Preparing for Graduate School

Asking for a Recommendation

10 Tips on Successfully Applying to a PhD Program,

and 10 Definite Don'ts

From a Recent Graduate Director.


The Do's:

1) Research the profession. Look at graduate program web pages; visit campuses if you can. Talk to your TAs and professors about what it's like on their end - being a grad student or professor is very different from being an undergraduate student.

2) Watch your GPA , especially in your major. Be aware that the U. California system, for instance, won't offer you funding if your overall GPA is below 3.0; in some schools it is 3.5. If you have a low GPA, you will need to explain why in your personal statement.

3) Take more than the bare minimum of courses in the English major, and try to get good coverage across British, American, and other literatures as well as literary theory and special topics that resonate with one another. The UCD major is set up to give you these things, and transcripts reveal a lot about how prepared an undergrad is for graduate school. If you haven't done this, consider going to an MA program or summer school to fill in some gaps.

4) At the same time as you think about coverage, create an intellectual focus for yourself. Keep track of your projects - try to narrate your intellectual life as you go. Why did you turn from this question to that one? Have you addressed particular issues in a variety of ways in your work? What have been your most important conceptual discoveries or understandings? Did you change disciplines or majors, minor or double major, and why? Do the disciplines you've explored inform one another, and how? What questions would you like to be able to answer? What field of English or American literary studies interests you most, and why? These are the kinds of issues you will need to explore in your personal statement.

5) Apply for awards and prizes to go on your curriculum vitae (an academic resumé). Successful applicants have usually been recognized by their institutions and departments, not just by individual teachers.

6) If you can, get some experience teaching, peer tutoring, or working as a research assistant. While these things are not vital to admission, they give you a good sense of what the profession is like, and this sense can help produce a good personal statement. Also, faculty may hire you as a research assistant and thereby help fund your education, and many schools give you funding in exchange for teaching, so it helps to arrive with some idea of what both are like.

7) No later than one year before you intend to apply, begin the process. Get faculty advice on schools with strengths that match yours, faculty you might want to work with at particular places, fellowships available to applicants, etc. Listen carefully to faculty assessments of whether you should go for an MA first, what schools seem like too long a reach, what schools might be good safety schools, etc. You should emerge with 5-7 viable schools (consider that UCD's English program accepted only 1 out of 5 applicants in 2002-04, and these numbers make sense).

8) In your junior year, be sure to apply for senior honors in English (click here), or at the very least set up an independent study with a professor you have liked and worked with. You want to be able to send a 20-page, very high quality writing sample , and most quarter-long upper-division classes don't give you the chance to do such intensive work. Assume you'll need to revise the piece to make it into a sample.

9) By no later than early summer before you wish to apply, find your future recommenders: three professors from whom you have ideally taken two or more classes each or one small one, and gotten A's. Throughout your course work, you should save your graded work from classes in which you perform well.  When you ask for a letter of recommendation, provide the professor with a folder containing copies of your work.  This will help him or her write a more detailed and useful recommendation.  If you are going to take time off after graduation, get recommendations on file before you leave campus, while you are still fresh in your professors' minds.  For more advice on asking professors for recommendations, click here.

10) Either informally or in a preparation course, study hard for the GRE Verbal, Analytic Writing, and Subject Tests during the summer before you apply . While not every institution pays equal attention to GRE scores, good scores can only help you, and bad scores can definitely hurt you at some places. Why take the chance?

11) A bonus: give yourself a whole summer to write your personal statement, and assume it will go through multiple drafts. Good personal statements are like intellectual autobiographies: see #4. Almost every statement starts out as simply dreadful.

The Don'ts:

1) Don't go to graduate school because you can't think of anything else to do. If you are scared of the labor market, not sure what else you are good at, or under family pressure to apply, don't. If you just want to learn more, apply to an MA program and not a PhD program. While your friends earn money, hang out, and gain immediately marketable skills, as a PhD student you'll undergo a 6-7 year stint of low pay, little recognition, long work hours, and constant critique with no guarantee of a job. It's like being an artist: if you have a desire to do anything else besides being a college professor, do that instead.

2) Don't call a program director or stop by a graduate office for information without having reviewed the department graduate program's website. Many of your questions can be answered there since informational materials from many departments are no longer available in hard copy.  By looking at the department's web site, you can save face-to-face or telephone time for more specific inquiries.

3) Don't get hung up on prestige, because people from the best programs in the country sometimes don't get jobs or have a miserable experience, but do be realistic about the quality of the program and its job placement record. Never go to a graduate program with only one faculty member with whom you want to work. Find a program that is a good fit for your interests, with several faculty members in senior (Associate or Full Professor) and junior (Assistant Professor) positions in your intended field(s) of study, and a strong faculty overall.

4) Don't ask faculty for a recommendation when you have only taken one large class and/or have received a B+ or below. Learn to read the signs that you not likely to get a good letter. If the faculty member says something like, "I wish I knew you better," or "Can you tell me your grade in the class?" or hesitates, you were probably not a memorable enough student for that professor to write a strong letter. Drop the request immediately, saving face by saying something like "It sounds like maybe you have a lot of students to write for. Maybe you could help me think of another recommender?"

5) This should go without saying but, don't lie on your curriculum vitae. If you are caught even decades later, your career will be over.

6) Don't write a generic personal statement about how you love literature; that's a given for everyone who wants to go to graduate school in English. Don't write exclusively about your background or upbringing, though it is perfectly fine to describe how that informs your intellectual pursuits.

7) Don't submit sloppy materials. Proofread them several times, and ask friends to as well. Nothing kills an application to an English PhD program like basic grammatical errors.

8) Don't give up if you bomb the GREs; study and take them again.

9) Don't go to a PhD program that won't fund you coming in; look for multiyear funding packages. Even one year's tuition (say, $25K) is too much debt to carry when the job market for PhDs is low and academics' pay rarely reaches 6 figures.

10) Don't despair if you don't get in anywhere. Try not to take it personally, as many qualified candidates don't find a place in graduate programs - it truly is a matter of fit. Consider going to an MA program and then reapplying to the schools of your choice, or applying to different schools. Or, consider not getting in a lucky break that will guide you toward a career every bit as interesting. There is, indeed, life outside the academy.

Elizabeth Freeman
Professor of English