Top Tier Schools

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Posted (edited)

I'm formulating my list of schools to apply to next year and am shooting for about 10 schools, give or take. And I'm thinking that, while Cornell and Duke and Virginia have programs I'd like... I wonder if it is a waste of my energy and time and if focusing on mid-tier applications might be more economical. I'm seeing people on here who are 0/15 schools when they applied to only places like Princeton, Yale, Brown, Berkeley, etc.

FYI my gpa is 3.7 GRE verbal 640 writing 5.0 and I have a writing sample from a senior thesis that I think is good, but could have been better (I'm working on that for next year, too). English gpa is 3.6, Comp Lit gpa 3.7. I think my stats are okay and will get me through a first round of cuts (meeting basic requirements...sometimes), but I'm thinking they aren't good enough, that I should just save my money as they will keep me out of Berkeley, etc. Right now, I think the only top tier school I will be applying to is Michigan, and stick with places like Pitt and SUNY Buffalo, which are hard enough to get in as it is.

What do you think? Have you been surprised by an acceptance? Or if you could do it over again, would you just exclude those top ten schools?

Edited by woolfie

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I'm formulating my list of schools to apply to next year and am shooting for about 10 schools, give or take. And I'm thinking that, while Cornell and Duke and Virginia have programs I'd like... I wonder if it is a waste of my energy and time and if focusing on mid-tier applications might be more economical. I'm seeing people on here who are 0/15 schools when they applied to only places like Princeton, Yale, Brown, Berkeley, etc.

FYI my gpa is 3.7 GRE verbal 640 writing 5.0 and I have a writing sample from a senior thesis that I think is good, but could have been better (I'm working on that for next year, too). English gpa is 3.6, Comp Lit gpa 3.7. I think my stats are okay and will get me through a first round of cuts (meeting basic requirements...sometimes), but I'm thinking they aren't good enough, that I should just save my money as they will keep me out of Berkeley, etc. Right now, I think the only top tier school I will be applying to is Michigan, and stick with places like Pitt and SUNY Buffalo, which are hard enough to get in as it is.

What do you think? Have you been surprised by an acceptance? Or if you could do it over again, would you just exclude those top ten schools?

Personally, I'm doing everything I can to make myself as competitive an applicant as possible. I'm shooting for the stars. This means - I already re-took the general GRE, and dramatically improved scores, I'm taking the subject test in April, and aiming for a very high score, I'm revising a paper I wrote in my senior year and adding a great deal of research to it, not just close reading, to make for a publishing quality writing sample, and I'm already making notes on my SOP. In the meantime, I will beef up my languages by taking Latin, and who knows, I may find an online grad class at a good university where I can develop a cyber-relationship with a prof that will help me with the writing sample + a recent LOR. I have a 3.66 GPA total (3.78 in English), so I think that with all of the above, it's worth my while to apply to Harvard, Yale, etc.

It's not just about the prestige, mind you (although, that can't hurt). It just so happens that both Harvard and UCLA have the best programs for someone with my interests (UCLA teaches WELSH!!!!!), Cornell has an amazing prof that researches children's literature AND a great medieval program, Yale's medieval program is AMAZING, and so on. I'm also applying to other schools - U Mich, Notre Dame, U Illinois, CU Boulder, Ohio State and a bunch of others are still on the list - but I'm making sure their programs are near perfect fits as well, and that I'd be tickled pink to go to any of them. But I won't limit myself in advance for something that's just a matter of sitting on my ass and studying and preparing for. Especially since I have a while to prepare (it's not like I have to send out those 2011 apps tomorrow, right?).

So, yes, I think it's worth making the effort to be able to apply to ANY school that you would love to go to. This is our dream people. and sometimes, we just have to buckle down, and work our asses off to achieve it!! (even if it means being rejected!!)

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Personally, I'm doing everything I can to make myself as competitive an applicant as possible. I'm shooting for the stars. This means - I already re-took the general GRE, and dramatically improved scores, I'm taking the subject test in April, and aiming for a very high score, I'm revising a paper I wrote in my senior year and adding a great deal of research to it, not just close reading, to make for a publishing quality writing sample, and I'm already making notes on my SOP. In the meantime, I will beef up my languages by taking Latin, and who knows, I may find an online grad class at a good university where I can develop a cyber-relationship with a prof that will help me with the writing sample + a recent LOR. I have a 3.66 GPA total (3.78 in English), so I think that with all of the above, it's worth my while to apply to Harvard, Yale, etc.

It's not just about the prestige, mind you (although, that can't hurt). It just so happens that both Harvard and UCLA have the best programs for someone with my interests (UCLA teaches WELSH!!!!!), Cornell has an amazing prof that researches children's literature AND a great medieval program, Yale's medieval program is AMAZING, and so on. I'm also applying to other schools - U Mich, Notre Dame, U Illinois, CU Boulder, Ohio State and a bunch of others are still on the list - but I'm making sure their programs are near perfect fits as well, and that I'd be tickled pink to go to any of them. But I won't limit myself in advance for something that's just a matter of sitting on my ass and studying and preparing for. Especially since I have a while to prepare (it's not like I have to send out those 2011 apps tomorrow, right?).

So, yes, I think it's worth making the effort to be able to apply to ANY school that you would love to go to. This is our dream people. and sometimes, we just have to buckle down, and work our asses off to achieve it!! (even if it means being rejected!!)

I'm doing some of that too. I'm waiting today to hear back from Ohio State, and if I get rejected, which I'm expecting, I'm going to enroll in a grad class for spring quarter and try to get a better writing sample, or at least establish a professorial relationship. And I am already gearing up to retake the GREs and take the subject test, like you said. And the personal statement needs to be redone, and I'm really going to try and do a good job of personalizing them and doing better research on the schools.

I guess my problem is, when researching schools, I find things I like about a great number of them. There are a few schools I'm just not interested in, but usually I find areas I like. I just can't narrow it down. But that's my goal for now, but I really think I should limit the number of top tier schools just because I need as much time as possible and don't want to waste it.

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Posted (edited)

With the benefit of hindsight, this is what I would do, were I to apply again (thankfully, not necessary!)

a) apply only to schools you want to attend, and do research to be sure

I realized (too late) that 40% of my apps were to schools that didn't really care for anyway. This situation could have been easily avoided, saving me both money (well, probably not money...) and hassle, as well as giving me a better chance of going somewhere I want to go.

B) regardless of stats, do not only look to top-this-or-that schools; play the entire field

I applied, basically, to top 20 programs this year, and I basically consider myself very lucky that it worked out. If I were to do it again, I would have shopped around more and not be as fixated on the rankings -- whatever those mean.

c) leave no stone unturned

I know that quant is not that important for us, but I really regret not putting at least some effort into it -- I focused on the verbal and got a good score there, but with not so much work I could easily have added 100-150 points to GRE total through the quant. This is one of the things that annoy me the most about my application cycle. I could have done it, but I didn't. Stupid.

d) know what you want to do

I've been asked by adcoms what general era I want to focus on -- yes, it's true, it wasn't clear from my SOP. The reason was, of course, that I wasn't sure myself. But I should have been. Things may change, of course, but at least for the application cycle, try to present a focused interest.

e) don't freak out about the GREs

High scores are all well and fine, but unless you tank completely, just work on the other parts of your application package! Were I to apply again, I would not retake the GREs -- that's my opinion at least, but c) applies.

f) if at all possible, try to find a mentor from the "inside"

They're invaluable.

But I don't know that much -- you should check this out, I think: http://community.livejournal.com/wgi_lounge_2010/31395.html and keep an eye out for circumfession's upcoming post on re-applying.

Edited by p7389

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I'm doing some of that too. I'm waiting today to hear back from Ohio State, and if I get rejected, which I'm expecting, I'm going to enroll in a grad class for spring quarter and try to get a better writing sample, or at least establish a professorial relationship. And I am already gearing up to retake the GREs and take the subject test, like you said. And the personal statement needs to be redone, and I'm really going to try and do a good job of personalizing them and doing better research on the schools.

I guess my problem is, when researching schools, I find things I like about a great number of them. There are a few schools I'm just not interested in, but usually I find areas I like. I just can't narrow it down. But that's my goal for now, but I really think I should limit the number of top tier schools just because I need as much time as possible and don't want to waste it.

Oh, I agree - I don't think the applications should be only to top-tiers. I know that as I narrow the list down (which I'm NOT rushing about!!), there will probably end up being about half top-tier, and half top-50.

And it's hard to narrow them down, I know - I'm also interested in a LOT of different programs for different reasons. But I'm firm with myself - there have to be certain criteria for the selection, so here are some of mine - must have a large, thriving medieval program with interdisciplinary options with a medieval studies center. Must have at least ONE medieval prof I've read and enjoyed the research of (i'm planning to do a LOT of critical reading over the next few months), and hopefully an Arthurian scholar at that. I read through all available course descriptions. The school must have classes I would be passionate about taking (medieval or otherwise). Distribution requirements? (I like having choices - I may be a medievalist, but I also love early modern and 18th century stuff). If there is one faculty that researches fantasy/sci-fi, the school goes up in the list (i.e. Tolkien researches are highly appreciated). Faculty-student ratio. Funding. Location.

Don't worry about narrowing down the list now. Take the time to contact programs you're not sure about, or you have questions about, or to contact specific profs on your maybe list - that can narrow things down pro-actively. I'm keeping THE LONG list and narrowing things down slowly. I've selected about 24 on the long list just from the websites, and am currently in the process of ranking them (for my purposes, of course). Some schools I'll contact and ask questions about, some I know in advance I want to go to. There's no real rush at this point - you just want to have some solid ideas by the end of summer. Right now, I'm mainly concentrating on getting a kick-ass score in the subject test, revising my paper, and jotting down general SOP notes (also, for each school, jotting down why I'd love to go there). Put in the hours and research schools well - it will pay off both in your SOP and in your peace of mind that you REALLY want to go to the places you end up choosing!

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Posted

A quick clarification for the ignorant: What constitutes a "top-tier" school? Top 10? Top 15? Top 30? Is this a rather nebulous distinction, or are certain schools clearly defined as top-tier?

Just curious. Thanks. :)

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A quick clarification for the ignorant: What constitutes a "top-tier" school? Top 10? Top 15? Top 30? Is this a rather nebulous distinction, or are certain schools clearly defined as top-tier?

Just curious. Thanks. smile.gif

Yes, I was thinking top 10. Mostly UPenn, Brown, Duke, Cornell are four schools, esp Cornell, that I really like, but I'm considering just abandoning any hope for based on my record and the fact that its so competitive.

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Posted (edited)

I think it depends entirely on what your goals are. If your plan is to eventually teach at a top 50 university, then you should probably apply primarily to those top-tier schools you mentioned. The vast majority of positions at such places are occupied by people who earned their PhDs at top 20 universities. If you would be comfortable teaching at a smaller, lesser-known university or satellite campus, a liberal arts college, or a community college, then you should absolutely apply to any university with faculty members, programs, and resources that fit your interests.

However, you also want to consider how realistic your goals are (this has NOTHING to do with the stats you listed by the way; your writing sample and SoP are going to factor most heavily, as I'm sure you know). Keep in mind that top 20 schools receive applications from every English major with a pulse, including those who have 4.0 GPAs from top-tier universities, soaring GRE scores, *and* good writing samples. But if your long-term goal is to teach at a top university, you may as well throw your hat in and see what happens. You should also be prepared for the possibility of coming up 0/10 or 0/15. "Competitive" is not a strong enough word to describe these schools. I always feel bad when I hear from people who are crushed by their rejections, but I can't help but wonder why they *only* applied to top 20 schools. Cruisin' for a bruisin'.

If you fall into the group of folks who would be comfortable teaching at a smaller and/or less prestigious university or community college, your best bet is to apply broadly. Sure, pick out a few top 20 programs that *really* fit your interests, make your SoPs for those universities as strong as they can be, and let 'er rip. There's a fair enough chance you've wasted the $60 to $100 application fees, but what is that in the long run? And then send out the rest of your applications to universities that aren't maybe as highly regarded but that have people you'd like to work with and programs that will help you to succeed. I followed this method this year, and, as you can see from my results, if I had only applied to the top 20 programs, I would be in a sad way right now. But the universities I've been accepted to have very strong faculty members and amazing programs for my particular field of interest, so I'm ecstatic about the results. When I finish my PhD I might not have the same opportunities in front of me that someone with an Ivy League PhD would, but I believe that any one of these schools will provide me with the resources to become a fine instructor and scholar so that there will be opportunities in my field that I have a realistic shot at taking advantage of. The key, I think, is to be realistic about your goals and to soberly decide where you would be happiest down the road.

Edited by Shaky Premise

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I would be more concerned if you had the opposite attitude than you have- the 'I'm definitely top ten material, so I'm not going to apply anywhere else' mindset. It's always good to go into the process knowing not only how competitive those schools are, but that there are so many other schools out there that could end up being a better fit (and a more likely acceptance). When I first applied, all I had in mind were the 'big names' : Cornell, Yale, UVA, UPenn. But some more research showed me some lower-ranked schools that had great faculty and good reputations for placing graduates (not at the Ivies, but decent schools). I've been accepted to one of those schools that I added at the last minute and rejected from my Ivies, and I couldn't be happier.

Shaky Premise is right- you really have to think about what you want in life; I personally don't have the Ivy dream. But if that is your dream, why not take a chance? Your stats are on a par with those of people on this board who got into Ivies, but I think it was (of course) in their writing samples and SoPs that they really stood out. So get writing, and reach for the stars...as long as you put in some lower-ranked schools that you like and would be happy attending.

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Posted (edited)

However, you also want to consider how realistic your goals are (this has NOTHING to do with the stats you listed by the way; your writing sample and SoP are going to factor most heavily, as I'm sure you know). Keep in mind that top 20 schools receive applications from every English major with a pulse, including those who have 4.0 GPAs from top-tier universities, soaring GRE scores, *and* good writing samples. But if your long-term goal is to teach at a top university, you may as well throw your hat in and see what happens. You should also be prepared for the possibility of coming up 0/10 or 0/15. "Competitive" is not a strong enough word to describe these schools. I always feel bad when I hear from people who are crushed by their rejections, but I can't help but wonder why they *only* applied to top 20 schools. Cruisin' for a bruisin'.

This exactly. I've met several "department darlings" on this board who weren't encouraged to balance their application group (myself included). If I have to apply next year, I will be doing as others have suggested and focusing more on the fit of each department for my interests and less on the rankings. Also, I had several advisors pushing me toward schools because they would have liked to go there. Kind of like parents, it was about their interests and not my own. I applied in order to keep them happy. MISTAKE. I should have listened to my inner lights and applied to programs that made sense based on my subfocus and research. Also, the only program I was able to visit is the one that I feel I have the best chance at right now. If that falls through as well, I intend to make connections with folks in every program I apply to next year. I'll be casting a wider net, too. The potentials on my list for next year range from #10 to #71, and I'll be submitted 12 apps instead of 6. I've got to put in the time to investigate all of those on my list and narrow it down to the dozen I like. While I don't regret trying for the Ivys (if you don't try, how will you know, right?), I would have increased my chance of success had I found these boards MUCh earlier and been more focused on programs that I would fit in with.

Also, from what I've gleaned from those who are being accepted to six or more schools they've applied to this year, the weight that your SoP and writing sample carry is considerable. My GPA and scores right down the line are comparable, but the SoP examples I've read are completely different from what I thought I was supposed to do. Lesson learned. All of your thoughts above about things to adjust next year are excellent. I'll be doing many of the same myself and with a fresh, healthy sense of humility. You seem to have that already, which will only be to your benefit. As Shaky Premise pointed out, applicants to these top tier schools usually all have the high GPA and GRE scores. That's a given. So then it comes down to what else have you got to offer and why are you interested in their specific program? And that's where the SoP comes in.

~ m

Edited by minnares

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Posted (edited)

Here's the thing: a strong and well-known reputation *does* matter. It won't account for everything but can make things easier for you as a scholar in many ways.

THAT SAID, it is important that you attend the best place for *you*, which may or may not be a "top" school. Research fit is important, and so is personal fit (grad school is stressful enough; you want to be somewhere that won't add too much to that stress).

As far as the original question goes, of course it's "worth it" to apply. Your numbers (which are perfectly good, by the way) won't make too too much of a difference (they might if they were lower, but I reckon yours should be just fine). Take it from someone with stellar numbers who was rejected from a few "top" programs: numbers ain't everything. Furthermore, a "top" program can sometimes be less competitive than a lower-ranked one. I might be wrong, but I'm fairly certain that Princeton's and UCLA's admit rates tend to hover around 10%, which is much higher than some other so-called lower ranked programs.

Other posters have advised this and I will echo them: work the bejesus out of your SOP and writing sample. I will add that, for admissions and not just your own personal fulfillment, fit truly cannot be underestimated. The programs to which I applied that didn't fit me as well saw RIGHT through my application. Some of them, like UCLA, were programs that, on paper/website, seemed like stellar fits. Only after contacting faculty to find out what was really going on over there research-wise did I discover that it wasn't a good fit. So, I would recommend contacting faculty early not to establish a connection or network, but to find out what profs ate currently working/teaching on and how well they NOW fit with your interests. You can also talk about department atmosphere, teaching/advising philosophy, and so forth, in order to see how the program fits for you personality-wise.

My two cents! I advise to take with salt.

Edited by Pamphilia

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With the benefit of hindsight, this is what I would do, were I to apply again (thankfully, not necessary!)

a) apply only to schools you want to attend, and do research to be sure

I realized (too late) that 40% of my apps were to schools that didn't really care for anyway. This situation could have been easily avoided, saving me both money (well, probably not money...) and hassle, as well as giving me a better chance of going somewhere I want to go.

Hear, hear. Know the department you could be entering, and know it well. I come from an institution that is very conservative critically, deemphasizing theory and focusing extensively on close reading. I love it here, and I want a graduate institution that will reward my undergrad preparation, at on least some level. The writing sample I submitted exemplified my the strengths of my department. It wasn't trendy, and the thesis wasn't extremely original; rather, it demonstrated my skills as a textual analyst. Consequently, I knew that I probably wouldn't fit well into the schools that rejected me, anyway.

Lo and behold, the one program I am accepted into indicated that my writing sample was a major motivating factor in the decision. That sealed the deal for me because I know that department will respect my particular methodology and approach to texts.

There's no point in going to a big-name school if you're not going to be happy there. Go where you are confident you will flourish as a scholar.

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Hey thanks everybody; these are all really helpful suggestions.

I know the writing sample is the key. But how do I know if it's good enough? I have two writing samples that I'm deciding between and I go back and forth between which one is better and sometimes think neither of them are good enough and sometimes think they're stellar. I just don't know how to judge my own abilities or get a feel for how others will. And it's important because money is really really tight and I can't waste my time or money on applications that are just going to get thrown out.

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My GPA and scores right down the line are comparable, but the SoP examples I've read are completely different from what I thought I was supposed to do. Lesson learned.

~ m

Hey everybody! This is my first post! Yay! Posts! Congrats to everybody who's applied this season, regardless of results. Applying is a feat in itself it seems.

Minnares - where did you read SoP examples?

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Hey thanks everybody; these are all really helpful suggestions.

I know the writing sample is the key. But how do I know if it's good enough? I have two writing samples that I'm deciding between and I go back and forth between which one is better and sometimes think neither of them are good enough and sometimes think they're stellar. I just don't know how to judge my own abilities or get a feel for how others will. And it's important because money is really really tight and I can't waste my time or money on applications that are just going to get thrown out.

This is definitely where the people who wrote you letters of recommendation and people from your department come in. This is not the time to be protective of your work because other people (preferably academics but pretty much anyone basically) need to read it and tell you how you can polish even the best papers. From what I've been told, those undergraduate papers that you think are wonderful and got you an A are still not going to cut it (for the most part. You could be the next Roland Barthes; I don't know lol).

Edited by diehtc0ke

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This is definitely where the people who wrote you letters of recommendation and people from your department come in. This is not the time to be protective of your work because other people (preferably academics but pretty much anyone basically) need to read it and tell you how you can polish even the best papers. From what I've been told, those undergraduate papers that you think are wonderful and got you an A are still not going to cut it (for the most part. You could be the next Roland Barthes; I don't know lol).

Yes, this is exactly right. Even if extremely competent, papers that are Just-Another-Close-Reading™ aren't going to be the most competitive. Critical/methodological sophistication is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

I also highly recommend that you have your letter writers work with you on your writing sample (and personal statement). Most directly, this will result in a better paper, but there is another benefit: your professors will be able to attest to the quality of your writing sample in their letters.

Edited by straightshooting

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Yes! Try to have at least three professors vet your work. Then write another draft, then another, then send it back. When your professors begin correcting the corrections of other professors, you know you're in good shape.

Yes, this is exactly right. Even if extremely competent, papers that are Just-Another-Close-Reading™ aren't going to be the most competitive. Critical/methodological sophistication is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

I also highly recommend that you have your letter writers work with you on your writing sample (and personal statement). Most directly, this will result in a better paper, but there is another benefit: your professors will be able to attest to the quality of your writing sample in their letters.

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Yes, this is exactly right. Even if extremely competent, papers that are Just-Another-Close-Reading™ aren't going to be the most competitive. Critical/methodological sophistication is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

I also highly recommend that you have your letter writers work with you on your writing sample (and personal statement). Most directly, this will result in a better paper, but there is another benefit: your professors will be able to attest to the quality of your writing sample in their letters.

Ok - question here!

I've been out of school for 9 years. I've decided to revise my writing sample for all of the above mentioned reasons. My LOR writers are my profs from back then (they remember me, and remember me well), they were very happy to send out LORs this year, and I'm sure they wouldn't mind sending off another letter for the next round, as well.

HOWEVER

I have NO resources to rely on for the revised writing sample. I feel extremely uncomfortable asking my LOR writers, since they are no longer current profs, to review what I've done. I live in Israel, so I have NO ONE I can approach about this (not even to take a grad class in the university in the fall or something, just to have a prof review a paper). I'm a good writer, I have no doubt about that, and I was a very gifted researcher in college, but it's been a while. I've ordered the books I need to revise my close reading of Gawain and the Green Knight into a research paper using some sophisticated critical reasoning and methodology, but my main concern is that I have no one to help critique and give notes.

Anyone have any suggestions?

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Hey everybody! This is my first post! Yay! Posts! Congrats to everybody who's applied this season, regardless of results. Applying is a feat in itself it seems.

Minnares - where did you read SoP examples?

I sent a PM to several posters on these boards who have been accepted to 4 or more schools this season and asked if I could see their SoP. Some said yes (lovely of them). Some said they'd prefer not (understood). Some didn't deign to reply. Can't hurt to ask. The three who agreed to share scrubbed them for identifying information and asked that I not share with anyone, which again was more than fine. I just wanted to get an idea of what was expected and what was successful.

~ m

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I sent a PM to several posters on these boards who have been accepted to 4 or more schools this season and asked if I could see their SoP. Some said yes (lovely of them). Some said they'd prefer not (understood). Some didn't deign to reply. Can't hurt to ask. The three who agreed to share scrubbed them for identifying information and asked that I not share with anyone, which again was more than fine. I just wanted to get an idea of what was expected and what was successful.

~ m

Thanks!

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I don't know, guys. I'm really thinking that they are, at least for me. A waste of time, that is. Because I applied to Ohio State and Penn State this round, and OSU got a record 400 apps and at the same time cut their entering class numbers in half, while PSU got 700 apps. I just can't compete with that, and that's OHIO STATE and PENN STATE, not to mention what's going on at UPenn and the like.

I am in the process of really buckling down and doing research- reading every single faculty page and reading choice publications or selections. This will take me probably the rest of the year, which is fine. But I'm not going to apply to a top tier school unless, after doing that research, I am floored with excitement. And right now it looks like Michigan might be doing that for me. But Cornell and Rutgers did not, even though they impressed me. I have to be blown away to spend my time. At least that's my philosophy right now. And in the meantime I'll be researching schools like UW Milwaukee (which I can never spell) and Arizona.

Edited by woolfie

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Didn't mean to double post this..

Edited by woolfie

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Hey thanks everybody; these are all really helpful suggestions.

I know the writing sample is the key. But how do I know if it's good enough? I have two writing samples that I'm deciding between and I go back and forth between which one is better and sometimes think neither of them are good enough and sometimes think they're stellar. I just don't know how to judge my own abilities or get a feel for how others will. And it's important because money is really really tight and I can't waste my time or money on applications that are just going to get thrown out.

Woolfie, I can definitely understand your frustration, but applications are unpredictable beasts. I know of a candidate who applied up and down the rankings...was turned down from several programs outside the top 50...and whose only offer came from...<i>Berkeley</i>. Obviously, this is an extreme case, but it seems quite common for applicants to be turned down by lower-ranked programs, only to be accepted into a program several dozen places higher on the totem pole. For example, I know of no less than a dozen students (over 3 years of applications) who were accepted into at least two (and sometimes all) of the following: Berkeley, Stanford, "the Ivy's," "top ten's"...and were rejected from the University of Washington. UW, it seems, doesn't want to be anyone's safety (though this is pretty speculatory--I've never applied there).

This is really where "fit" comes in. Apply to every program that is a good fit for your work (and if you have a few dozen programs, chances are...you're not thinking through the nuances of your work sufficiently to be a compelling applicant), regardless of where they're ranked. If you're cutting back on programs--I do sympathize with the financial necessary--do so based on fit, rather fear that you might not get into your top choices. You can probably save yourself some money by applying wisely: do your research very thoroughly (read the book prefaces, reviews, recent articles of every professor vaguely in your field/share your methodology at very school that interests you).

As for whether or not you know that your writing sample is good enough: if you're lucky enough to have a very well informed adviser/former professor, definitely solicit their honest, critical feedback. (This round, one of my advisers edits a major journal in my field. I was told that my writing sample is at/close to the publication standard for peer journals...though for what it's worth, I didn't think that my WS was ready to be submitted for publication. Because he regularly deals with articles in my field, his judgment is probably fairly accurate--and in any case, I did very well this season). That said, I certainly wasn't this lucky in past rounds, and had to basically strike it out on my own. While I was far less confident in those previous rounds, I found that carefully reading, re-reading, and learning to "internalize" that most successful aspects of the articles/books/arguments that I admire was helpful to improving and learning to critique my own work. I also leaned heavily on my peers (many of whom I met on these--and similar--forums), who provided critique and insight into their own programs. And of course, your old professors might be a good resource (even if it's been years since you last worked with them).

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I think strokeofmidnight makes some great points -- applications are, certainly, unpredictable beasts -- but I'm very much in the same boat as woolfie here, and I think my application round would have been served much better had I recognized the HUGE improbability of my getting into a top-10 program when I was putting together my list of schools. Yes, my adviser had told me such schools were long shots; yes, I believed her; but I didn't account for the absolute swell in applications this year... or the pain of being rejected from every program I applied to that was ranked higher than 25.

While I realize that one can never predict the results (the nebulousness of this process is nothing if not overwhelming), I do feel that spending hundreds of dollars to apply to "top-tier" schools is, for those with "very good but not excellent" stats like mine, nearly always "a rookie mistake." I would not do it this way again. Sure, I could've gotten lucky; sure, I could've been one of the chosen few; but the odds were slim, and the time and energy I put into my "reach" applications could have been much better spent working on the SoPs for several lower-ranked but still high quality programs.

As I heard from the beginning (but wish I had followed more closely), a couple reach schools, several middle-ground schools, and a couple "safety" schools seems to be the right formula.

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Unfortunately, there seems to be no such thing as a "safety" school in grad school, especially for lit.

Ultimately, your SOP and writing sample and FIT will get you in. Get in touch with faculty members to find out about what they're working on; websites can only give you so much information and are often outdated. Find the places that best fit you. Those will be the most practical and cost-effective applications.

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