Department of English at Winthrop - Applying to Graduate School

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Applying to Graduate School

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

Recommendation Letters

The Personal Statement

Submitting the Application

Finding the Right Graduate School

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 profession's perception of graduate schooling is undergoing changes, 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 - 2.1 MB) and talking to both your advisor and the Graduate Director about which track is best for you, your goals, and your family. You have lots of choices!

If you decide to pursue graduate education, the 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 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 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, and 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 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.

Quality of Life

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.  

The Writing Sample

Based on information from graduate directors at the ADE Graduate Directors' workshop, it seems 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 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

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: 

Personal Statement Do's  

  1. Talk about who you are, why you are interested in the program you are applying for, and why you would be a good candidate for the program. 
  2. Talk about why that program is important to you.
  3. Talk about your intellectual and critical strengths: what kinds of lenses do you use to see your work? This is one way that grad schols sort through applications; the applicant who knows who s/he is as a scholar will be taken more seriously than the student who talks only about loving reading and literature. 
  4. Give examples that allow the reader to assess your abilities. 
  5. Describe why this particular school is the right one for you.
  6. Talk about the interests of the faculty in the program and how they match your interests.
  7. Keep it short and simple. Two double-spaced pages is typically appropriate.

Personal Statement Don'ts  

  1. Write an autobiography or a research paper. Everybody applying to these programs loves to read and write; what you need to do is show what kind of scholar you might become.
  2. Talk about your "gifts" or weaknesses. No need to be arrogant, but no need to cut yourself down either.
  3. Tell the reader you are capable, rather than providing evidence that will lead them to this conclusion.
  4. Talk so narrowly about your goals and interests that you come across as too narrow, too rigid, or not open to change.
  5. Overdo it. Do not say that it is the only school that can meet your needs. It simply is not true.
  6. Try to impress the reader with your vast knowledge of the field or try to come across as an "intellectual."
  7. Do not use effusive or flowery language, which takes a lot of space to say very little.  

Recommendation Letters

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:

  • Knows you personally
  • Responds favorably when letters is requested
  • Can attest to your ambition, perseverance, and maturity
  • Is familiar with your academic achievements and your critical stance
  • Can cite specific examples of your abilities rather than vague generalities

To request letters:

  1. Set up an appointment and make the request in person. Be prepared to articulate your goals regarding graduate school.
  2. Assist the recommender by providing information:
    • Resume
    • Unofficial transcript
    • Copy of your personal statement
    • Work you've done in the writer's classes
    • Addressed & stamped envelopes if necessary
  3. Ask at least one month in advance. Recommenders need at least that amount of time to go through your information and write a thorough recommendation.
  4. Be organized. Clearly label each application with the deadline, as well as whether the recommendation should be mailed or returned to you. 
  5. If the letters are signed and sealed, do not open them; the confidentiality of the recommendation is important to both the recommender and the school (If a sealed envelope is misaddressed, ask the recommender for a new one or seal that envelope inside a correctly-addressed envelope).
  6. Thank your letter writers and keep them updated on your progress.

Submitting an Application

  1. Complete all paperwork neatly, completely, and accurately.
  2. When possible, network with faculty at the graduate schools to which you apply. Be appropriate and professional, as we all know you can be. Do NOT overwhelm graduate faculty with unnecessary e-mails or phone calls. They will not be impressed by overcompensation.
  3. Apply to multiple programs, as graduate school is a competitive process.
  4. Take your exams in enough time and request your references in enough time to make sure you complete application is submitted in time. Often if one item is missing, your file will languish on a desk for weeks or even months. And you'll miss the chance to compete for assistantships and financial aid in that case.
  5. Submit your applications on time. Check deadlines carefully because some may vary. Allow for time for the mail to get there, too. Don't procrastinate!
  6. After submitting your application, be prepared for graduate faculty contact; know your goals and interests so that you can articulate them effectively.
  7. While you are waiting, keep an open mind. There are many paths to every outcome. In other words, do NOT blow a fuse because things happen differently than you plan. There may be a different path that you overlooked.
  8. Talk to department mentors about how to sift through graduate school offers. Be prepared if a university awards you a position. You may be offered an assistantship, or a T.A. position, for instance. Exciting, no?
  9. Keep in touch with your mentors, people! They love us and want updates on our successes. 

Last Updated: 8/20/20