Department of English

Preparing to Take the GRE General Test

Be aware that the GRE has changed twice in recent years. The current test has three sections: Verbal, Analytic Writing, and Quantitative (math). They are designed to test your "aptitudes" in these areas, but don't be fooled: studies show that you can in fact significantly improve your scores by studying in advance.

Study Strategies for the General Test

  • Visit the website,, to obtain up-to-date descriptions of each section, with sample questions and explanations.

  • Use sample prompts to practice writing the timed essays; develop a realistic idea of what you can do in the time allotted, and how to use the time most efficiently.

  • Experiment with various writing strategies, including making a brief outline, writing your intro first or last, what to do if you suddenly feel blocked, etc. Keep in mind that you are likely to be required to word process your essays: practice on a word processor.

  • Make and use vocabulary cards (whenever you run across a word you don't know, write it down, look it up, and make a flashcard).

  • Do many sample analogy problems; even students with strong verbal skills sometimes find the analogy format counter-intuitive.

  • Use up-to-date practice books with sample tests; time yourself.

  • If you are not good at math, you may not gain much by studying the math. It may be better to use your time workinf on the sections of the test English faculty will consider most relevant (verbal and analytic).
Preparing to Take the GRE Special Test, Literature in English

Take this test only if the programs that interest you require it for admission (most do). Be aware that this test is very hard. The mere facts of being smart and having taken many English courses will not adequately prepare you to do well on it.

The Questions Fall into Four Categories:

   1. Literary Analysis (ability to interpret a given passage

   2. Identification (identifying date, author, or work from the style or content of a passage);

   3. Cultural and Historical Contexts (questions on literary, cultural and intellectual history; identification of author or work; details of character, plot, or setting);

   4. History and Theory of Literary Criticism (questions about methods and approaches).

See the official description at:

Study Strategies for Special Test:
  • Orgranize and review the knowledge that you already have.

    • Make yourself a big timelime: organize your reading and knowledge into literary periods on the timeline. Identify gaps or weak spots in your coverage.

    • Also, think in terms ot genres and subgenres; be able to identify works by genre.

    • Read and review intro-level textbooks on, for example, poetics (meters).

    • Make flashcards listing work/author/date/major features, and memorize them.

  • Try to fill in gaps in your reading or knowledge. This is a good idea both before and after you take the GRE. These rather daunting reading lists reflect professors' grand ideas about what every English major should read. Do not let them lead you into despair; rather, use them as guidelines in studying for the GRE, or picking what to read outside of classes.
  • A recent survey indicates that UWSP English department alumni feel underprepared in the area of literary theory. While this category occupies a relatively small percentage of questions on the GRE (10-15%), it figures quite largely in graduate English education today. If you have not had much exposure to literary theory, it would be extremely wise to prepare yourself by reading one of the following books:

    • Culler, Jonathon. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. An excellent book available from Amazon.

    • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. A good, widely used book available from UWSP library or Amazon.

  • For a very coarse map of the terrain we're talking about here, consult:

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