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A Disappointing Development

Posted by bdon19, 18 October 2011 · 885 views

So, just as I was finally recovering from the shock of the subject test and feeling good about my applications again (I found the most kick-ass source for my writing sample last night!), I had the most disappointing meeting with a professor I've had this entire application season. The only part of the meeting that was good was solidifying my second letter of recommendation. Now I only have to obtain one more. And now I've finally decided who I'm going to ask, after going back and forth between two profs for the past few weeks.

However, this meeting discouraged me more than anything else. I've been working on my writing sample almost every day--or at least thinking about it. I've been focusing my independent study in theory on theoretical works that will be utilized in my sample, and I've talked to other professors and academically-minded friends about how I'm going to structure my statement of purpose to connect my subfield (18th-century lit and the novel) with my writing sample (on a Modernist author and feminist literary theory). I'm incorporating novel theory into my writing sample to make my interests in the novel really shine through, and I want my statement of purpose to focus on the novel rather than depending upon extensive periodization, though I've chosen the 18th-century as my primary subfield because I have to. The professor I met with today, though, told me absolutely not to use the paper I've planned to use as my writing sample if I plan on doing 18th-century stuff. She wants me to use another paper I wrote for one of her courses last year on two 18th-century novels, because she thinks some programs will reject me simply because my paper is not in my stated period. I am planning on using that paper for the schools that require two samples, but, bottomline, it's just not as strong a paper as the other one. It functions fairly hermetically; it looks like a course assignment. The other one has been developing consistently for over a year now. I won an award for it, presented it at a conference, and now can't think about anything other than working on it. I know exactly how I want to expand and develop it, whereas I have no desire to do anything past minor revisions on the other paper. It makes some kick-ass conclusions and, most importantly, it is my voice and my soul that shines through in that paper. I've never been more passionate about a paper. I love it so much that I've considered the possibility of transitioning to Modernism. But there's nothing in the period that appeals to me critically except for D.H. Lawrence. I don't like writing papers on Woolf or Joyce or Forster--I love reading them, but I don't find my critical interests working to the same extent as those writers. I am, essentially, a forward-looking 18th-centuryist, with some interests resting within the 19th and 20th centuries. And I don't want to "lie" about myself in my statement of purpose. I want to get down to my heart and soul, and the novel--starting in the 18th-century but moving forward as well--is where those essential parts of my being lie.

In addition, this professor disapproved of my list of schools. Everyone else has told me they think it's really solid, but she was looking at it from a purely 18th-century perspective. When I sat down and did my research into faculty at different programs, I made sure that I took into account faculty from all of my areas of interest; after all, I don't want to end up at a program with a kick-ass 18th-century faculty, discover that's not exactly what I want to do, and end up stuck. Though I think I know what I want to do now, I'm still an undergrad, and I know that my intellectual identity is nowhere near fixed at this point. So I want a program with a good faculty across the board. She said things to me like, "Take Brown off your list. You won't get in there." She also said things like, "You might get in somewhere, but I won't even say that, because it might not happen. You have to be as pessimistic as possible." She called schools like Indiana and Rutgers "the kind of schools you could actually get into." Things that were just discouraging overall. She told me to apply to Stanford but then said that she'd be disappointed if I got into Stanford and went there, even though I'd get a good job. I think a lot of this is residual bitterness from her own experiences. Since I've known her, she's been bitter about one thing or another, so maybe it's just her. I also think she might feel offended that I've talked to other professors before her, though she's the one in my primary area. It's just discouraging to have someone who I've put so much trust in seem to have so little faith in me and act like I don't know what I'm talking about. Everyone else has been impressed by how much progress I've made on my own. But, still, I need her. She knows my writing better than almost anyone, and she explicitly referred to my sophisticated approach to texts and to writing. So that's good. It was just disappointing not to have her faith in me.

At one point during the meeting, she said, "You're not going to listen to me. You guys never listen to me" (she was referring to the girl who applied last year and made a number of mistakes in her application). I told her I'd listen but I wouldn't necessarily follow all of her advice.

Ultimately, this is my life, and it's up to me what of that life I choose to put into my application. I know I won't get in everywhere; I know I may not get in anywhere. But that's not going to be because I restrict myself to programs that will cater to only one of my interests in a very specific way. I've chosen my programs the way they at least ostensibly will be choosing their students--holistically. I want my own self coming out in my application, and that means I must use my D.H. Lawrence paper. Maybe I'll end up studying the 18th-century, maybe I'll end up having a change of heart and becoming a Modernist. I don't know. All I know is that I need to be in a program that can accommodate me in every way possible.

*Sigh. Sorry if you've gotten all the way through reading this! I guess this is the purpose of having a blog...? Better than me ranting on the general forums, I suppose?

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I'm so sorry :( I had a professor (a letter writer, too) who tore apart my SOP and my schools list, and told me to come up with a list of 10 other schools. She wasn't in my exact area of specialty, so I was able to disregard her comments and stick with the other two professors' comments that my school choice and SOP were great. I would advise you to submit your paper with, as you said, your heart and soul in it - it will show your passion and caliber, regardless of it not being totally in your area, which is subject to change anyway. Your paper sounds amazing! I'm proud of you just by reading this entry :)

Don't be discouraged by your professor's comments. Ultimately, you have to be comfortable with your decisions and submit what you feel will be the strongest application that shows you for who you are but also showcases your talent as a scholar. I have a feeling that you know what you need to submit :) Don't worry about pigeon-holing yourself through your writing sample(s). It's helpful to speak to POIs on the phone or in person so they know that you're interested specifically in X area but also have some interest in Y area, as demonstrated by the two papers you spoke about here.

You'll be ok! :)
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I'm sorry to hear that! But it sounds like you're confident in your ability to put together the best application you can despite your professor's discouraging comments. I'm sure you'll do great.
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While what that professor said may not have been what you wanted to hear, I believe that person really thinks that it's better to submit a paper in your area of interest. With that said, everyone has a different opinion. I have gotten conflicting advice on several different aspects of my application, and at the end of the day, you have to take ownership in your application, so you need to be comfortable with the decisions you make.
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That sort of meeting would have put me in a lot of emotional distress, during application season.

My advice is to take a few days to put some emotional distance between you and that meeting. Then, once you've had some time to back off the ledge, think through your professor's advice. Decide what seems sound and what doesn't feel right for you (as Timeshel said, in the end it is YOUR application).

My own $0.02 is to listen to your professor most especially when forming your middle tier of schools. This is the portion of your application pool where a healthy dose of realism (or even pessimism) is needed. But you should still keep some of your reach schools on your list. After all, they are reach schools.

(And for the record, I'm not familiar with Indiana's program, but Rutgers is crazy hard to get into! Don't let yourself be disappointed by setting your sights on that kind of a department, because it's a strong one.)

Chin up!
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@runonsentence: That's definitely what I've been trying to do. I'm trying not to think too much about all this grad school stuff for a couple of days at least. Thankfully, it's our midterm reading period now, so it's giving me a chance to sleep in and leisurely work on things.

I guess the most frustrating thing about talking to this professor is the way she was trying to form my list...Most of the schools she wanted on there were technically "reach" schools, but she was just replacing some with others. Like she seemed to think Brown would NEVER admit me, but Stanford might...? (Ironically, Stanford is one of the only schools I've seen that explicitly says they prefer writing samples to be in the preferred field of interest.) Basically, the way I've been approaching my applications this year is that I'm trying to get into those reach schools; if for some reason it doesn't work out, then I'll take off a year and reconsider where I'm applying. But, for now, I feel like if I do at least have a chance, which I--admittedly not pessimistically--think I might, however slim, then I might as well apply to them. Another professor had instructed me to aim for putting three Ivies on my list, just because, and I have the ones on there that I felt fit best with my interests. I'm not banking on getting into Princeton or Cornell, but I'm not going into this feeling that there's absolutely no chance they'll take me...otherwise, why bother?

@Timshel, I definitely understand my prof's concern with submitting a paper not in my field. After having some time to mull over our discussion, I guess I'm realizing that she was--in a weird, negative, abrasive way--trying to be protective of me. I now get the feeling that she was trying to say, "Don't make the same mistakes I did and be disappointed." However, I still don't feel comfortable submitting my "second choice" paper as my primary writing sample. It's just that--my "second choice." Nobody else has seemed to be of the opinion that my application will not even be read based on my choice of writing sample--especially after I've explained the ways I'm making it connect to my area in my SoP.

Okay, maybe I'm still a little bitter and need a bit more remove from the meeting. *Sigh* I'll figure this out, I will. And it will be okay. I need to just take some big breaths...and work on my writing sample! Because that makes me happy. It makes me so happy that I know I need to use it. I can't think of anything else but that paper. :)
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A professor I met with to discuss graduate school was similarly dismissive, though in a nicer way. I would advise, like an earlier poster, to deeply consider her advice, but I wouldn't take everything as absolute.

As regards your writing sample, I see no problem in submitting this top-notch modernist paper whilst declaring your tentative area of interest as the 18th century. You seem to be connecting the paper and your area of interest in a significant (though perhaps more implicit) way, and the stronger, award-winning paper is definitely a better choice than one that screams "course assignment" (I certainly know the kinds of papers to which you refer; after writing them, I usually disregard them completely).
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I know how you feel about the writing sample, though, because everyone keeps telling me that it's smarter to submit a chapter of my Master's thesis, but my interests have evolved since then, and the writing sample I intend to use is based on a conference paper I presented earlier this year. So no, I have not had to turn it in and have it graded by a professor, but I think my ideas and connections are MUCH stronger and are directly aligned with what I intend to do when I'm back in school, so ultimately, you have to go with what you think showcases your talents the most.
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I think you might want to consider applying to second tier schools too. Although if you decide to do so discuss this issue with several of your professors, and formulate the list that way. There are so many factors that come into play when the admission committe decides that nobody can be sure of being admitted to their top choices. And it feels terrible getting rejected from everywhere, without knowing that there are places which would taek you happily. there are some really good programs which are not ivyes and you will get the chance to visit them if you get in and see if you like them. And also you can decide to take a year off if you do not like them.
To advocate this further, you will be in a much better negotiation position(for fellowships) if you get into several places.
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You have to try, and follow your heart!

When I was a high school senior and wanted to apply to a very prestigious East Coast university, my counselor told me that I wouldn't get in. Really? Well, guess what? It was my top choice, I applied for early admission, and I got in with 100% tuition paid for by a university grant. So, my advice to others has always been: You never know unless you try!
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She wants me to use another paper I wrote for one of her courses last year on two 18th-century novels, because she thinks some programs will reject me simply because my paper is not in my stated period.


I think a part of this has to do with the fact that many admissions committees work through applications by submitting writing samples to be read by the faculty members whose interests correspond to student interests. In the departments I'm familiar with, the admissions committee itself does not really read writing samples at length until after applicants writing samples have been recommended by faculty members to whom they have been forwarded. So it's not exactly as simple as a department not wanting students whose proposed field and WS don't match so much as the fact that the admissions process itself inevitable makes it less likely for the odds to stack up in your favor. This is because, presumably, faculty members are most likely to enthusiastically recommend writing samples that engage within the field they know and get most excited about, and when a writing sample is in a different area, there are more hoops to jump through: if an 18th century professor reads it, will they have good reason to believe you have a better shot at doing 18th century studies than the next applicant's sample they are reading (who may have already written an honors thesis on an 18th c author)? Or, if a modernist on the faculty read the sample and likes it, will they be less inclined to recommend you as a student for admission because they know you probably won't continue in that area?

Ultimately, though, it will be the quality of your writing that makes you stand out, so I think you're making the right choice in choosing for the writing sample what is in all likelihood your best writing.
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