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Timeline for Preparing for and Applying to Graduate Programs in English

Applying to graduate school means building up the academic experiences that will lead to a strong application.

In your first two years of college:

  • Learn to be a good student.
  • Get involved in the school and community, including submitting work to or editing literary arts magazines, like USC Upstate's Writers Inc.  writersINC logo
  • Establish good academic relationships with your professors.
  • Complete English courses that give you a wide base of background knowledge. You are strongly encouraged to complete ENGL 300:  Introduction to the Study of Literature; ENGL 301:  Mythical, Classical and Biblical Backgrounds and the 200-level British or American survey courses (ENGL 279/280 or ENGL 289/290) by the end of your sophomore year. Also complete FILM 240: Introduction to Film Studies if you are interested in cultural studies or film programs.

In your junior year of college:

  • Begin to identify your area of interest and your goals.
  • Talk with your advisors about selecting courses that will prepare you for the graduate programs you wish to pursue. Take both American and British courses in a variety of time periods throughout your junior year. If you are interested in film, complete FILM 482: Theories of Film Criticism in the spring of your junior year. If not, plan to complete ENGL 483: Theories of Literary Criticism in the fall semester of senior year.
  • Participate in on-campus or community-based literary clubs. Contribute to or edit a student literary publication. Work with tutoring programs in the Writing Center or elsewhere. Or, coordinate a presenting in literary readings or events. Get involved in the field to help you determine whether or not this career is right for you.
  • Undergraduate research helps to prepare you for graduate work and can help make your application stand out. Consider submitting your academic work to an undergraduate journal or presenting that work at an undergraduate conference where you can get a taste of professional academic life. The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects at UT Austin is a great place to submit cultural studies work or research in digital formats.
  • Internships are also encouraged by graduate schools because they show you are committed to learning about your field through hands-on experience. Talk to your advisor about setting up internships in your area. Student interns have worked with the English Literary File, Hub-Bub, Habitat for Humanity and many more local or online organizations. 
  • Establish good academic relationships with your professors. Discuss how to improve your academic performance and to achieve your academic goals. These relationships will be necessary when you request letters of recommendation for your applications.
  • Begin to research graduate admission tests, such as the GRE; scholarships and financial aid.

In the summer after your junior year or the summer before you plan to apply for graduate school:

  • Research the GRE. Take the GRE sample tests available online and enroll in GRE preparation workshops if you are concerned about your performance. The general GRE is necessary to apply to most graduate schools. You may wish to take the GRE general test over the summer if you have taken all of your general education courses, particularly in math. The mean GRE scores from 2003-2006 were Verbal 566, Quantitative 551 and Writing 4.9 for English Language and Literature and Verbal 571, Quantitative 566, Writing 4.9 for American Language and Literature.
  • If you are considering a Ph.D. program, or if the master's programs you are considering require it, prepare for the GRE Subject Test of Literature in English.
    • You should have taken courses in a range of historical periods from different national perspectives by this point in your college career. Identify any gaps in your coursework and spend extra time reading important texts in those areas.
    • Students are encouraged to review all areas of literature and literary theory in preparation for the GRE Subject Test. Reviewing the Norton Anthology or Heath Anthology collections of British and American literature will serve you well.
    • Take the practice GRE Subject Test (available online) twice and study with friends to fill in knowledge in the areas you missed.
    • Plan and register to take the test in late summer or early fall.
  • Research graduate programs (See the Peterson's Guide, Graduate School Guide and PhDs.org to identify M.A. and/or Ph.D. programs), obtain applications materials and start organizing application deadlines and requirements.
  • Prepare a draft of your statement of purpose or application essay. See the University of California-Berkeley tips for preparing graduate school statements and the Washington University guide to "Writing the Statement of Purpose" for graduate school in English. Drew and Karen Appleby list several tips for avoiding application mistakes in "Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process," published in Teaching of Psychology 33.1 (2006): 19-24. Several online communities also offer advice and serve as a sounding board for students applying to graduate school.
  • Select and edit your writing sample. Include enough work to meet requirements for 5 page and 10 page samples, depending on school requirements. Creative writing portfolios are often 10 or 30 pages. 

In the fall of your senior year or one year before you plan to attend graduate school:

  • Complete ENGL 483: Theories of Literary Criticism in the fall semester of senior year.
  • Request letters of recommendation from your advisor and professors. Most schools require three letters. Plan to discuss your goals and accomplishments with your professors when you make these requests. Bring a resume/vita, the recommendation form, a stamped and addressed envelope, a copy of your statement of purpose and copies of excellent work you produced in their courses (if not recent). Make these requests early to give your professors time to review your academic performance and write thoughtful letters. If your applications are due in December, try to make your requests in October.
  • Take the GRE general test and subject test (if needed) by mid-October to ensure your scores will be available by application deadlines.
  • Review and revise your graduate school application essays with the aid of your advisor, professors and/or the Career Center.
  • Review and revise your writing sample(s) with the aid of your advisor and/or professors.
  • Contact graduate programs with questions about application or program details. Many universities allow, but do not require, an applicant to interview with faculty members. Interviewing often makes an impact on the faculty and can be one method of showing your interest, knowledge and ability to intelligently communicate with others. Some colleges encourage you to sit in on classes so that you can get the feel of the campus, teaching styles and the level of academic proficiency necessary to excel in classes. Though this does not actually make you "stand out," it is helpful for both the applicant and admission committee. Graduate faculty expect to receive questions about their interests from potential applicants.
  • Order your transcripts from the University.
  • Complete and submit applications for graduate programs by the deadlines. Also submit any relevant financial aid forms by the deadlines. See the UC Davis "10 Tips on Successfully Applying to a Ph.D. Program and 10 Definite Don'ts" for more advice.
  • Many schools have application deadlines in December. Do not wait until winter break to fill out applications.

In the spring of your senior year or the spring before you plan to attend graduate school:

  • Wait for offers.
  • Consider a back-up plan for additional financial support.
  • If you have multiple acceptances, discuss your options with your advisor/professors and consider visiting campuses to help you make your decision.
  • Notify schools of your decisions BY THE DECISION DEADLINE (often April 15).
  • Start to build a good relationship with your program's department assistant to get connected with graduate student email lists, contact lists for apartments and other housing and orientation/registration deadlines.

Taking time off

Many graduate schools are happy to consider applications from students who take off a year or more to work, travel or to gain additional experience after receiving a bachelor's degree. If you do take off time, take the opportunity to get involved in your community, in local writing groups, in writing projects for community service organizations or in other growth or travel experiences that will give you plenty to write about in your applications and talk about in interviews. The steps above may be completed after graduation, but you may wish to ask your advisors for letters and assistance with the personal statement prior to graduation.

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