Applying to Graduate School

The purposes of undergraduate and graduate education in English differ distinctly from one another. Undergraduate degrees are designed to introduce students to the world of higher learning and to provide them with some expertise in the areas of their majors. Graduate programs, by contrast, train specialists, professional scholars, critics, and teachers who can secure jobs as professors at colleges and universities. So, while, in any given year (and depending on the size of the college or university), hundreds of undergraduates may elect to be English majors, an MA/PhD program in English will typically admit somewhere between 8 and 25 students.

Graduate programs in English admit so few students for two main reasons. First, they want to admit only those students with the greatest potential for success, those students whose records give tremendously strong evidence of their capacity to do original research, write compelling criticism, and be effective teachers. Second, the job market for students graduating with PhD’s in English is small. In the last study published by the Modern Language Association of America (the professional association of university and college teachers of English and other modern languages), the data showed that only roughly half of those students who had graduated with PhD’s had secured full-time, potentially permanent (tenure-track) jobs as assistant professors at liberal arts colleges and universities. This makes it clear that students who have earned PhD’s face intense competition for jobs, and graduate programs in English generally believe that it would be irresponsible to admit more students than have a reasonable chance of getting jobs after graduation.

Talk with Faculty Mentors

Given that admission to graduate programs in English is highly selective, that the job market for new PhD’s is very competitive, and that graduate study in English differs significantly from undergraduate study, the best way to start the process of determining whether or not you want to apply to graduate programs is to sit down with faculty members whom you trust and discuss the issue. You should ask them about the nature of graduate study in English, and about their sense of your aptitude for that kind of study. You should also discuss with them the various facets of their jobs in order to get a clear picture of the life of an academic. Seeing your professors in the classroom or in their offices, you know them in their capacity as teachers, but they also have significant responsibilities as researchers and writers, and as members of the university and professional community who must undertake various kinds of administrative and professional service. You should get as complete a picture as you can of what is entailed in an academic career before you embark on one.

You should also discuss with faculty members you trust the question of the schools to which you ought apply. You can find the common wisdom about the ranking of graduate programs (both overall and by field) by consulting the website of U.S. News and World Report at That information will allow you to see what institutions have the strongest reputations. Generally speaking, the top 15-20 programs in the country play a kind of “musical chairs” game in the national rankings, but all of them are acknowledged to be very strong. However, there are many programs that have areas of strength in specific fields, but are not ranked among the top 20 schools. A program might, for example, be strong in twentieth-century literature, but not in early modern studies, or vice versa. If you have an idea of the specific fields that most interest you, you can get advice from faculty members at UF who teach in those fields about the schools that have strength in those areas, even if those schools aren’t ranked amongst the top 20 overall. If your area of interest and their area of strength coincide, then that might make for a good match.

The Application Package

Because graduate programs in English admit so few students each year, applicants to those programs must present truly competitive profiles. In practice, this means that the component parts of the applications they submit must be very strong, indeed. Any application package will consist of the following elements:

Admissions committees comprised of graduate faculty members in English at the institutions to which you apply will review and assess the applications, and will make admissions decisions on the basis of the strength of the component elements of the application packages. It is important to keep in mind that a committee of faculty members will make admissions decisions. Not all committee members will see the elements of the applications in the same way, and they will come to the decision-making process with different priorities. This means that members of admissions committees are likely to discuss the relative merits of strong applications, and, in the course of such discussions, applicants’ rankings on admissions rosters will be determined by a give and take of debate in which different elements of the application packages will assume different weights in different circumstances. There is, in short, nothing cut-and-dried about the application assessment process.

In general, however, you should know that admissions committees will look for the following qualities in the applications they receive:

Undergraduate Transcripts

While an admissions committee may be impressed by a high overall GPA, it will be far more concerned with your performance in your coursework for the English major. Given the high degree of competition in the admissions process, a committee will typically expect an applicant to a graduate program in English to have earned an almost complete set of A grades in his or her upper-division coursework for the English major. It would be possible to explain away a B grade in an upper-division course early in a student’s career, but a mixed record of A and B grades in courses for the English major will not be persuasive evidence of a capacity to succeed in graduate-level coursework.

Personal Statement

Though requirements vary from program to program, most institutions require you to write a personal statement in which you explain why you are interested in pursuing graduate study in English and what you hope to study. While this may seem an easy task, it is not. Indeed, the personal statement may be the most challenging component of the application package. Generalities about loving literature and reading will not do. Admissions committees expect applicants to be able to present themselves as embryonic professionals capable of explaining what they want to study and why—and to do so in a way that suggests that they have some preliminary knowledge of relevant issues in the field.

The best way to proceed with the personal statement is to draft one by sometime early in the semester before the application is due, and then be prepared to work through several further drafts before you have a final version. Once you have a first draft, share it with the members of faculty who have agreed to write letters of recommendation for you, and ask them to suggest revisions. Develop a new draft based on their suggestions, and then repeat the process until those faculty members agree that you have written a powerful personal statement.

Writing Sample

In most cases, the writing sample will be the single most important component of an application packet. The transcript provides a record of the grades you have received for your work, the personal statement tells admissions committees what you want to do, the letters of recommendation provide testimony as to your aptitude for work in the discipline, and the GRE scores provide independent evidence of your verbal, quantitative, and analytical reasoning skills. Only in the writing sample do the members of an admissions committee have the opportunity to see your capacity to do the kind of work you are applying to do. If the proof is in the pudding, the writing sample is the pudding.

Different graduate programs will request writing samples of different lengths. Typically, the page limit will vary between 10 and 20 pages. Those 10-20 pages should represent you at your best. If you are applying to a graduate program in English, this means that you need to demonstrate that you can read texts closely, keenly, and inventively; formulate an incisive and novel thesis, and argue its plausibility clearly and cogently; exhibit an awareness of relevant critical, historical, and theoretical contexts; and write succinctly, accurately, and gracefully. Most students use papers for which they have received excellent grades and which are in some way related to the interests they want to pursue in graduate school as the basis for their writing samples. If you decide to do this, you should speak with the professor for whom you originally wrote the paper about ways in which you might improve it to make it a strong writing sample. Like the personal statement, the writing sample should go through several drafts, and be absolutely free of grammatical, idiomatic, and typographical errors at the time you submit it.

Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate programs will require 3–4 letters of recommendation. These letters should be from faculty members who teach in the discipline to which you are applying, who have given you good grades, and who can write strong letters on your behalf. You should request these letters at least 6-8 weeks in advance of the the application deadlines. Indeed, if you are facing typical application deadlines between December 31 and March 1, you would do well to request letters of recommendation in early to mid October. Members of faculty are asked to write many kinds of letters in the course of a year, and it is wise to make your requests early so that the faculty members in question can work your letters of recommendation into their plans. Be prepared to share with these faculty members who are writing your letters any writing you submitted to them as part of coursework (preferably, the graded work bearing their comments), and make sure that you allow them to review your personal statement and writing sample early on in the process of writing them. Knowing what you are saying in your personal statement and writing sample will help faculty members when it comes to writing letters of recommendation for you, and they can help you to improve these documents.

Almost all schools demand that you use letter of recommendation forms that they make available to you, and that you pass on to the members of faculty who are writing on your behalf. You will need to fill out a portion of each of these forms before giving it to your referee. When you fill out this portion of the form, you should always check the box indicating that you waive your right to see the letter of recommendation the faculty member will write for you. Only when students waive their right to see the letters do the admissions committees believe that the faculty members writing them have felt free to be perfectly frank in their assessment of your work and of your aptitude for graduate study. When students do not waive their right to see the letters, admissions committees generally view the letters as worthless.

GRE General Test and Subject Area Test

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) general test is, like the SAT, an aptitude test, and required by almost all schools. It assesses your verbal, quantitative, and analytical reasoning capacities. The general test is now administered electronically, and students can take the test throughout the year. While many graduate schools have minimum GRE general test scores that students must meet in order to be eligible for admission, the GRE general test, as a rule, does not weigh as heavily in admissions deliberations as the other components of the application package. Certainly, in most cases, it will be less significant than your transcript, your writing sample, and your personal statement. Of course, if you were to earn a low score on the verbal portion of the examination, that would raise questions about your aptitude for the study of English, and could count against you.

The GRE subject area test in English, by contrast, is not required by all graduate programs. However, you must be careful to check well in advance of application deadlines to find out which of the programs to which you are applying require subject area test scores as the subject area tests are paper tests offered only three times per year (late spring and late fall). The subject area test consists of several hundred multiple choice questions about English, American, and other world literatures, as well as questions about criticism and theory. A student who has taken upper-division courses in a wide range of historical periods, national literatures, and genres will generally be well-prepared to take the subject area test. If you feel that you need some review prior to sitting the test, then the best thing to do is to work your way through the texts and introductions in standard (i.e. Norton, Oxford, etc.) anthologies of British and American literature, keeping in mind that the questions on the examination will be asking you to identify major texts and writers, and differentiate between periods, schools, and movements.

Preparing for Application Deadlines

Most graduate programs admit students on an annual basis, enrolling their new students in the fall semester. The deadlines for application for fall admission typically fall between December 15 and March 1 of the previous academic year. This means that if you want to apply directly from your undergraduate program to a graduate program, you should begin preparing for the application process no later than the spring semester of your junior year. That is the point at which you should be talking with faculty members you trust about their sense of your aptitude for graduate study, about the nature of the profesional study of English at graduate school and beyond, and about the schools to which you should apply. By early in the fall semester of your senior year, you should be preparing your application materials – working on your writing sample and drafting (and redrafting) your personal statement in consultation with those faculty members who wil be writing your letters of recommendation. This means, of course, that you will also need to have asked those faculty members to write letters on your behalf by early in the fall semester – and generally no later than early October. You should also schedule yourself to sit the GRE general test (as well as the subject area test, if necessary). Aim for the earliest dates you think possible. Ideally, you want to have all the components of your application package ready to go by the Thanksgiving Break in the fall semester. Once that break is over, you will be immersed in your final work for the semester, and have little time to devote to your applications – and the first application deadlines will fall within days of the end of the semester.


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