GRE Literature Study Guide

Last updated July 26, 2015

This isn't a guide to studying English Literature—this is a guide to studying for the GRE Literature test.

I spent about 10 weeks reviewing for the GRE Literature test. I didn't study every night, but I tried to get at least 3 or 4 hours of review in each week. Before studying I was scoring in approximately the 40th percentile; on my actual GRE I scored in the 84th percentile. Not bad for someone who's never read Paradise Lost.

This page is a way to share my experience and help students prepare themselves without getting overwhelmed.

Suggested Timeline for Study

14 weeks before the test: read online resources and order any books you need to prepare.

13 weeks before the test: review Cracking the GRE and assess your own strengths and weaknesses. Customize your reading lists.

12 weeks before the test: begin reading plays, short stories, and epic poems with which you need to familiarize yourself.

8 weeks before the test: begin familiarizing yourself with prosody and scantion, if needed.

4 weeks before the test: begin studying the "A-list" poems you will need to know line by line.

2 weeks before the test: begin focusing more on test-taking skills than on material. Take at least one practice test.

Books You Absolutely Need

Cracking the GRE Literature - This book won't teach you about literature, but it will teach you about the GRE Literature test. Do not proceed without it. The Princeton Review offers the most useful study lists – broken down into A, B, and C lists – along with a complete assessment of what's really on the test, summaries of some major works, and a beneficial practice test.
GRE: Practicing to Take the Literature in English Test - Test yourself and pick up some common questions that you'll probably see on the real test. I learned the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude from this practice book, and used it on my GRE. Just don't pay much attention to their study guide or what they tell you about the test.
This book appears to be out of print, and a newer version is not available.
Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 1 & Volume 2 complete. You'll need these (or similar anthologies) to review important poems and stories for the test. If you know absolutely nothing about American lit - if you can't even recognize an Emily Dickenson poem - you may need an American anthology as well.

Books You Might Need

Bullfinch's Mythology - Daphne, Ariadne, Dido, Clymenestra, Philomelia, Ulysses, and Medea were all on my test. Get familiar with ancient Greek mythology, plus the stories in the Illiad, Odyssey, and Oedipal cycle. Cracking the GRE offers some summaries, but there was a lot of mythology on the test I took.
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory - The most complete resource for learning about literary forms and genres. You'll count a lot of syllables on the GRE. Trochee, anapestic, iambic, terza rima – know what they mean and how to spot them.

Study Tips

Before you begin studying, assess your strengths and weaknesses. Just looking through a practice test will show you the areas where you're lacking, though you probably know already based on the classes you avoided in college.

Using the lists in Cracking the GRE, decide which of your weaknesses are most critical and which can be left alone. You won't be able to master every period and every genre. Prioritize!

Begin preparing far enough in advance, but not too far. I started 10 weeks ahead of the test, and by the time I got to the GRE some of the pieces I'd read in the first weeks were already fuzzy in my memory. 12 weeks is probably the maximum useful study time for most people, 3 or 4 weeks a minimum.

Start with plays, stories or an epic poem that you're only familiarizing yourself with. Unless you have an incredible memory for poetry, save the A-list poems you'll have to identify line by line for last.

Read broad, not deep. You're better off being able to recognize a poet's style than a specific line of a poem, with only a few exceptions. Know the famous lines of the 6 or 7 "A-list" poems and just be familiar with the rest.

Test-taking tips

Use the two-pass technique described by The Princeton Review. Go through and do the easy ones first, then come back and do the time-consuming questions.

Don't be afraid to skip questions! A wrong answer is minus 1/4 point, an empty question has no affect on your score, and a correct answer earns you one point. If you are in the dark, please skip it. It will help your score. I left 19 questions blank.

Don't be afraid to guess if you can, with certainty, eliminate one answer choice. If you can reduce your choices from 5 to 4, it is statistically in your favor to guess. You'll earn more points than you'll lose.

Pace yourself. Don't spend a lot of time on one question or set of questions - save those for last. Most people can finish the test, but you have to use your time wisely.

Other Useful Web Sites

Approach to Studying for the English Literature GRE

GRE Reading List

The Tongue Untied: Grammar Review