself on your categorized flashcards of authors, works, literary devices and terms as early as you can to get a sense of your working memory. Carry them around wherever you go. Break these flashcard categories up into chunks -- for example, Romantic poets, poetic forms or the modernist novel. Focus on recognizing the context and background of each work, including conventions and genres.

Scope of the Exam

The ETS website offers content specifications and information on the literary-historical scope of the exam, so take note of the distribution percentages. Literary analysis and interpretation is the largest category, involving recognizing certain references and allusions, meanings, genres and various literary techniques. For literary devices and terms, a book like "A Glossary of Literary Terms" by M.H. Abrams will be helpful here. Note the definition of the terms as well as several authors that use these techniques, as that may help you identify works on the exam. Understanding cultural and historical contexts will be involved in the next-largest category, followed by simple identification and literary criticism and theory.

Read for Context

A good general rule is not to spend all of your time painstakingly reading long works in their entirety -- there is simply not enough time to take in all of literary history. Reading anthologies of American and English literature will be most helpful when attempting to familiarize yourself with context and background. The "The Norton Anthology of American Literature" is very reliable and is available in a number of volumes and genres. Ian Ousby's "Cambridge Guide to Literature in English" is also indispensable for learning background information. When you are reading prose, concentrate on the background of the work, memorizing plot points, characters and context. In poetry, read the shorter poems multiple times, concentrating on well-known or pivotal lines, literary devices and context.


Since British Literature up to 1925 takes up the largest portion of the exam, focus on this area, particularly works and authors like John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Shakespeare's plays and poems, "Beowulf," Jonathan Swift’s "Gulliver’s Travels" and works by John Donne. American literature through 1925 will also take up a large portion, with the 19th century being the most prevalent. Hone in on works by Herman Melville -- particularly "Moby Dick," Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Reading and understanding the classics will be essential as well: Homer’s "The Odyssey," the works of Virgil and even the "Bible," and the miscellaneous myths of gods and goddesses will be helpful texts to read. Students are often weakest at plays and playwrights, so review your knowledge of drama and plays, particularly those of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett and mystery plays.

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