You’re an English major, right?  And you’ve grown weary of people asking you, “Well, what are you going to do after you graduate?  Are you applying to law school?”

Of course, as you vehemently defend your decision, listing the invaluable skills with which an education in English provides you, explaining that few other majors actually force you to learn how to write properly, to read properly, the jerk at the party who asked the question has already moved on to someone with a catchier answer – the guy going to medical school.

Insulted, you brood over this exchange for the rest of the night.  You go home and you realize that unless you do something about this hole that the jerk at the party pointed out, you’ll fall apart.  It’s bad enough, you tell yourself, that all these Samuel Johnson essays I’ve been reading have really taken the wind out of my sails, that long poems with bleak titles such as, “Guilt and Sorrow,” have been depressing the bejesus out of me, I don’t need the harsh reality of career uncertainty looming over my head to top it all off.  I don’t deserve this, you think.

So at 2:30 AM, you finally decide, “Screw it – I’m going to grad school to get a Ph.D. in English.  I’ll be a professor and teach these bastards a lesson, once and for all.”  You’re committed to something now, a respectable cause.  You’re the Batman of English literature academia – you have to do this, you don’t have a choice, you tell yourself.

Okay, now you’re committed but are you ready?  Have you thought about what field of literature you’d like to study?  Have you started talking to your professors about letters of recommendation?  Have you signed up to take the GRE General Test?  Have you written a 15-20 page essay on a subject relating to the field of literature in which you’d like to specialize?  Have you researched and decided which schools have the right program for you?  Yes?  Oh.  Well, you’re in pretty good shape, in that case.

But, wait a minute – you’re not going anywhere because you still haven’t signed up to take…the GRE Subject Test in English Literature.  That’s right, you still have to jump through one more hoop of humiliation before you can prove your point (or fulfill a meaningful devotion to English literature – whatever).  Don’t worry, you’ll be able to do this, but here’s what you’ll need to know:

 

•  The test is comprised of about 230 questions “on poetry, drama, biography, the essay, the short story, the novel, criticism, literary theory and the history of the [English] language” – all in multiple choice format (www.ets.org)

•   The test consists of four sections – “literary analysis” (40-55%), “identification” (15-20%), “cultural and historical contexts” (20-25%) and – everyone’s favorite – “history and theory of literary criticism” (10-15%) (www.ets.org).

•   This test, unlike the General Test, is only offered three times a year – on October, November and April – so, please, for the love of God, do not procrastinate.  If you’re too worked up to sign up yourself, get a friend to do it for you.

•   It costs around $150 to sign up for this test.

•   It’s true; this test is not a make or break component of your application to grad schools, and you’ll probably be okay even if you don’t achieve a terrific score, but if you’re determined to become a competitive applicant, you should strive to do as well as you can on it.

So what’s the big deal?  I mean, in a way, you’ve been preparing for this exam during your entire college career, right?  Well, yes, you have been but you’re not done preparing.  When you receive the “Practice Book,” after signing up for this exam, you’ll flip through it and experience the first of several anxiety attacks and most likely run to the bathroom.  If it’s of any consolation, at least you’ll be regular during this phase of your life.  But no worries – you’ve given yourself at least three months to prepare for the test and enough time to retake it if you’re not satisfied with your initial score.

Rather than rambling on and on about the steps you should take to prepare for this exam – a seemingly endless endeavor – I’ve opted to include links to two invaluable websites:

•   http://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about/content/literature_english – This is where you’ll need to sign up for the exam and where you’ll find information on how the exam is structured, how long it takes, how it is scored, etc.  You can also view a list of FAQ’s, addressing various aspects of the exam.

•   http://lasr.cs.ucla.edu/alison/hapaxlegomena/ – I realize you might be skeptical of this source (considering it’s an anonymous publication) but it seems to be right on the money.  This is a site created by a current grad student who has taken the exam several times and has figured out what it takes to get a high score.  The site contains a lengthy list of extremely useful resources, a well-written list of tips and suggestions and even a collection of already-made flash cards!

If you find this overwhelming, please, don’t freak out.  Chances are that in just a few months, you will have completely eradicated this experience from your memory.  If you’re not yet ready to embrace the suggestions offered in these websites, you can start by flipping through some of your old Norton Anthologies, or any other English literature anthologies, for that matter.  You don’t need to reread Richardson’s, Clarissa, in its entirety but you need to do something – anything – to begin to prepare for this exam so that you won’t find yourself asking, “What the hell is ‘Lacanian self-doubt’ and why is it on this exam?” on the day of the test.

 

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