Apply to Graduate or Professional School

English Department Workshop: Applying to Graduate School Graduate School Application Checklist

Selecting A Program That's Right For You:

    a. Consult with your faculty advisor and other faculty about graduate programs that might suit your interests.

b. Investigate programs you are interested in. Look carefully at department and university webpages. Be familiar with the faculty in a particular program, with the requirements for the MA and Ph.D. What sort of financial aid, fellowships, and assistantships are offered? What is the range of GRE and GPA levels admitted to the program? Do these suggest that this school is a long shot for you, or a safety school? The best graduate programs are highly competitive, and, all other things being equal, these are likely to give you the best chances on the job market.  But there may be reasons - fellowship support, departmental environment, time to degree, or working conditions - why another program would be better for you. Apply to a range of schools, five or more, including at least one you consider a safety or backup school.

 c. If there is a particular scholar whose work has influenced you, find out where she or he teaches, and consider applying there. This may be a good way to choose - or it may not. Consider that particular faculty members often move schools, retire, become senile, or just  aren't very nice people.

Writing Sample:

a. The writing sample is a crucial part of your application, perhaps the most important part. Admissions committees are looking for clear evidence that you're already doing excellent scholarly work, or at least have the potential for it.  Schools often insist on a page limit or page range. Always adhere to these limits. Your sample should be the best work you've done, though if you indicate your interest as, say, Renaissance literature and you send a sample on Thoreau, an admissions committee is likely to be puzzled. Whatever you send in must be highly polished work, not an old, unrevised 5-page essay. Never submit an essay written for a discipline other than English or a closely related field (Comparative Studies, for example).

b. Write a senior thesis. You'll work closely with a faculty advisor who can help shape your ideas and your research. This is the best way to create a critically sophisticated essay, though then you will be confronted with the painful task of condensing what you've done to meet the page limit. (At OSU, incidentally, you do not need to be an Honors student to write a thesis.)

c. If you can't write a thesis, select an essay that reflects your interests and that you received high marks for. Ask the professor for whom you wrote the essay to suggest strategies for revision to make it work as a writing sample.

d. Revise repeatedly. Give yourself enough time to make sure that you are sending the very best work you are capable of producing.

Personal Statement:

a. Your personal statement needs to stand out, but it also needs to conform to certain standard practices. Notice that the sample statements are all about two pages long. Longer statements are probably not a good idea unless specifically allowed by the program you're applying to. The statement should be a narrative of your intellectual development, interests and plans. It should be professional rather than personal, which is not to say it should be colorless or bland, only that those you're trying to reach are interested in the quality of your thinking and your preparation for advanced study in English, not in you "as a person." Never say "I have always been a voracious reader. Why, I remember my aunt Mildred saying, 'Gosh that girl loves to read!'" or anything like that.

b. There may be no single best way to write a personal statement, but most effective statements are likely to have several features in common: 1) a hook: notice that each of the sample statements avoids beginning "I have always wanted to go to graduate school in English because . . ."  opting instead for an attention-arresting, highly specific point of entry. What the one that comes closest ("I blame Benjamin Franklin . . .") lacks in specificity it makes up in wit. But don't try too hard. 2) A detailed account of what you've already accomplished and how it prepares you for graduate work: courses you've taken and work you've done in those courses, and how they fit into a coherent narrative of your intellectual development.  Again, skip the personal stuff ("I really loved Professor X" and even "I love [anything]").  Admissions committees don't care about your feelings. 3) Attention to what you know, but also to what you've argued: show that you know how to mount a literary-critical argument. 4) A detailed account of your plans, what you want to do once you begin graduate work. Even if you don't know, you need to pretend you have some idea. Not: "I will write my dissertation on X," but rather "I want to pursue my work on X by reading such-and-such and taking a course with so-and-so." Talking about your plans should include some indication of why you want to attend the school you're applying to. This means that the statement must be customized for each school applied to. You can see how the sample statements have handled this; some spend more, some spend less time on this. As a rule, though, it comes after you've talked about preparation and interests.

c. Have your faculty advisor and other faculty read it for you. Get other opinions.  Revise repeatedly.

GRE/ GRE Subject Test:

a. At most schools, the GRE is a very important component of your application. There are secrets to doing well on these tests -test taking itself is a skill you can learn - and you might consider printed or on-line practice guides, or even a GRE prep course, though these are expensive.

b. Study for the subject test separately. A study guide might help here too. Not all schools require the subject test (OSU, for example, doesn't). But if you take it, any school you apply to will see the score. Scores are generally lower on the English subject test, but since this is true across the board, it's not necessarily to your disadvantage to take it.

c. Try to take the exam so that if you don't do as well as you'd like, you have time to take it a second time, though keep in mind that many schools will average your scores if you take the tests more than once. At OSU, for fellowship purposes, the University takes the average.

Letters of Recommendation:

a. These too are a key part of your application. Ask professors who know your work well and who remember you. Ask them if they feel capable of writing you a strong letter of support.  Most recommenders will agree to write for you if you ask nicely, whether or not they 're able to give you their highest recommendation. So make sure before you ask that you can count on a strong letter. All your letters should come from professors who know your work. Never get a letter from a family friend, a TA, or even a professor in another field (unless you've done work with that professor directly relevant to your proposed course of study).

b. Give your recommender as much information as possible.  A copy of your personal statement, a CV or resume, a copy of an essay that you wrote in their class, etc. Give him or her this information a couple of months before the letter is due. Professors get asked to write dozens of letters a year and it's important that you give them sufficient time to get the letter done.

   c. Follow up with your recommenders to make sure that they've sent the letters on. Be polite, of course; but many of us appreciate a gentle reminder that a letter's due date is coming up. Also, a thank you note would be nice.

Financial Aid:

a. Make sure to look up the requirements for financial aid applications. Many schools have a separate application for aid.

   b. Fill out your FAFSA.  Most likely, you will wind up taking student loans to augment whatever fellowship/assistantship you are awarded.