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A Word on Applying
For better or worse, most graduate admissions committees use GRE scores as benchmarks. These scores offer a way to compare the preparation of students from very different undergraduate programs. The upside: if your GRE scores are high, this indicates that you are just as well prepared for graduate study as a student who got her B.A. from, say, Harvard. The downside: standardized tests are not always the best measure of a given student’s aptitude for literary study. Admissions committees do realize this, and will pay attention to explanations for low scores given in your personal statement and/or letters of recommendation.
Admissions committees do look at the distribution of courses you have taken, as reflected on your transcript.
Where Else Are You Applying?
If this question appears on the application form, you may want to leave it blank. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell how the committee will interpret your list.
(Most of this advice comes from a member of the graduate admissions committee at UW-Madison.)
An intelligent, thoughtful personal essay that reflects your understanding of the field can make a big impact. These essays are difficult to write. Plan to spend substantial time drafting and revising your essay; get feedback from professors.
The committee is quickly reading through hundreds of applications. Be careful not to exceed the length limitation, and be sure your opening lines are sharp and engaging. Show your reader that you know how to communicate your interests with excitement and enthusiasm.
Do not say: “I have always loved to read.” The committee has seen that sentence thousands of times. Articulate the basis of your interest in English literature in a more specific, original, and sophisticated manner. One way to do this is to focus on a text you found especially moving, or a historical or intellectual problem that fascinates you.
Try to weave together your intellectual interests with your lived experience. Allude to activities that appear on your resume or other sections of the application, but do not simply repeat those lists in your essay.
If your GPA or GRE scores are lower than the program’s average, try to explain why.
Express a focused sense of what you want to do, then list a secondary interest or two. For example: “I hope to pursue my interest in Romantic poetry, with a particular focus on John Keats. However, I am also interested in eighteenth-century fiction and poetry, and in the Victorian reaction against Romanticism.” Try to hook your interests to your coursework and writing sample, at least obliquely. Everyone understands that you may change your mind later, but it is important to appear focused at this stage.
Realize that Ph.D. programs are located at Research Universities, where the emphasis falls on (you guessed it) research. You may still want to mention your interest in teaching, your potential as a teacher, or your experience as a tutor, especially if you are applying to programs that require you to teach independently in your first year. But keep the focus on your scholarship and intellectual interests.
Do not say, “I am a perfect fit for your department,” or, “your department is a perfect fit for me.” Try to show this rather than stating it. Also, do not mention specific faculty members in the department, unless one of your recommenders has specifically told you to name someone. You may want to make a more general mention of the department’s strengths, or specific resources at that university, if you are sure that your information is correct and current. For example: “I am particularly attracted by the prospect of working with the Draconian Library’s collection of Medieval women’s writing.”
If you had a particular reason for attending UWSP (as opposed to, say, Harvard), or if there is something special about your personal situation, you may want to say so in your essay. An example: “I am the first person in my family to attend college.”
Or: “I choose to attend UWSP because I needed to stay in this area to be near my family. The English department is one of the most academically rigorous departments on campus, and I now feel well prepared to embark on a graduate program elsewhere.” This advice would apply more strongly to students who have done an M.A. at UWSP than to undergraduates.
In most cases, students choose a paper they’ve written for a course, and then revise it extensively. If you do not have a paper that seems to fit, you may decide to write one from scratch, in consultation with a faculty advisor. Be very careful not to exceed the length limitation.
It is not necessary for your writing sample to match the area of career interest you discuss in your application essay. However, you may want to mention the writing sample topic, or critical methodology, as a secondary interest.
Your reader is evaluating your abilities as a literary scholar. The writing sample should present a clearly articulated interpretive or theoretical argument that is fresh and intriguing (not an objective research paper; not a rehash of the mainstream interpretation of a particular text). Demonstrate your capacity to be engaging. Show strong skills in documentation. Indicate familiarity with literary theory and criticism, but not by way of meaningless name-dropping. The ability to use theory in an intelligent manner is a big plus; your choice of one particular theoretical methodology or approach will not be held against you, as long as you use it well.
If you choose a paper from a course, be very sure that the revised version does not depend, for its sense, on the framework of the course or the assignment.
Letters of Reccomendation:
Solicit letters of recommendation from professors who have worked closely with you in a range of contexts, expressed a high opinion of you and your work, and given you good grades. Do not hesitate to ask each of your recommenders to write letters for all of your applications. Recommenders who are alumni of the programs to which you're applying sometimes have special pull; it's a good idea to check into this possibility. Finally, share your GPA and GRE scores with your recommender; if your numbers are low, suggest reasons the recommender might include.