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Prospective Students - General Tip Sheet - Applying to the Ph.D. Program

Because in any application process there is always an element of the arbitrary involved, it can sometimes be difficult to determine why one application succeeds where another fails. But there are many strategies you can use to make the most persuasive case you can, and thereby increase your chances of success.

The most important rule is to follow the application instructions. For instance, we ask for a writing sample of no longer than 5,000 words. Sending a writing sample of 5 pages or 25 pages makes it more difficult for the Admissions Committee to evaluate your application on the same basis as other applications. Moreover, not following the instructions risks making a bad impression on your reader and might be taken as a sign of future problems. Remember that Admissions Committees are trying to assess both your past accomplishments and your potential performance as a student should you be accepted.

A corollary to following instructions is to ensure that your application makes a positive impression by avoiding careless mistakes and typos. If it looks like you didn’t take your application seriously, it’s hard for an Admissions Committee to take it seriously. So always edit and proofread carefully. It is a good idea to share your personal statement and writing sample with friends and professors to get feedback about possible improvements and to help you detect any errors.

Our Admissions Committee looks for three main qualities in an applicant: 1) a good fit with our program; 2) a record of past accomplishment; and 3) qualities that indicate potential for success as a Ph.D. student. At the Ph.D. level a good fit between the applicant and the program is essential, because you will be specializing in a particular area of research. Developing an expertise in that area means that there must be courses available for you to take and faculty to work with, particularly at the dissertation-writing stage. So, for instance, if you plan to write on dissertation on 20th-century African American women novelists, our Program would be a good fit, because we have several faculty members who have expertise in the fields covered by that subject (e.g., women writers, gender and sexuality studies, African American literature, the history of the novel, etc.). We also offer many courses in related areas that will provide both foundational and specialized knowledge as you move towards the dissertation. Before you apply, you should also familiarize yourself with the basic curricular structure of the program, such as number and kind of courses regularly offered, required courses, language exams, and so on.

In evaluating your record of past accomplishment, the Admissions Committee considers each element of your application. Your transcript provides the most informative overview of your past academic experience. If there are any anomalies on your transcript—for instance, a semester in which your grades significantly dropped—you might choose to provide a brief explanation in your personal statement.

To determine your potential for success as a graduate student, the Admissions Committee puts considerable weight on your personal statement, writing sample, and recommendation letters. For guidance on writing the personal statement please click here.

Often the writing sample will be an essay (or a selection from an essay) that you wrote for a college or MA-level course. Since that essay will be read by a diverse group of readers who know nothing of its original purposes or contexts, be sure that your introduction clearly presents the essay’s methods and aims. Remember that your readers will be faculty and students with expertise in various fields, so if you submit a writing sample on Bleak House, for instance, you cannot assume that your readers are experts on that text, although most of them will have some familiarity with Dickens’ novels and with Victorian literature. Particularly if you are engaging any highly specialized topics or obscure texts, you should be sure to provide the necessary background information to aid your readers’ comprehension. As in any analytic essay, you should present an original, specific thesis; provide compelling, detailed evidence to support that thesis; and ensure that your writing is fluid and error free. Ideally, the writing sample should correspond with interests declared in the personal statement. For more advice on preparing the writing sample, we recommend “The Application Guessing Game” by Gerald Graff and Andrew Hoberek, in Clueless in Academe (Yale University Press, 2004): 190-210.

You can take a few steps to ensure that your letters of recommendation make a strong contribution to your application. First, it is always best to seek letters from professors who know you personally. A letter from a professor who came to know you well as a student in a small seminar is likely to be more detailed and compelling than a letter from a professor who only read your papers in a large lecture course. When reading your letters, the Admissions Committee seeks not only deeper understanding of your intellectual abilities and accomplishments, but also insight into your confidence, collegiality, eloquence, maturity, and other qualities that are important to success in a Ph.D. Program. At least one letter should represent the specialty you plan to pursue as a Ph.D. student. If you hope to concentrate on eroticism in Shakespeare, for example, you should have a letter from an early modern scholar or a sexuality scholar. In addition to expert testimony about your projected area of specialization, it can also be a good idea to show a range of accomplishments and interests, so as not to seem too narrowly focused in one area or methodology. If you have done relevant work in other fields within English studies or in other disciplines (e.g., Classics, Women’s Studies, Digital Humanities), you might consider including one letter that can explain how your innovative or interdisciplinary scholarship might enhance your more specialized or traditional work within English.

Finally, the Admissions Committee regards GRE General Test scores as one component in the overall application. We do not have a minimum GRE score for admission, and have sometimes accepted applicants with low scores when other parts of the application were strong. Of the three parts of the GRE General Test, the “Verbal” score is the most informative for us, but we put more stress on the personal statement and writing sample than the GRE.