Applying to Graduate School

Researching Programs

Begin by reading the catalog thoroughly. Then, if at all possible, make an appointment for a campus visit with the director of graduate admissions in the English Department. You're going to be spending 2-7 years of your life, depending on which degree you pursue, and thousands of dollars doing graduate work and you need to be sure you like the university and the faculty. When you visit campus, ask the following questions:

  • How many applications for graduate work do you receive and how many do you accept?
  • What is the profile of a student who is accepted? Accepted and given a teaching assistantship? Accepted and given a non-working fellowship?
  • What are the requirements for finishing the degree, in detail.
  • How many courses that are listed in the catalog are actually taught on a regular basis? How often is "regular"? (Ask to see the last two or three years worth of time schedules and compare for yourself.)
  • Ask to meet with the professors who will teach in your major area. Then ask them if they plan on being on campus while you are studying there or if they anticipate taking leave time. If so, when?
  • How many of this department's graduates students were placed in tenure-track jobs and at which colleges? What did these students specialize in? (The person you talk with will probably hate this last question, but you need to know. The job placement rate nationwide is abysmal and getting worse. You are likely to discover that less than twenty percent of a typical university's Ph.D. grads were placed in tenure-track jobs their first year out. Remember this sad bit of reality: universities must admit far more graduate students than they can actually place in jobs because they need these students to teach basic writing and introduction to literature courses. Many students who begin graduate work, especially at the Ph.D. level, will never have tenure-track jobs.

Read Successful Applications
You probably won't be able to do this, but it never hurts to ask and you'll learn a great deal about what struck last year's admissions committee as important. These committees often change from year to year, but each university looks for a certain type of student. The more you can find out about this type of student, the more you can tailor your application to those qualities. (You'll find a sample application to the Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, along with an essay by the Director of Graduate Admissions at this website under "Sample Graduate School Application.")

Meet with Current Graduate Students
Find out what's good about this university and what's not so good. Try to attend some classes, if you are allowed. Spend as much time as possible talking with current grad students since they will tell you what the professors and administrators don't want you to know. Ask about teaching loads, comprehensive exams, dissertation practices, everything you can think of, including: "What should I know about doing graduate work here?"

Keep a Calendar of Deadlines
Late and incomplete applications are irritating. Remember, the admissions committee is overworked, stressed, impatient, and generally tired. Don't annoy them. Double-check to be certain your transcripts and test scores have been sent. Keep a list, with dates, of everything you send out and where you send it, particularly if you're applying to several different universities. If the universities to which you are applying do not include a self-addressed, stamped postcard to notify you that your application has been received, make one and include it.

Writing the Application

Ask at least two other people to proofread for you. If you can't, read each sentence backwards, one word at a time. Read it out loud. Read it word-by-word with a pencil underneath each word.

Your writing sample should be targeted to the degree you seek.

For example, a Ph.D. is a research degree; it is not a creative degree such as an MFA. Therefore, a Ph.D. admissions committee will look at your writing sample to judge your aptitude for scholarly research, not your reactions to a text, or your poetry, or your ability to write a creative non-fiction prose essay. An MFA program will want to see your creative writing, not necessarily your critical analysis paper on Emily Dickinson. Length is less important than quality. Once again, proofread extremely carefully.

Your personal statement may be creative.

Imagine that your application essay describing why you want to do a graduate degree is going to be read by a tired, bored, impatient committee member at 2:00 a.m. You won't be far wrong. Write accordingly. The primary requirement is that you capture your reader's attention and keep it while you describe why you want to do graduate work. A strong, interesting opening helps.

You do not need to outline a program of study, but it does help your application if you have a plan of what subjects you'd like to study and why. Be aware that for the Ph.D., for example, single-author studies are no longer generally looked upon with favor because students writing dissertations on single authors may not be as successful on the job market. Cultural studies, genre studies, studies in the history of an idea or a subject, and cross-departmental studies will attract much more interest. When in doubt, read the last few years' worth of essays in the scholarly journals in your subject to see what's being published.

If possible, submit your application essay or creative piece to a journal prior to applying for a graduate program. This will accomplish several things. You can put it on your vita as "being juried at . . ." which looks impressive, and you might actually get it published. You may also get a juried reading of your work, which might help you to revise your work before you submit it with your application and to another journal. Keep revising and resubmitting until you get published, no matter how long it takes.

Attend and Present at Conventions
Learn about graduate student conventions, such as the Midwestern MLA, and submit your essay as a proposal for a presentation.

You'll be doing conference presentations the rest of your life, so you might as well get a head start. You'll also get reactions to your work, and you'll meet graduate students from other universities. If you don't tell the conference organizers you're not a graduate student, they probably won't ask. If they do ask, don't lie. If your work is good enough, you'll probably be accepted anyway.

Getting Accepted
First, if you are not accepted at your university of choice, make an appointment to call the chair of the admissions committee to find out why.

This can be extremely valuable information if you choose to reapply another year. Most admissions committees will gladly talk with you, provided you call immediately after you are rejected. If you wait a few weeks or months, they will have forgotten why they rejected you and have to go hunt up your application (providing it still exists), and reread it. If you call while their admissions decisions are still fresh in memory, you may get valuable advice. The following essay by an admissions committee director may also be revealing.

Sample Application

How One Ph.D. Admissions Committee Chooses Students
By Kathleen Diffley
University of Iowa

Some years ago, I used to make my way through a Virginia campus that was intricate enough to get you lost: there were winding roads, hidden buildings, competing vehicles, and no maps. Fortunately, there was a guy whose only job was to direct traffic, and he took his job seriously. Each car that came in he fussed over, waved his hands, and then sent it on left or right with sweeping certainty. The volume of traffic never seemed to matter, any more than it ought to matter to those of us who direct graduate admissions committees. But to professors who urge strong students toward the gates of graduate school or to students who wish to apply, it must sometimes feel like the paths inside are too winding and the standards too hidden, the competition too keen and the maps nowhere to be found. So I would like to suggest how admissions directors and their committees can make such sweeping decisions about who will be admitted and who will not, and how, at the University of Iowa, we have kept writing rather than numerical scores central to the admissions process, even when faced with an increasing number of applicants.

At Iowa, where I am now Director of Graduate Studies and was until recently Director of Graduate Admissions, some 318 applicants tooled up to the gate this past year in 1995, down from a high of 416 in 1992. Over the past five years, there have annually been between 300 and 400 applications to the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in literary studies. These figures do not include the applicant pool for the M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing, a growing program in the art of the essay. Nor do they include the volleys of applications to the Writers Workshop, which operates its own fiefdom on the floor above us in the English-Philosophy Building and soon its own entire house. Of the hundreds of applicants we do nonetheless review, we admit roughly 10%. It may help to know that Iowa makes no distinction on the basis of degree goal, mostly because there is no separate track for M.A. students in literary studies. Nor does the Admissions Committee make any distinction on the basis of requested aid, which reveals less a singular focus on academic merit than a singular recognition that everyone eventually requests aid because of what it represents: departmental recognition, teaching experience, or the chance to work closely with faculty on their research. Iowa does welcome M.A.s from other institutions, but has increasingly provided less of a home for M.A. applicants than many other schools. Over the last three years, there have been no M.A. students in the department's entering Ph.D class, no doubt because M.A. students are no longer funded. If you don't pay them, evidently, they won't come.

Students still apply to the M.A. program, however, and their applications become part of the larger admissions pool. For the committee every year, there are five areas to assess in each file and thus five things of which prospective applicants should be aware. In the order of their importance, they are: the writing sample, GRE scores (largely because they come next in the application form), GPA(s) with transcripts, letters of recommendation, and statement of purpose.

At Iowa, the writing sample still accounts for at least half of the admissions decision. That submission works best as a single 20-25 page essay that is researched, lucid, and ambitious. It is increasingly difficult to be admitted to most doctoral programs with yet another close reading of Moby-Dick or The Tempest, not only because the profession has changed over the past five years, but because applicants have changed and so have the numbers in which they apply. Too applicants many submit wonderfully lucid and clearly venturesome essays that cannot rightly be set aside--so many, in fact, that the basic admissions question has shifted at Iowa over five short years. Where committee members used to ask "Will this applicant do well in this program?" they now ask "Will this applicant do better than two or three hundred other applicants?" That's the bad news; the good news is that students who know they are aiming for substantial research papers can now make sure they complete such work, which could well make teaching advanced undergraduate courses and even early graduate courses more invigorating.

As to the Graduate Record Exams, only the verbal score is evaluated at Iowa for anything except the loftiest fellowships. Over the past three years, the median score has ranged from 680 to 730. Because some committee members believe the GREs to be corrupt or at least biased or at least as sternly dogmatic as many of the students who take the test, the Admissions Committee has always looked willingly and carefully at grade point averages, with a particular eye to coursework in literature and related fields. On balance, successful applicants at Iowa have had a median GPA of somewhere between 3.68 and 3.81, often as honors students. Those with bachelor's degrees in History or Communications Studies or even Biology often intrigue the committee, but such applicants are usually admitted only with M.A.s in English and thus with some training in literary study to their credit. A scrambling first year or a precipitous change in majors or a true disaster in Organic Chemistry will not disqualify a student outright, even if the GPA takes a body blow. But then the application must have compensatory strength elsewhere, often in the writing sample.

Letters of recommendation can also help with unusual circumstances. Of course, letters help most, in my experience, when they assess a student's intellectual command. For example, when they say "This is the smartest person to come down the pike since God." For that reason, applicants essentially waste letters when they turn to job supervisors or residence hall masters or friends of the family who sit on the university's board. Evaluations of teaching skill are also less likely to work well. At Iowa and other schools, entering students are rarely asked to teach and, besides, many applicants can claim some teaching experience that will matter more when T.A.s kick in. If they want to get into a graduate program in English, applicants usually need letters that are intellectually lively, specifically attuned to their own performance in class, and genuinely enthusiastic about their academic promise.

On this score, the two-page statement of purpose can also make a difference. This final part of each application is often used to decide borderline cases, and sometimes half of the cases an admissions committee weighs each year can be borderline: because students have been out of school for fifteen years, because they were not undergraduate English majors, because the writing sample never catches fire. Admittedly, applicants are generally asked to respond to god awful questions about their "proposed course of study" or their "areas of research interest." Yet each year the best students manage to transcend such language; they also dodge the temptation to write a self-touting cover letter of sorts, and discover instead the voice of passionate engagement, the streak of intellectual electricity that will make even tired, midnight readers (which are generally what admissions committee members are) say "I've got to have this student in my class." One of the best such statements I have read began: "My whole life might have been different if I had been able to pronounce the letter 'n' in second grade." Amid so many other files, that sounded like mental agility.

Because there are so many other files and because all graduate admissions decisions usually need to be made between roughly mid-January and mid-March, it has been tempting to skirt these statements, indeed any writing, in favor of minimum thresholds for GRE scores and GPAs. Flag the numbers, the logic goes, and you will not have to chase down delinquent faculty readers who would rather listen to post-MLA job candidates than evaluate writing samples. At Iowa, we have opted instead to invite graduate students to be first, or peer, readers of incoming essays, a shift in practice that has allowed both faculty readers and committee members to reduce the time spent examining hundreds of applications quickly so as to have more time to read a smaller number with care. About fifteen or twenty doctoral students, all with at least a year in the program and preferably with some teaching experience, volunteer to take on more than half of the writing samples that come in. Some readers can only accept five or ten essays, but most examine between ten and twenty, and no one is sent more than twenty-five. A few fields always remain uncovered and a few readers remain patchy in their insights. On the whole, however, the Admissions Committee has been able to identify both weak applicants and those who merit full review. Meanwhile, faculty readers have appreciated these initial responses to essays, and committee members can even see responses to responses heating up. In fact, not only potential students but the intellectual community already in place profits each year from this attempt to maintain the department's tradition of thoughtful review.

So long as graduate student evaluations are augmented by the director's assessment of other materials in each application, such evaluations have provided threshold votes of confidence that suggest faculty attention is warranted, and further committee time would be well spent. The advantages to the strongest applicants have been striking. At Iowa, there is less threat of haste in reading all applications when the number read in toto is cut in half. We have also improved service to all applicants and to colleagues who write letters of recommendation by limiting the reminders about incomplete files to those applicants with solid credentials. Finally, we have retained the decisive significance of the writing sample, which otherwise numbers (in every sense) would almost certainly have curtailed. Working together, faculty and graduate students have insured that procedural congestion does not thwart a shared commitment to our program's future vitality or limit the fuss we still prefer to make over every student who applies.

Page last modified September 12, 2022