Almost six weeks ago, I subjected myself to the beast that can be lovingly referred to as the GRE in English Literature. The idea behind the exam: how well do you know the English Literature cannon of (mostly) dead white guys (mainly) from England, covering circa 400-ish (Beowulf) until the early 20th Century? It’s a 230-question, multiple-choice exam that is administered in one fat 170-minute block of time. Sample questions include things such as: (given an excerpted passage from a work) “What [figure/historical event/etc.] is this passage alluding to in [lines x-y]?” or “Based on the style of this passage, it is evident that the author also wrote which of the following?”
I will admit, I only spent a few weeks prior to taking the test devoting any significant time to preparing for the exam, based on the following:
1) There is only one school that I am applying to that requires the exam for admission.
2) 2,000 years of Western Literature in 230 questions? Most of the works are things that I’ve only been subjected to in academic settings, and had problems connecting with when I HAD to read it, how the hell am I supposed to gain any insight when I’m only interested in something enough to review for a test? No matter how much I might actually connect with while preparing for the exam, 2,000 years is a long time, and there’s bound to be stuff that I probably wouldn’t remember even if I were able to spend significant time reading exclusively for the test.
3) My areas on interest, and regular reading, are principally from within the last 100 years, and are not things that would pop up on a “traditional” literary cannon, and while I appreciate familiarity with past literary works, styles and story elements, lots of things have changed in the publishing and readership circles of today’s world since, say, when Dickens or Swift or Coleridge were writing. Great writers to learn story, characterization, or setting from, no doubt, but any insight gained (beyond story) would have to be tempered by the fact that contemporary fiction is written so stylistically different now.
To prepare for this beast of an exam I popped over to the local Barnes & Nobles Test Prep section and picked up one of those “guides to the exam” that includes strategies, supplemental study material and a sample test. The registration for the exam also included an “official” sample exam. So I ended up taking this thing not just once, but three times in all. The first time, after only the initial review information in the prep book, I weighed in at an adjusted score of 420 (of 810… lowest score is 240). A little more prep, guided by reviewing the supplemental answer material and flipping through the Norton Anthologies I still have from my undergraduate days and I jumped up to a 520.
But here’s the thing. Both times, I completed the entire exam (all 230 questions) in the allotted time, and the adjusted scores reflect the “guessing penalty.” So here’s how scoring works. For every one you get right, you get a point. For everyone that you don’t answer, you get nothing. But for every one that you answer incorrectly, you are docked a quarter of a point. See where this is going yet? On both of the practice exams, answering all of the questions I had at least 90 that I answered incorrectly (123 on the first attempt)…
When I took the test for real, I’m not sure if I was slightly burned from the studying, or if the test was that much harder than the practice exams, but I didn’t even come close to answering all 230 questions. My best guess puts me at leaving at least 50 blank, if not more. When I got my official scores in the mail this past week, turns out I landed about in the middle of the practice exams – a 480.
Considering that I left so many questions blank, not too bad overall. Do I see myself taking the exam again in the future? Probably not. It was only for one school anyway, and it’s not the only school I am applying to.