Do Grad Programs in English require the GRE Subject Test in Literature?

A question from a colleague and an advisee got me looking around last night for information on English literature graduate programs. The question was whether the GRE Literature in English subject test was still necessary. I initially gave my standard response — it depends on where you want to apply. Fewer and fewer schools require it these days, but many still do.

But that answer felt too imprecise, so I decided to try to quantify it somewhat. How many programs really do require the subject test anymore? What I learned was that my answer was still pretty good, and about as accurate as I can be without crunching the numbers for every program out there. So if you want the short answer, you can stop reading already! But I did learn a few things…

The current cost of the GRE general test is $160 (for those of us in the US who take it on a computer). The current cost of the subject test is $140. So as you might guess: a) applying to grad school is expensive, and b) the subject test nearly doubles your cost. Then there’s the cost of reporting. You can send your scores to 4 schools for ‘free,’ but you have to know which 4 schools you want to send to when you take the test, so you have to make your mind up early or wait to take the test until closer to the deadline. It costs $23 to have your scores reported to another school. Add in application fees, and you see why applying to grad school isn’t cheap. ETS does offer some fee reductions for qualified test takers.

Incidentally, I looked at several schools and also realized that they’ve pushed their application deadlines up. Three of the ones I examined now have December 1 deadlines. This may be the result of electronic submission of application materials and/or internal routing of those materials. I also saw a few January 15 deadlines. Seniors, watch out for these deadlines, and Juniors, get started early.

The most revealing and in a way disappointing site I found was the MLA, which has a Guide to Doctoral Programs in English (and other foreign languages). There is a lot of useful information here, but the Guide hasn’t been updated since 2005, so it is a little dated. MLA needs to work on an update (and maybe they are, since the previous update had been completed in 2001). Maybe MLA could come up with a system like AWP, that has an annual update of information from each Creative Writing program in their Guide — of course they rely on us to update our information each year, so it could be out of date for individual programs who let the ball drop.

Anyway, according to MLA’s dated Guide, in 2001 43.8% of doctoral programs required the literature subject test along with the general GRE test. By 2005 this had dropped to 41.5%. If this trend has continued, then you might expect 38.5% (or so) to require the test now. As I looked around, though, I saw a number of schools that had previously required the test and now explicitly stated that the subject test is no longer required. My sense is that more and more graduate programs have determined that the subject test in literature is not a good indicator of performance in their programs. More than likely this is due to the the changes in the discipline. Specific content is less of an emphasis in most undergraduate English programs. Students are exposed to a wider array of content, though what they have read (or should have read) is harder to predict. As the canon has grown, it is harder to test.

Frankly, this is a good thing. It was already the case when I was an undergraduate. I didn’t know anyone who felt the literature subject test was easy or was a fair assessment of their background in English. The test felt random and arbitrary. If you were lucky to be tested on material you happened to have covered, you could do well. If not, you could be out of luck. Fortunately, I did okay, despite getting a lot of questions on Russian and French authors I hadn’t read or prepared for. And fortunately, even by that time, though most programs required the test, many did not take the results too seriously. As I think about the freedom our students have to take a variety of courses, I think it is a very good development that the GRE subject test in literature is becoming less important.

Rather than knowledge of specific texts, students are expected to be well-versed in interpretive strategies. This kind of knowledge is difficult to gauge with a multiple choice test or even with a written test. (Interestingly, GRE has included a written analysis section on the general test, but even that would be hard to do on the subject test.) Grades, a writing sample, and letters of recommendation are really the better way to determine whether a student has what the graduate program wants in its students. Arguably, a standardized test won’t tell you much, though the general test may tell enough about whether the student can hack it in grad school and provide a baseline for comparison. The literature subject test does not appear to fulfill that function for most grad programs today.

However, many of the most prestigious programs do require it. Some require it of their PhD applicants but not of their MA applicants (though I don’t know if you could get in through the back door by applying for the MA and then applying for the PhD program later and avoid taking the subject test that way). One school said they require it on one part of their page, but then didn’t list it with the requirements on another part of the page. A couple of schools said the subject test is no longer required, but it is recommended. I have no idea what that means. If it were free, I would take it on your recommendation, but if you want me to pay $140 for a test, you’d better require it. Of course, if one school does require it, and you take it for them, then there may be no harm in reporting your score to at least 3 other places.

So my original advice, that it depends on where you want to apply, is probably still the best. If you want to apply to grad school and not take the subject test, you can. That choice will limit the range of schools you can apply to, but there are many good programs who will accept you without that score. If you want to be considered by the top schools in the country, then you will probably still need to pay your money to go through that rite of passage. Study (like crazy) and then take a deep breath and hope that the questions you get are ones you can answer…

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