Back in the day, when I was young and optimistic, I posted a bit about writing the personal statement for graduate school applications. It’s kindasorta useful in a limited way, but I gather that many grads-to-be find the prospect of applying to graduate school mystifying. There are many useful resources out there, some life-affirming and some terribly daunting, and the whole “Should I go to graduate school in the Humanities?” conversation is a cultural epiphenomenon unto itself. If you’re here and you’re reading, I’ll assume you’re intent on taking the plunge. I’ll also assume that you’ve had sobering sit-downs with your mentors, advisors, and peers, who may be able to gauge your overall preparedness and apprise you of other options you might have overlooked. Forearmed as you are (or as you ideally ought to be), you might benefit from a bit of selective perspective. The ideas and opinions that follow are, as always, idiosyncratic; they are not exclusive, however, to your Friendly Neighborhood Bald Man, as I have canvassed several selectors hither and yon to see what they think. I have seen some gifted and skilled students granted admission to extra fancy programs, and I have seen some gifted and skilled students come up empty after the application process. I’m not here today to offer a surefire method for landing in the former group; I hope only to demystify the prospect to some degree.
Let’s say that you’ve laid all the usual groundwork: you’ve investigated programs across the nation and chosen a sizable set of schools (8-12, generally speaking, is a range I’d recommend) distributed into qualitative tiers; you’ve lined up your letters of recommendation at least three weeks in advance and made sure that your recommenders know where and how to send the letters (equipping them to mail them weeks in advance of the deadline, ideally); you’ve written and revised and revised again your personal statement, CV, and prose sample, getting perspective from friends and Writing Centers and expert readers about the foot you’re putting forward. If there’s a demand for it, I’ll try to offer a post about such matters over Thanksgiving weekend, but today I’ll try to describe for you a generalized view on how those materials will be received. For an excellent, compact gloss on the subject availablerightthisminute, go to Washington and Jefferson’s site and read Linda Troost’s “Advice for Those Interested in English Graduate School” straight away (and be sure to send her your thanks once you’re on the shiny side of the grad school line). Onward we go.
The Winnowing Stage. Most of my peeps seem to agree that there are two approaches to the initial sifting: the absolute and the relativistic. Fancytown University, for example, might stipulate on its admissions site that you need a GRE score of 720 or higher on the general test (those are olde school numbers, I know; there are conversion charts out there if you’ve taken the test recently), and they may be obliged institutionally to abide by that benchmark. A different sort of sifting will occur with variable quantities, such as percentile rankings (i.e., they’re looking for folks who scored in the uppermost 20% on a given exam) or grade point averages. Some good news, especially for those of you who are terrified by the GRE (and you shouldn’t be–it’s just an exam) or afraid that the GPA will be a deal-breaker: those universities that don’t specify benchmark scores typically avoid doing so because they have created imaginative space for candidates who come to the table with other compelling qualifications. That being said, the advocates you find on selection committees (often 3-5 folks entrusted with picking new students, though sometimes one person has that responsibility and sometimes entire departments take part) will often be pressed to justify why the university should dispense with the benchmarks in your particular case. Your job, then, is to give them good reasons. Do take into account the fact that your application is one in a batch of 100, 200, or 500 others; if the selection committee comes away from your undergraduate record and GRE scores with reservations, you’ll need strong persuasions in your personal statement (ideally in the first paragraph), letters of recommendation, CV, and writing sample(s) to get them to change their minds. Also be aware that some measure of relativistic winnowing may occur at the level of conduct and compliance. Some folks I know will favor applications that conform to the letter of the law; if the department asks for a 20-page writing sample, for instance, and they have to choose between two equally excellent offerings, one 19 pages long and one 26, they’ll prefer the former by default. Also be aware that, on the level of conduct, just about all the communication you have with a department will wind up in your application file. When I did a bit of asking around, one of my colleagues noted the practice of her office staff, which prints out correspondence with candidates and includes it in their files as a matter of course (mostly to make note of missing letters of recommendation and to confirm that the department has complied with university policies in its responses). More often than not, selection committees read those materials with interest, as the ability to follow application instructions speaks to reading comprehension and the ability to deal with office staff politely and professionally speaks to the character of the candidate. When you’re trying to convey the impression that you’re ready for graduate work and collegial collaboration, it’s best to treat all folks like the professional you are and aspire to be.
Deeper Reading. When your application has made it into the (somewhat) smaller pile, the complexion of evaluation changes. I have peers who will privilege a wide variety of elements in their readings: your course work as an undergrad (especially if it showcases study in psychology, philosophy, history, or some other English-friendly discipline); your letters of recommendation (a few based on name recognition of your recommenders, but most on the level of detail those writers can provide about your work and your character); your personal statement; your curriculum vitae; and your writing sample. Pro tip: when you’re fretting about such things–and you are, I think, required to fret about such things to an alarming degree–aspire to fret only about those variables in your control. You can’t go back in time and take different courses, and you can’t go back and curry favor with fancier folk (and significantly, the name recognition of which I speak is seldom a matter of national reputation and more often a matter of networking within a discipline–I know many good folk in my area, and if they tell me a candidate is excellent I will accept that verdict as a matter of fact). You can make your personal statement zestier, however, and you can pick out prose samples that will serve you better in different programmatic contexts.
When I read applications, I’ll first glance at the quantifiable stuff (GPA is a bright star to steer by), then I’ll look at the vitae. Please be aware that most CVs are necessarily scant when you’re coming out of your undergraduate program, but you can fancify the document a bit without being obscene. Many students will enhance (ahem) their CVs, often to make them fit nicely on one or two pages; they’ll expatiate at length on how their work experience prepared them for graduate school, although that case logic is not likely to be persuasive in context. In many ways I appreciate those gestures, and in many ways the ability to hold down a regular job is a solid proof of a candidate’s ability to apply herself to her work as a writer or scholar consistently. The CV, however, should have an academic emphasis–focus on that kind of fancy. If you’ve won awards for your writing, place that information prominently; if your GPA in English is 3.75 while your overall GPA is 3.25, let your readers know; if you’ve got evidence of self-determined work (such as independent studies), be sure to give readers full titles and (very) brief descriptions; if you’ve helped a faculty member organize a conference or arrange for a speaker to visit, talk with that prof, devise a title for the role you played, and commit it to paper. Fun fact: about 80% of all applicants will come to the table with approximately the same basic qualifications, so do not be alarmed by the idea that a handful of the competition will have awards, fellowships, publications, and other evidence of professional promise to their credit already. That’s another variable beyond your control; focus on offering the most vivid, compelling representation of your own stuff that you can manage.
With the quantitative stuff in my skull, complemented a rough-hewn sense of what the candidate has been up to as an undergrad based on his CV, I’ll then normally turn to the personal statement and the writing sample. Some of my peers (I’d say about 25%) will prioritize letters of recommendation, but I’d rather let the candidates speak for themselves before listening to secondary voices. My advice for writing samples is plenty generic: abide by the parameters you’ve been given, tailor what you can, and go with your most recent work if at all possible, as it will likely feature your best writing and most sophisticated reasoning. The parameter piece, in addition to appeasing the sticklers on the selection committee, also reflects on a basic disciplinary expectation, the ability to write to spec (which we start working on in freshman comp). Elegance and economy are important, but it’s also useful to choose pieces that fit into a programmatic perspective. If all of the faculty in a doctoral program, for example, emphasize their theoretical allegiances in their work, you should probably avoid unresearched pieces and close readings and instead submit the essay you wrote for your literary theory prof; if the creative writing faculty has been publishing avant garde fiction, sending them your riskiest narrative experiment may pay dividends. Again, don’t fret overmuch about what you do not have–the Christmas break is no time to churn out a brand-new free verse epic in the hopes of appealing to a particularly formidable poetry prof–but if you have options, choose what suits the program as it appears to you.
In terms of the personal statement, I (and just about all of the people I consulted) value distinctiveness above all else. There are gestures in a personal statement–”I have always loved reading,” for example, or “I had an epiphany reading That Novel Everyone Has Read,” or “Professor Wandless, with his gleaming scalp and tailored spatterdashes, inspired me to teach”–that no longer make a strong impression. One of my peeps notes that she “go[es] glassy-eyed” when she encounters them. When in doubt, the Alexander Pope rule is always in effect–offer your readers “What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest.“ (Pro tip: the Alexander Pope rules are always in effect.) If a book turned you on to the profession, let your readers know with great exactitude what drew you to it. If you heart Jane Austen’s Emma, let readers know that you were swept away by her narratorial virtuosity, or the richness of the cultural critique, or the zazz of the free indirect discourse; telling them you love a popular novel for a popular reason is not at all wrong, but it won’t make an indelible impression in the selection committee’s memory. Again, all things being equal in a set of applications, I will tend to favor depth, investment, and complexity; generic gestures will help you avoid offending the selectors, but they won’t win you any passionate advocates when you head into the final round.
The Brazen Knuckles. The last stage of evaluation, at least in my practice, is reference to letters of recommendation. Because the applicant has only limited control over them (she’ll usually be hard pressed enough just making sure they arrive on time), I think of them as ounces rather than pounds in terms of evaluative weight in the scales. At bottom, every applicant should have at least one very strong letter, usually from her mentor, someone who has seen her in three or more contexts and can comment on both her work and her character. Pro tip: always do your best to make sure that the selection committee knows who the primary writer is (especially if it’s not your faculty advisor of record); it’s conventional to close your CV with full contact information for 3-5 references, and readers will generally assume that the first person you list will know you best. In a perfect world, of course, you’ll have three scintillating letters. We have a young poet here at CMU, for example, who is admired by the entire faculty, who has won a prize from the Academy of American Poets, and who just returned from a prestigious summer fellowship; I imagine that our creative writers will have a choreographed knife fight to determine who gets to write on her behalf, and while they are skirmishing in the quad I will probably abduct her myself and enroll her in the M.F.A. program I plan to establish in my breakfast nook. (Edit: That probably sounds a little creepy, but I’m legitimately excited to see what she’ll write next. Also, I’m a little creepy, and I didn’t buy this windowless van with a fire-breathing John Keats painted on the side for nothing.) In 90% of all cases, however, the selection committee will see a lead-off letter and two complementary letters, ideally ones that reflect on different skills that the applicant brings to the table. Applicants should be judicious in terms of selecting those auxiliary writers if they can: if you’re angling for a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and you know that the Victorian prof thinks well of you based on your work in her course, you’d be crazy not to seek that letter; at the same time, if you’re angling for that Ph.D. and your creating writing prof has seen you author a novella, her commentary on your diligence and work ethic can be invaluable. Think of your letter writers as historical commentators who can more fully contextualize the portrait of who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Readers will expect all three letters to be generally positive, but a very good set will deepen and enrich what the search committee knows about your skills, abilities, and affinities.
And with that I’m off to write some recommendations of my own. I hope that glimpse of the evaluative side of the equation offers you a bit of heartening perspective; good luck to you in the hunt, and if there are other blanks I might fill in, feel welcome to let me know in the comments.