Based on material compiled by Ashley Carmichael, '08
For many undergraduate students, applying for graduate school is an exciting but extremely scary thing. We all worry about if we are doing things correctly, if our personal statements make sense and are not just bumbling jumbles of text, if we chose the right person to do our recommendation letters, etc. Well, live in fear no more, English majors. Here is a list of suggestions provided for your perusal. To make things easier, we've broken this page down into four categories:
Finding the Right Graduate School
The Writing Sample
The Personal Statement
Submitting the Application
A report released by the MLA's Association of Departments of English in June 2011 pointed out some surprising statistics: 49.1% of all people teaching English in college hold the M.A. in English as their highest degree, and only about 5% of the people who receive a B.A. degree in English go on to finish a Ph.D. in English and get a tenure-track position at a four-year college. The employment market and the professions's perception of graduate schooling is undergoing a sea change, and you need to be aware of this. So the first decision in applying to graduate school needs to be which degree (or degrees you're going for--a Master's only, a Ph.D. only, or a Master's degree leading to a Ph.D. We recommend that you start by reading the ADE Report (pdf- 2127 kb) and talking to both your advisor and the Graduate Director about which track is best for you, your goals, and your family. Many are the paths--you have lots of choices!
If you decide to pursue graduate education, that wealth of choices can be so broad that it can be overwhelming. Before you feel as if it's too much, consider these ways of narrowing down your requirements for an optimal graduate program. You may want to continue on at Winthrop, or you may want to choose a program with different points of view and expose yourself to other ways of seeing. Either way, the website http://www.GradSchools.com recommends that you look at six major factors when choosing a graduate program:
You want to choose a graduate school where your area of interest is supported, not only with faculty and courses but also with library resources, funding, and the like. Ask your Winthrop professors to recommend programs in your area of interest, but also use your research skills. If you want to study Chaucer, for instance, look at recent articles on Chaucer studies and note the academic affiliations of professors who write articles that interest you; then check out those departments (remember, faculty members can change schools!). Look at institutions that support journals and research in your area; Brown has a big Victorian Studies program, for instance, while Chapel Hill supports the Blake archive. If a school has only one professor teaching eighteenth century drama, for instance, and that professor retires, what happens to your dissertation? You could be left hanging, and that's not good. Of course, the area of specialization will ultimately depend on your own interests, but you may also want to take into account the job market. Some specialties will experience growth in the future, whereas those that are currently growing may be expected to become stagnant. If you don't know what area you want to pursue right away, then an M.A. program may be a better first choice than a Ph.D. program, which may want you to specialize right away.
For some students, a program's ranking is important. You may feel that the rank of a program is an indication of the quality of education you'll receive and the level of resources that will be available, and, in most cases, this is probably true. However, be aware of what qualities are used to establish a program's ranking and how those qualities are evaluated. For example, a highly-ranked program may indeed have greater resources available, but may also have a higher cost which may make it more difficult to attend, or a higher student-to-faculty ratio which may actually detract from the educational experience. U.S. News & World Report ranks programs every year; there are other rankings available on the Internet as well. But don't go by these alone; there are many high-quality programs that don't have the high-powered faculty or research demands of the top-ranked schools, but where the instruction is superb and faculty have more time to mentor individual students. So use rankings as one factor in looking at schools, but don't let it blind you to a program's virtues.
Completing a graduate degree will take 2-6 years or more, depending on if you are seeking a Master's degree or Ph.D., and it may take you 1-3 years after finishing a Ph.D. to find a tenure-track position. Therefore, you should be comfortable with the location, but remember that it's not a life sentence--even if you're a city person, you can survive graduate school in a non-urban location. Some students may, for personal reasons, want to be relatively near their family. Others have a spouse who is more likely to be employed in certain areas of the country. Do your research and, if possible, visit the area before you commit to it. While you can spend those years chanting "This too shall pass," you don't want to waste energy doing that if you don't need to.
A professor from Texas A&M told http://www.GradSchools.com that "You may get your degree from a university, but you get your education from your adviser." Your major professor will be your means of entry into your scholarly community, and his or her reputation will influence yours. You'll be working closely with this person for 2-6 years or more, so it is important that your personalities and professional ideas are compatible. The best way to get an idea of the students and faculty you will be working with is to talk to people. Talk to faculty at your current college or university to find out the reputation of the professor who will be your advisor. Is s/he accessible or always on sabbatical? How often will you be expected to meet? If at all possible, contact some of his or her current graduate students and ask them what he or she is really like to work for (look for Facebook pages, blogs, and other online presences, too). Most importantly, talk to your potential advisor to get an idea of his or her personality and professional ideas. This can be done by phone, e-mail, or in person, depending on your degree of interest.
The level of financial support you receive often depends on the degree you are seeking. While there tends to be less financial support for a Master's degree than for a Ph.D. this trend is changing with changes in the field. At the doctoral level, it is not uncommon for a university to waive tuition requirements (referred to in the business as tuition remission). In addition to not paying tuition, many doctoral students receive some form of grant, stipend or assistantship. Whether a university is public or private, if tuition remission is available, the likelihood of assistantships (either teaching or research), etc. are all issues to be considered when examining the cost of attending a particular program.
Graduate school will be a way of life for the next 2-6 years. If you are married, however, your decisions will also affect your spouse and/or children. Some of the things to consider include the availability of child care, employment opportunities for spouses, health insurance, the local cost of living and the weather, culture, and local forms of recreation (is this a place where you can have some fun?). If possible, try to visit the area and spend some time in the community. Talk to some of the "locals" and find out what's going on in the area. Talk to some of the business owners to find out what the job market is like for the area, to get an idea of the local cost of living and housing and to find out what people do for fun. When you apply to a university or program, quite often they will be more than happy to send you information from the local Chamber of Commerce concerning health care, child care, cost of living expenses and recreation opportunities.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of things to consider, and students will give a higher priority to those issues that are important to them. However, these are a few of the things to consider that may help narrow the field of choices. The decision is never easy; you will be investing 2-6 years or more of your life and you do not want to make a mistake. By beginning your search early in your undergraduate career, you will have time to objectively evaluate each program, closely examine the details of each and ultimately reach a decision that is best for you.
Are you a "quality applicant"?
Graduate schools are looking for what they call "quality applicants," by which they mean students who not only have good grades and test scores, but have demonstrated the potential to become excellent scholars. Beyond your transcripts and test scores, you have three ways to persuade your chosen schools that you are a "quality applicant"--your writing, your statement of intent, and your letters of recommendation. Here are some suggestions for making them all more effective.
Based on information from graduate directors at the ADE Graduate Directors' workshop, it seems that programs that ask for writing samples are looking for one sustained critical essay of article length--defined either as 15-20 or 20-25 pages. You'll want to look through your best course writing, and if you don't have a paper of this length, talk to your former teachers about how you might expand a promising paper to this depth. The paper should be demonstrate the kind of critical perspective that you like to bring to literature, so it should have a clear critical stance as well as demonstrate the kinds of critical questions you can generate and the ways you make arguments to answer those questions. Obviously it should be scrupulously edited and documented precisely, since these factors also convey the kinds of scholarship you might do. And if you have given a version of this paper at a conference or submitted it for a journal like The Oswald Review or a specialty journal, you should note that--it's more evidence of your nascent professionalism. Graduate schools are looking for what they call "quality applicants," by which they mean students who not only have good grades and test scores, but have demonstrated the potential to become excellent scholars.
The personal statement is one of the most important parts of your application, since it not only demonstrates your critical thinking and communication abilities to a graduate program but also gives them a sense of who you are as a person. Too often, applicants don't look at what the questions are really asking--and that shows weak critical thinking and reading skills. Some people prepare generic statements because they're applying to more than one school and it's a lot of work to do a personal essay for each school. But that can harm your chances if the school realizes you're saying the same thing to each and every school despite the fact that there are critical differences between the kinds of schools you're applying to. So take the time to develop these as carefully as you would an essay for ENGL 300!
Most successful applicants write many, many drafts of their personal statement before submitting them. Some schools ask for a general statement of goals. Other schools provide specific questions that must be addressed. Take a look at what the essay asks and deal with those issues articulately and honestly. And don't underestimate the kind of attention that is paid to these essays. At least two, and sometimes three, people read each essay, and they may be used for deciding if you get financial aid as well. Show your best abilities in these essays for the results you want. Ask for feedback from your professors before you send them. And it goes without saying that you need to edit them perfectly--no errors!
Some good references for writing the personal statement can be found at:
Recommendation letters are a key part of your application because they translate the information on your transcript and paperwork into a connection with you as a person. The recommenders who write your letters should know not only about your goals but your work ethic, your capabilities, and your potential as a graduate student. Some institutions will ask the recommender to comment on your preparation to be a teaching assistant or graduate assistant as well; if a recommendation asks for that, you may wish to put a sticky note or highlight on the form to call your recommender's attention to that particular component of the letter.
Be sure that the recommender:
To request letters: