Each edition of the test consists of approximately 230 questions on poetry, drama, biography, the essay, the short story, the novel, criticism, literary theory, and the history of the language.
Some questions are based on short works reprinted in their entirety, some on excerpts from longer works.
The test draws on literature in English from the British Isles, the United States, and other parts of the world. It also contains a few questions on major works, including the Bible, translated from other languages.
The test emphasizes authors, works, genres, and movements. The questions may be somewhat arbitrarily classified into two groups: factual and critical.
The factual questions may require a student to identify characteristics of literary or critical movements, to assign a literary work to the period in which it was written, to identify a writer or work described in a brief critical comment, or to determine the period or author of a work on the basis of the style and content of a short excerpt.
The critical questions test the ability to read a literary text perceptively. Students are asked to examine a given passage of prose or poetry and to answer questions about meaning, form and structure, literary techniques, and various aspects of language.
Questions that call on an ability to interpret given passages of prose and poetry. Such questions may involve recognition of conventions and genres, allusions and references, meaning and tone, grammatical structures and rhetorical strategies, and literary techniques.
Recognition of date, author, or work by style and/or content (for literary theory identifications see IV below).
Questions on literary, cultural, and intellectual history, as well as identification of author or work through a critical statement or biographical information. Also identification of details of character, plot, or setting of a work.
Identification and analysis of the characteristics and methods of various critical and theoretical approaches.
The literary-historical scope of the test follows the distribution below.
Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925: 5-10%
British Literature to 1660 (including Milton): 25-30%
British Literature 1660-1925: 25-35%
American Literature through 1925: 15-25%
American, British, and World Literatures after 1925: 20-30%
Because examinees tend to remember most vividly questions that proved troublesome, they may feel that the test has included or emphasized those areas in which they are least prepared. Students taking the GRE Literature in English Test should remember that in a test of this many questions, much of the material presents no undue difficulty. The very length and scope of the examination eventually work to the benefit of students and give them an opportunity to demonstrate what they do know. No one is expected to answer all the questions correctly; in fact, it is possible to achieve the maximum score without answering all the questions correctly.
The committee that develops the test is aware of the limitations of the multiple-choice format, particularly for testing competence in literary study. An examination of this kind provides no opportunity for the student to formulate a critical response or support a generalization, and, inevitably, it sacrifices depth to range of coverage. However, in a national testing program designed for a wide variety of students with differing preparations, the use of a large number of short, multiple-choice questions has proved to be the most effective and reliable way of providing a fair and valid examination.
The committee considers the test an instrument by which to offer supplementary information about students. In no way is the examination intended to minimize the importance of the students' college records or the recommendations of the faculty members who have had the opportunity to work closely with the students. The committee assumes that those qualities and skills not measured by a national multiple-choice test are reflected in a student's academic record and recommendations. However, the test may help to place students in a national perspective or add another dimension to their profiles.
A test intended to meet the needs of a particular department should be constructed specifically to measure the knowledge and skills the department considers important. A standardized test, such as the GRE Literature in English Test, allows comparisons of students from different institutions with different programs on one measure of competence in literature. Ideally, a department should not only investigate the relationships between the success of students in advanced study and several measures of competence, but also conduct a systematic evaluation of the test's predictive effectiveness after accumulating sufficient records of the graduate work of its students.