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Advice for Comp Lit application

4 posts in this topic

Hey there! So, I'm starting to prepare for the emotional turmoil that is applying to PhD programs and would love some general advice or tips from application veterans.

A little about my academic background: I received my BA from the American University in Cairo in English and Comparative Literature and in Sociology. I then immediately entered an MFA program at Columbia in Creative Writing and graduated this past spring. I can speak, read, and write fluently in three languages--Arabic, English, and Italian--and have some basic educational background in French. I hope to be able to focus my research on North African literature (specifically modern or contemporary North African).

Things that freak me out about applying to PhD programs:

1) GRE scores: I'm notoriously bad at standardized tests and the scores tend not to reflect my abilities. I took the GRE when applying to MA/MFA and got a pretty weak score and ended up only applying to programs that did not require GRE so as not to hurt my chances. I've gotten some responses from another post that I should aim to be in the 90th percentile for funding purposes. Is this people's experience typically?

2) Should I be contacting professor's from the departments that I hope to apply to? If so, what is the etiquette of going about that? Is it something that would actually be beneficial or is it a waste of both our time?

3) Statement of purpose: Do you include theory in your statement? Or should I leave all my mad theory skills for my writing sample? How hard should I sell my multilingual abilities?

4) Does it hurt that I haven't had essays or papers published? Should I be aiming to get stuff out there before submitting applications?

5) I have no teaching experience. Again, is that something that will hurt my application?

Sorry for all the seemingly obvious and neurotic questions but this seems like the right place to unload.

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Hi, since no one has responded yet, I'll offer a couple bits of advice. 

1) A score in the 90s will definitely help you. I cannot say how much, but will definitely help. 

2) Contact can help, and it probably won't hurt. Odds are it won't make a difference--the nicest email interaction I had was with a Prof at a place that rejected me; places that accepted me didn't return emails at all. If you have a reason to contact a faculty member, do it! But people are busy, and, while interest is nice, many faculty struggle to give enough attention to their current students. 

3) I did include some theory in my statement, in order to provide a summary of the project I was thinking of at teh time. Most of the use of theory in my statement was to demonstrate that I knew the field that I was entering rather than proving that I had "chops" per se. 

4) No--you don't need publications going into grad school or a PhD. (If you have an MA, a conference or two looks good). 

5) Nope! You are applying for a research degree--teaching is something you'll learn on the way.


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1. This depends on what "weak" means. I don't think it's necessary to be within the 90th percentile, but an abnormally weak verbal or writing score will not look good. A GRE score has more potential to hurt you if it's really weak than to help you if it's really strong. If your scores aren't abominable, chances are it won't make a difference. Everything else on your application (grades, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, writing sample) will be more important.

2. Contact can help, if only to narrow down your choices. Do not contact faculty just for the purpose of contacting them, though, if you have nothing to say. It's really obvious when a prospective student tries to contact faculty just because they think they should. Make your conversations productive. Don't contact them to ask about logistic things that you can easily find on their website. Instead, express an interest in their research and a desire to get to know it better. If you've had specific research projects or certain research interests or want to inquire about field-specific opportunities to speak, publish, or present, let them know. If a professor of yours had recommended them or their program as a good fit, mention it. Name-dropping never hurts. These people tend to know each other.

3. Exactly what @echo449 said. If you've done an honors thesis or some research project/paper you're really proud of and want to summarize it as a means of introducing your research interests and the work that led up to the development of these interests, then it's very useful to incorporate some field-specific language to prove that you know your stuff. I don't think the admissions committee would even read your writing sample unless your statement has passed its inspection. So an impressive writing sample alone probably wouldn't help you if your application gets eliminated before the committee has gotten to that step.

4. Most humanities students don't have publications before grad school. Publications definitely give applicants an edge, but I'd say there are few enough of those people around that not having one shouldn't affect your chances if your other qualifications are good. If you have an honors thesis, though, that'll look real good, and a lot of applicants have those. If you don't, you can frame one of the research projects/papers you've done for class as part of your research experience and incorporate that into your statement.

5. No. Humanities programs do take teaching seriously, but they don't really expect you to have taught. They judge more on your potential to be a good teacher (for example, interpersonal skills as seen from your letters of recommendation) than your actual teaching experience.

Edited by ThousandsHardships

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I have a question of my own, figured I'd ask it here. If I want to apply in Comp. Lit but my undergrad major was English Literature, would I still be able to? How does that work? I know a good bit of French, and in my opinion I can handle work at that level in French, but I recall one of my professors (who graduated from a comp lit program) telling me that I need to prove I can handle reading literature in another language that level, not just highly advanced language classes that had literature in that language. Basically, if I submitted an academic essay in French as a W.S would that prove my competence along with my classes? Just really curious about that. Basically, can I apply with only an English B.A?

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