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Applying to Graduate School

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Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in English

Advice from your professors by Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Julie Nash:


Should you apply to graduate school?

The road to a Ph.D. in English is long and challenging. Expect two years of coursework at the master’s level, followed by an additional couple of years at the Ph.D. level, followed by comprehensive area exams (usually a year or so to study). Once you’ve completed these initial preparations, you can write your dissertation. If you allow two years for the dissertation, that’s about seven years of graduate work to earn your doctorate.

Be aware that many graduate students spend years working very hard for very little money only to find that there are few employment opportunities in their fields when they finish. That said, the rewards can be worth it. You should consider applying to graduate school if the following description applies to you:

  • You have good grades, especially in upper-level English classes.
  • You enjoying writing and conducting research as much as you enjoy reading and talking about literature.
  • You either have or are willing to pursue some foreign language study (most Ph.D. programs require competency in at least one language).
  • You are willing to accept a job in most parts of the country. If you know right now that you are absolutely unwilling to relocate, you should seriously consider a different career.

Okay. You’ve decided to go for it. Now what?

  • Your professors are a great resource. The faculty here are proven scholars and the sooner we know what your plans are, the sooner we can steer you toward classes and experiences that will help you pursue your goals. Develop relationships with faculty in your field of interest and ask questions.
  • Take courses in a variety of subjects within the department and do well in them. If you are consistently struggling in your English classes despite your best effort, you should consider the possibility that graduate study may not be for you. A note on grades: a professor who serves on a graduate admissions committee tells me that his colleagues don’t pay too much attention to grades because “everyone’s are good.” In other words, good grades are a given, and are not enough to get you admitted into a program.
  • Take the GRE general and subject tests. It’s best to do this early in case you need to retake one or both. Some evaluators pay more attention to these scores than others, but high scores can help you stand out and low ones can most definitely sink you.
  • Start the application process (asking for letters of recommendation, working on your statement and writing sample, etc.) as early as September of your senior year if you plan to go directly into a graduate program.
  • Consider taking some time off. This is especially good advice if you really aren’t sure whether you want to go to graduate school or why. Most of the time, this academic break can help students clarify why they wish to pursue graduate study.

Decide on a school:

  • A good school is one that is right for you. Look around at the kinds of courses offered, the work the faculty are doing, etc. By snooping around a department’s website, you can get a sense if the graduate students in a program are active, if they serve on committees, etc. You will also get a sense of how the program defines itself and how it sees its strengths.
  • Apply to several schools at different levels. You may be at an advantage if you’re willing to relocate to another region of the country.
  • Once you have narrowed down the schools to which you want to apply, do your homework. Read up on their specialties, offerings, and programs. You should be prepared to tailor your application letters to each individual school. Most schools are looking for a good fit, and will seek out students whose interests match their specialties.

The Personal Statement:

  • Many students have said this is the hardest thing they have ever written. It is very difficult to get right. You’re trying to introduce your best self to people who don’t know you and who are reading hundreds of these applications. Above all, don’t come across as arrogant.
  • Here’s what one graduate professor says about this letter:
    • Whatever approach you take, the writing needs to be good. Make everybody you know read it. Spend time on it. You don't necessarily need to have a specific area lined up to work in, but it can help if you define yourself to some extent. The autobiographical 'I've always loved reading' narrative usually doesn't get you far: everybody applying to grad school has the same story. It can work, but only if you're a brilliant writer. Perhaps better to talk about what you've read and worked on recently, what excites you, what questions or authors or areas of inquiry do you want to pursue, and why. Find out a little about the department: who works in those areas, and what do they do, what is the department known for, what resources does it have?
  • Try to show that you are acquainted with your chosen field and that you know the central questions and issues in that field. You don’t want to seem too narrow, but a focused student will stand out.

The Writing Sample:

  • Plan to send 15 pages or more of your best scholarly work. Your writing sample should have a developed context, and demonstrate solid research and analytical thinking skills. Writing should be confident, interesting and – of course – error free. Do not try to impress your readers with too much academic jargon. Admissions committees have been there/done that. All citations should be double-checked for accurate MLA format. Have at least two professors look at your writing sample before sending it in and take their suggestions for revision seriously.

Letters of Recommendation:

  • Ask for these at least four weeks in advance. Choose professors who know your work well and can say more about you than that you got a good grade in their class.
  • Give your professors everything they need to write a good, informed letter: resume or cv, transcript, samples of papers you’ve written for them, a list of courses you took with them and the grade you received. Give them a stamped, addressed envelope if they will be mailing the letter directly. Fill in all information on the application forms and sign the waiver.
  • Give your recommenders a list of schools to which you are applying and their deadlines. Your professors are busy and due dates often coincide with other busy periods in the semester. A gentle reminder a couple of weeks before the due date will not offend your recommender, and may help you.
  • Because a good letter can take several hours to write, a thank you note is nice once all the letters have gone out. It can buy you a lot of good will for the next time—when you need just one more at the last minute. It is also good courtesy to let your professors know where you were accepted and where you will be going. We want to celebrate your successes!

Additional Resources