VERY bad GRE score -- subject test in English literature


One of the most valuable things you can get from a site like this is honest feedback from academics who do not know you personally. Because you are applying to a PhD program in English and claim to have a very strong writing sample, I think it is absolutely appropriate and on-topic to discuss the impression your writing makes. So I will begin with that.

From looking at the original, unedited post it is my distinct impression that you are not a native speaker of English and that you frequently do not write as a college-educated native speaker of English would. In your rather short writing sample, I noticed the following issues:

  • "I am applying to PhD in English" This is not grammatically correct, as there is a missing article. A native speaker would say something like "I am applying to a PhD program in English".

  • "who are quite stars academically" This looks like a grammatical error: an adverb modifying a noun. For sure it is not a construction a native speaker would use. If you were a foreign spy infiltrating an anglophone country, this one sentence would be the end of you.

  • "My writing sample is very strong and I use my own translation of a passage written in Latin." There is a missing comma. More subtly, present tense would probably not be used by a native speaker here: instead they would use the past tense or the past perfect or say something like "In my writing sample, I use..."

  • "I had a terrible flue" A strange misspelling that cannot be justified as a pure typo. (E.g. the original also contains "ans", which I didn't mention as it is clearly a true typo for "and".) This is another mistake that might seem minor to a non-native speaker but is one that a native speaker would simply never make. Honestly, I can picture English faculty making jokes about this kind of student writing.

  • "I completely failed to see (and I know this exceedingly stupid) that there is another side of the answer sheet" More tense problems: if not ungrammatical than at least non-native.

  • "resulting in half of the exam left blank" A native speaker would say being left blank.

  • "Does anyone have had a similar experience, but ended up receiving an offer?" This is a really worrisome sentence: it is not even within a few words of being grammatically correct.

I am a professor in an American mathematics department, and if I saw writing like this I would look carefully at the TOEFL and GRE verbal scores. If they were sufficient then I would expect the student to have no serious language issues as a student of mathematics. In an English literature department, especially one in the top ten, I expect that writing like this would really sink an application.

Back to your question: I don't know how seriously the English subject exam is taken in English literature programs. But any program which requires this exam must take it at least somewhat seriously -- by requiring it, they are excluding applicants who would not take it, and no program would do that lightly -- so a low score has got to be a negative. Moreover the defining feature of top ten programs is that they have their pick of the litter. So my honest appraisal is that I expect that you will not get into a top ten program with your profile. Now I am not in an English department so this advice must be discounted accordingly, and I hope that someone with such experience will come along and also answer your question. (Unfortunately this site is overwhelmingly populated by STEM-type academics.) So for instance I also don't really understand why a translation from Latin would make for an especially strong writing sample for English literature...but maybe I am missing something here. Anyway, here is my advice:

Although I am skeptical about your chances, I think we can agree that they are much greater than if you do not apply at all. Rationally speaking I see no reason for you not to apply. If you get in, great, and please feel free to come back here and set me straight. If you do not get in, then since you have already corresponded with faculty at these institutions it is likely that you can get some useful feedback for an application in a future year.

Assuming that you need to apply again, my advice is:

  • Give yourself your best chance to nail the GREs. I am working with some undergraduates who took the GREs just now, and they spent a lot of time taking practice exams. If you are intimately familiar with the format of the exam, even sleep-deprived and ill you will probably not make the mistake you made.

  • Make sure that absolutely all of your writing would be viewed by all impartial observers as having the level of English proficiency of a university-educated native speaker of English. For this I recommend that you get several university-educated native speakers of English to read your application. To be blunt about it, if you are currently enrolled in a non-anglophone university, then your professors may not be qualified to vet your writing in this way.

  • See if you can find writing samples from current and/or recently graduated PhD students at top ten English departments in the US and/or the UK. If your writing sample is very dissimilar in form from these, that's worrisome. If it is similar in form and all your native language helpers think it's as good or better as the successful samples, you're in good shape.

Good luck.

(Added: It might be relevant to mention that while none of my degrees were in English language or literature, both of my parents were professors of English at two-year colleges. So when I made a grammatical or usage mistake I would get called out for, I think, approximately the same way that happens in English departments. So I will guess that my level of sensitivity to issues like this is, while not identical to that of an English professor, probably in the right ballpark.)


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Updated on August 14, 2022


  • asef
    asef about 1 year

    I desperately need help.

    I am applying to PhD in English and I am applying to the top ten programs in the USA. Generally, I have very good chances, because

    1. I am working with very well-known professors (all across the country) who are quite the stars academically so far as my specialty is concerned. The recommendation letters will be very strong. My prospective schools know my professors personally.

    2. I am multilingual

    3. I emailed all my prospective supervisors and I received very enthusiastic responses both from the US ans the UK.

    4. My writing sample is very strong and I use my own translation of a passage written in Latin. (My professors confirm that my writing sample is good)

    The problem: I went to the GRE test sleep-deprived and I had a terrible flu. I completely failed to see (and I know this is exceedingly stupid) that there is another side of the answer sheet until the last 15 minutes, resulting in half of the exam left blank.

    Should I not apply? Have anyone had a similar experience, but ended up receiving an offer?

    Please, please help.

    • gnometorule
      gnometorule about 8 years
      Ask your mentors (letter writers/possible supervisors). In some fields (my old one, say) the GRE was a cut-off hurdle which allowed administration to sort out some candidates which would never reach professors. Your mentors know if something similar applies to you (in which case you should probably wait for the next test), or if not, or if they can get you through by personal intervention despite a low score should the score matter.
    • Nobody
      Nobody about 8 years
      Then apply next year. In the mean time, train yourself to be cautious all the time.
    • Admin
      Admin about 8 years
      @asef, grammatical foibles aside, the advice in the comment from gnometorule and the following one from scaaahu are probably the best that a 3rd party website can provide.
    • Wrzlprmft
      Wrzlprmft about 8 years
      As it stands, the questions in this question are either a poll or a too dependent on individual factors. There is no discernible request for general information we can answer here. Voting to close.
    • Nobody
      Nobody about 8 years
      I finally voted to close because I am convinced the asker is in a unique situation - wants to get into top 10 PhD program in English in US/UK with poor score in GRE and reluctant to admit the quality of the English wrting is below what he/she is supposed to have. (Please see the comment below P.L. Clark's answer).
    • eykanal
      eykanal about 8 years
      I have removed a number of comments relating to now-corrected typos. Please keep any discussion focused on the OP's actual question.
    • asef
      asef about 8 years
      I know, but you could have pointed out my TYPOS and OVERSIGHTS more respectively and less sarcastically. Notice that I just thanked the others for their criticism, although scathing. You, however, seems to take delight in putting others down for whatever reason. It speaks of an extremely vacant schedule, good sire.
    • Nobody
      Nobody about 8 years
      I'll have some suggestion for you. You have two options: apply this year or don't apply this year. If you apply this year, you know you have little hope to get into top 10. So, shoot for top 100. Or you have another option: apply for a masters degree in English. If you don't apply this year, take practice GRE exams until you are absolutely sure you won't make the same mistake. In the mean time, do research on the subject you were going to do as if you were in one of those top 10 PhD programs so that it would be much easier for you when you enter the top 10 PhD program next year.
  • Admin
    Admin about 8 years
    Brilliant and honest answer, Pete - thank you for posting it!
  • asef
    asef about 8 years
    Thank you for your answer. I am not trying to find excuses, but I should clarify that when I wrote this, I had just returned from the exam. Needless to say, I was devastated. I wrote my question, and then posted it without a single revision, hoping to get some help as quickly as I could. I am grateful to you for pointing out the grammatical errors, but they are oversights (inexcusable, yes, but oversights) due to my hastiness and the fact that I was extremely sad. I greatly appreciate your answer, Dr. Clark.
  • APrioriRainbows
    APrioriRainbows about 8 years
    This response seems a bit abusive. This question has been put on hold, but I thought it worth saying: I work with people who are considered highly bilingual (i.e. it's their job to be bilingual), and this person's writing seems fine (and even good), esp. for a forum posting. We should not assume that this person's academic writing is anything like what they post hastily and informally in a forum. It also seems to discredit the person's report that they have full support from their professors. It is unlikely her professors would write her letters to programs if she were not qualified.