So You Want to Go to Graduate School!
Consider timing: it’s important.
First, have an honest conversation with yourself: what do you hope to gain by going to graduate school? Is now the best time? Do you first need to take some time away from school to gain work experience and/or save money? The tips below will give you an idea of what the application process entails while guiding you through it.
For those who decide to continue their studies in Graduate School, preparation should begin as early as possible. Upper division courses in special topics dealing with a core of literary issues and problems will offer you an opportunity to engage literature on a higher level and will prepare you for the seminar format of most graduate courses. Graduate programs also like to see evidence of experience in independent study and research, which can be satisfied at least partly by the English department's Senior Seminar. You might also consider developing independent research projects in UNC Asheville's Undergraduate Research Program, which can lead to the opportunity to present a paper at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research or to publish an article in the UNC Asheville Journal of Undergraduate Research. Finally, students should consider taking Professional Writing, a class that teaches you advanced writing skills and a workshop setting for preparing graduate school materials including the personal essay.
Most graduate programs require a reading knowledge of one or two languages, and admissions committees usually consider it advantageous for students to have begun language study as undergraduates. Consider extending the UNC Asheville requirement of 6 hours in a foreign language to 12 hours (French, German, Latin, or Greek are probably most useful).
Although UNC Asheville's Humanities Program provides a solid grounding in intellectual history, you might enhance your preparation by taking additional courses in the history and philosophy of those periods of special interest to you. A full minor in history, philosophy or other field can provide a solid background on which to build graduate studies in English.
As you approach your senior year, begin thinking ahead to the Graduate Records Examination, both the standard test and the "special topics exam" in Literature. Purchase a good, basic workbook for the standard test - such as Barron's - and focus on the verbal and logic sections. To prepare for the Literature portion of the exam, you should review notes from course work you have finished and avail yourself of a good anthology, such as those published by Norton or Oxford, for works you may not have read in formal class settings. You can also find workbooks covering the Literature test and these may be helpful for orienting yourself to the sorts of questions you are likely to encounter. Remember, too, that your preparation for the department's Senior Comprehensive Examination can assist in readying you for the GRE. Although the GREs may seem intimidating, try to regard them as an occasion for you to take control of your studies, to construct your own intellectual framework for the understanding of literature.
Some graduate admissions committees look for evidence of a student's interest in teaching. A good way to show such a commitment may be to consider tutoring, perhaps as a Peer Tutor on campus, in the Writing Center, or in the local community. Participation in organizations such as the Literature Club reveals an interest in the department and may be a good indicator that this interest may carry over to a student's graduate school career.
The Department organizes annual workshop sessions, usually in the fall, for students to discuss the concerns attendant upon applying to graduate school. Professors also provide valuable advice about aspects of the application process, from pointing out the strengths of particular graduate programs to acquiring letters of recommendation and composing statements of purpose.
Finally, if you haven't done all these things, don't abandon hope. Graduate programs accept all kinds of students with all kinds of backgrounds. Talk to your advisor about non-traditional entry into graduate school.
Research Available Programs
Investigate a variety of schools, ranging from your “dream school” to your “safe choice.” Spend a LOT of time in the research stage. Notice which programs receive high rankings, particularly in your field of interest. Google the phrase “Guide to Graduate School Rankings” and you’ll see results like these:
Once you’ve narrowed your choices to under ten or fifteen schools, do a few things:
- Visit the program’s website to learn all you can.
- Email the Director of Graduate Study to ask questions about a) funding, including the frequency and longevity of funding, and b) health insurance.
- Find email addresses of current graduate students and write to them; ask them how they like the program. What are their complaints and compliments?
- Calculate how much the application process will cost. Once you pay application fees, postage, and incur other costs (such as test preparatory materials), applying to ten programs can easily cost over $1,000.
Schedule Required Tests
Carefully plan the available time you have left before materials are due. Do NOT submit late applications; many schools reject these outright.
Decide when you’ll take the general GRE. You may take the GRE once per month, but no more than five times a year. Also be aware that some programs require GRE Subject Test scores. This is a paper-based test that is only offered three times a year: in October, November, and April.
Decide whether you’ll invest in a GRE-prep course offered by companies like The Princeton Review. If so, plan accordingly in your timeline and budget.
If you are taking the GRE subject test, also be sure to allow yourself enough time to review for it. If you’ve already taken and passed the department’s comprehensive exam, you’re in better standing than most who tackle this test.
Assemble The Application Packet
In some cases you will submit two applications: one to the Graduate School and one to the department. This is an important distinction to discern early on.
In general, you should plan on providing a Personal Statement, a Writing Sample, and Letters of Recommendtion in addition to forms and transcripts.
The Personal Statement
This document is INCREDIBLY important, and you should allow yourself a lot, LOT, L-O-T of time to craft it. It even warrants its own section, outlined below.
The Writing Sample
This should be a shining testament to all that you’re capable of as a writer. This should be the essay that received a rip-roarin’ A+ and one that you STILL revised.
If you’re thinking of submitting your senior thesis, be careful: some programs stipulate page number restrictions, and your thesis might be too long.
Letters of Recommendation
Approach potential letter writers with humility and tact. You’re asking a lot of already busy people. To make the process as smooth as possible, do the following:
- Ask your letter writers FAR in advance of deadlines. A minimum of three weeks lead-time is acceptable, but a month or more is preferable.
- Prepare a formal request for your letter writers. Email them with information about where you are applying and why. Share with them your personal statement or provide them with some information about the qualities you wish to highlight in your application.
- As soon as your letter writer agrees to write for you, supply that person with a packet immediately.
Packet for Letter Writers
Include the following in your packet:
- Addressed, stamped envelopes for each program to which you’re applying. Be sure delivery instructions are clear (paper versus online, etc).
- A copy of your transcript
- A copy of your personal statement
- A copy of your writing sample
After letters are submitted, send a thank you note to your writer and consider giving a small gift.
Follow Up...and Wait
A couple of weeks after you submit your applications, call appropriate offices to be sure that 1) They received your materials, and 2) That your application is complete.
This means you may be calling both the Graduate School and the department of the program to which you’re applying. Be humble. Be polite. Be especially nice to the departmental assistant, who controls dissemination of your materials to the application committee.
And then … wait …
Try to maintain some semblance of calmness while waiting to hear about the status of your application.
Think ahead to how you might respond to a wait-list decision.
Also, if accepted to more than one program, how will you make your choice? If you can afford it, campus visits at this stage are invaluable.
If you have further questions or need assistance with this process, you have several resources available:
- UNC Asheville Career Center in 259 Highsmith: here you can take practice GRE tests, seek advice, etc
- UNC Asheville Writing Center in 136 Ramsey Library
- Departmental Graduate School Advisers: Dr. Gary Ettari and Dr. Erica Abrams Locklear
Writing Your Personal Statement
Developed by Erica Abrams Locklear: Department of Literature and Language, UNC Asheville
Before You Begin
Before you begin drafting your statement, ask yourself: what is it about the subject you want to study that you find captivating? For instance, if you want to study English at the graduate level, what is it about that discipline that interests you? What areas of study, time periods, and genres are you interested in?
Make a list of reasons that justify applying to a given program. Also make a list of jobs, internships, and volunteer positions that may be relevant to the program. Additionally, list classes that you’ve taken in the past; upper-level courses can be particularly helpful. For each item that you list, name skills that you learned that would benefit you in the program to which you’re applying. Try to identify specific skills that would make you a good match with the program.
Note any special directions about a program’s request for your statement of purpose. Do they have a length maximum or minimum? Do they ask for a certain format? Follow their instructions exactly.
Brainstorming, Outlining, and Drafting
Keeping your lists from the “Before You Begin” section in mind, use an organizational method, such as an outline, to plan your thoughts before you begin writing. In general, an effective personal statement outline might look like this:
I. Open with discipline-specific information. If you’re applying to a History program, you might open by briefly showcasing what you already know about the Civil War, going on to state that you’d like to study that time period at the graduate level. Help the admissions committee develop an understanding of why you’re interested in their department and program: what experiences cultivated your interests? Don’t get too personal here, but do write a few sentences about how you got to this point in your academic career.
II. Spend a few paragraphs developing discipline-specific information. Show the graduate committee that you are knowledgeable about the field, and give them an idea of what areas of interest you plan to pursue if admitted into the program. Be as specific as possible: if you change your mind about your field of interest once you’re in the program, that’s okay. Try to match your skills with what the program looks for in a graduate student.
III. Be sure to include program-specific information in your statement. Research each program carefully, noting professors’ interests, classes offered that you’d like to take, and professors you envision yourself working with if given the opportunity. Weave that information into your statement where appropriate. For example: “According to my own research about University X, I know that the X Department specializes in x, y, and z. I am especially interested in working with Professor X because _____, and I would look forward to taking classes x, y, and z if given the chance.” This shows that you know specifics about the program and that you’re serious about seeking admission. Be sure to proofread statements for different programs carefully: don’t mix program information.
IV. After you’ve established why you want to study X subject at the graduate level, shown a bit of what you know about the subject already, and described why you are a good fit for the program (using program-specific information), then it’s time to write a bit about yourself. You don’t need to include your life history. Instead, explain any “non-traditional” times in your life. For example, if you left college to enter the military and then came back to seek your degree, that’s worth mentioning. If your undergraduate degree is in English, but you’re applying to a Masters program in History, you need to justify that decision. Including brief information about relevant work history is also appropriate, especially if it better prepares you for the program. You probably don’t need to mention your five summers working as a lifeguard.
V. If you anticipate teaching in your program, state any teaching experience you’ve had in the past and how it relates to the program. Also include any technological expertise you might bring to the department. If you are qualified to design and implement a classroom web site, say so.
VI. Finally, state whether you are seeking funding from the graduate program. Research the program’s financial support, find out what they offer, and state what you’d like to receive. Don’t place a monetary value on your request. Rather, something like, “I do wish to be considered for teaching, research, and departmental funding opportunities” should suffice. Also consider whether you’re willing (and financially able) to travel to the school for an interview by the graduate committee. If you are, be sure to include that information.
Revising, Editing, and Proofreading
I. You absolutely must revise this document. If you plan on writing a draft, reading it once, and sending it off, DON’T DO IT. Remember that your personal statement serves as a sample of your writing, and graduate school generally involves a lot of writing: your want your sample to shine.
If possible, work with someone else to revise your document. The Writing Center is available for help; it is located in 136 Ramsey Library; the phone number is 828.251.6596.
Working with former professors in your field is also an excellent idea. However, remember that professors are busy people, and if someone helps you with your statement, consider a small thank-you, like a gift certificate to a bookstore or a coffee shop. Thank-you gifts (and organized materials) are also appropriate for people writing your recommendation letters.
II. Even if you don’t visit the Writing Center, ask as many people as possible to read your personal statement and give you suggestions.
III. Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is read your personal statement out loud, again and again. You’ll catch mistakes that you did not realize were there, and you’ll think of things you want to include and omit.
Start drafting your personal statements early. This is an incredibly important document, and you don’t want to be rushed. Proofread and revise each statement carefully before sending it out. After you mail your packet, try not to worry, and try to be patient.