Below is a post from Kelsey Kiser full of advice for English majors considering graduate school. Kelsey graduated with an English major in Spring 2012. Since graduating she’s been working at Roosevelt High School. Starting in Fall 2013, she will attend Southern Methodist University’s fully-funded Ph.D. program, specializing in African American literature. Here are her words of wisdom:
So, you want a graduate degree in English Literature? As a recent applicant myself, a former University of Portland English major, and soon to be a PhD student at Southern Methodist University in the fall, I am here to tell you that you can and will survive the application process.
The key to applying to graduate school is knowing yourself and making the decision to apply for the right reasons. At the end of the application process, you must be okay walking away empty handed. Only apply to grad school if you are certain that this is the only thing you will be happy doing, and are impassioned enough to continue applying after a year (or even two years) of rejection. You must also be accepting of the fact that after spending six years in a program there is a strong possibility of not garnering a professorship. This is to say, then, that the journey and personal growth you will do in the application year, as well as in graduate school, is worth the struggle, despite landing a tenure track position. As recommended by your professor Dr. Brassard, books like Gregory Semenza’s Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, paints a realistic portrayal of the application process and a student’s life once accepted. Also check out Rebecca Schuman’s bitter tirade against the graduate school path—still interested? Continue reading this post.
The first thing you should do is explore what kind of program you want to attend and where to apply. Whether you’re planning on attending a high-level research institution, or a smaller program that focuses more on teaching; a masters’ program or Ph.D., you need to have an idea of what you want to get out of your program. While you’re thinking about these questions, start researching: A simple Google search, or websites like petersons.com, can help you narrow-in on programs that meet your needs. In some cases, consider academic homes of critics you used in your capstone project. Start talking with your mentors early and go over your list of possible schools with them. I started with a list of about twenty schools, and with the help of my academic mentors, narrowed it down to twelve. In my opinion, the odds of getting into a fully funded program are so slim that if you’re thinking of only applying to three or four schools it’s not worth it. Apply to a range of schools. I applied to both doctorate programs and master programs—just in case.
Before getting into the specifics of the application process, let me encourage you to consider taking a “gap year”—I am telling you, begging you to do this! I, eager student, also wanted to apply to graduate school and begin course work the fall after graduation, but the intensity of the application is too much to do your senior year. Applying to graduate school is as time consuming as a full time job, and you cannot possibly write a senior thesis in a semester and perfect it for a writing sample, study for the GRE (and do well on it), finish the other application materials, still maintain your UP classes, and enjoy your senior year. I tried, I failed, and the minute I embraced the gap year my life became instantly better. Yours will too.
Once you’re ready to apply, it’s time to figure out what each application consists of. There is no common application for grad school, so it’s best to get organized. I created an excel sheet for each school, listing everything that each application required, and the date it was due. Understand that each school will require a writing sample, a statement of purpose (SOP), GRE general scores, three letters of recommendation, an application fee, and transcripts. Some schools may also require GRE subject scores, an online application/questionnaire with typical demographic information, and a resume. Moreover, different schools require different versions of all of these. I found myself tweaking SOP’s to fit a 300-500 word count for some schools, while others were perfectly okay with two pages single spaced. Some universities want one writing sample; others, two. Another wanted a ten-page sample, with a summary of the rest of the argument. While some schools embrace technology, others want hardcopies of materials sent to them. And though it seems like it may be the easiest of all, even sending transcripts is a bit tricky. Most universities want electronic copies, others only want electronic copies sent from your undergraduate institution (University of Portland’s registrar office does not do this regularly), while others will request transcripts to be sent only by mail from your university. To be honest, most of my obsessing and anxiety did not come from the application itself, but the thought that my application may get rejected simply from reading instructions wrong. Remember that spread sheet? The one listing each school’s application materials? The more details here, the better. Spend a day pouring over English department websites like you’re looking for the hidden truth in any given text, and make your spreadsheet. When you can’t sleep at 3:00 AM and you’re panicking that you forgot something, refer to the spreadsheet, and you’ll feel better.
The most important part of your application will be your writing sample and statement of purpose. Fortunately, you are writing a fabulous senior thesis under the direction of one of UP’s English professors, so you’re halfway there. The English capstone is one of the most rigorous I have seen at the University of Portland (although I may be biased), and this puts you in an excellent position when applying to graduate school. If you can, try to work on something that you would like to focus on in grad school. With some additional editing and revision over the summer, your writing sample will be good to go. Once you have written your sample, you are in a position to write your SOP. The research you do for the former may lead you down an avenue that you want to explore in grad school—and this is something you should approach in your statement. Although only 1-2 pages, your statement should be intriguing to a tenured professor, focusing on what you want to explore in graduate study, and yet still telling the story of who you are and how you came to apply.
Second to your writing, your letters of recommendation will also be very important. The fact that you have chosen to attend UP has put you at an advantage in this category. We work closely with the faculty, often attending office hours, and are mentored with a watchful eye on our capstones. Because the faculty not only get to know you as a student, but as a person, they are able to write excellent and very specific recommendations. Remember to ask professors well ahead of deadlines, check in with them regularly, and provide them with any information they may need to be successful in recommending you (perhaps a draft of your statement of purpose, resume, a spreadsheet with due dates, directions for submitting).
The most exhausting part of the process, at least for me, was the GRE. My largest fear was being weeded out of an applicant pool solely based on my GRE scores. The first time I took the GRE—I virtually failed it. Let me tell you, life still goes on, the world keeps spinning, and you get a second chance. Mainly, I think just being familiar with how to take the test improves your score. Although the books help, for me, the Princeton Review class at least eased some anxiety around taking the test. Going into literature, I can tell you not to worry about the math, but definitely hit those vocabulary flashcards. English majors have the essay section nailed—but take time to explore topics and expectations for each essay (there are certain marks you want to make sure to hit for easy points!). Secondly, some schools may want you to take the GRE literature exam. This test is hard, and yes, we all have our gaps, but many schools are moving away from using this exam. Only five out of my twelve schools requested it. I would say to first study for the general exam, and then study for the subject exam. This test will not make or break you. And, in fact, taking and studying for it is sort of fun. Pick up a GRE book, make flash cards, and take practice tests. Don’t stress about this test—you know what you know, but you may be able to pick up some easy points by going over your notes from Orr or McDonald’s 225 class.
Lastly, you need to understand that this process is going to be expensive. Application fees will range anywhere from 50 to 100 bucks a pop, not to mention fees for taking the GRE and sending scores to schools. When all is said and done, you may drop a few grand on this process— just know what you’re getting into ahead of time.
Now that you know about the process, the most trying part is waiting for responses. You will finish your applications and you will be waiting for months. Rejection will come (and usually come first), and it will hurt. Take a day off work, cope, call a friend, do what you need to do, but do not let this discourage you. Remember, as one wise professor reminded me when I received my first rejections—YOU signed up for this. You chose this path. And you want this. This is the first rejection you will receive among many rejections from other schools, journals, conferences, and eventually jobs. This is the reality of the field that you have chosen to go into. It’s time to grow some thick skin. Acceptance will come, and when it does, it will be amazing. You will be invited and flown out for campus visits. This will be exciting, and even a little bit seductive. Remember, the process takes time, and in the end, the most important thing for me has been talking about every decision with my advisors. They care, and they will understand, and will probably be the only people who will be able to relate. You will feel like no one else knows what you’re going through, and chances are, you’re right. Find people in your life that will support you, talk to them, and talk to them often. You can do this.
Best of luck.