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Hey literature people, as I'm trying to prepare myself, emotionally, for a second round next year, I thought it would be great of those who were lucky enough to get accepted this year to share their experiences and give us a view of what they think was a reason for their success. Would you share your qualifications and/or accomplishments that you think made you a successful applicant to English lit. or Comp. lit programs? Thanks y'all and best of luck :)

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Hey literature people, as I'm trying to prepare myself, emotionally, for a second round next year, I thought it would be great of those who were lucky enough to get accepted this year to share their experiences and give us a view of what they think was a reason for their success. Would you share your qualifications and/or accomplishments that you think made you a successful applicant to English lit. or Comp. lit programs? Thanks y'all and best of luck :)


Hello, Rose Egypt.  So, to qualify my thoughts, I'm not exactly kicking ass and taking names, but I have been admitted and waitlisted at a couple of decent programs.  Personally, I am a little upset that I'm not doing better, but here are some things that I know that I did right:  I have a great G.P.A. and GRE scores, good recommendations, and professionalization in the field (read:  conferences and teaching experience).  Additionally, my SOP and my writing sample both concerned the same field.  Unfortunately, I don't have any cool "hook" (really cool and trendy research interests or interesting life story and background), and I do think that hurts me a bit, but I think I have showed a couple of programs that I am a solid candidate.  Additionally, I applied to a lot of programs.  I see that you applied to three; no matter how good or qualified you are, I think that's just too few.  I hope my 2 cents helps.

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I presented at a few major universities (Emory, Rice, WashU, Indiana), hold a few undergrad research fellowships, decent GRE scores & GPA. I also took some GRE prep courses and went to statement of purpose workshops. I think my research interests are a bit unique (ethinc queer studies often using film as a literary medium). Of the schools I got into so far I met with faculty & grad students in the department at two and did research for a summer at one. 

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The best advice I can give:


1.) Do your homework early.  Research programs as soon as you are able to pull yourself together from getting rejected.  Last year, I got my last waitlist rejection in late April just before I defended my thesis.  I graduated in May and spent most of late May and early June researching programs and professors to try and find the best fits for me.  If there are particular things (authors, genres, forms of criticism) you like, go onto an academic database and start searching for who's writing on them.  You will find scholars who you want to work with in this way.


2.) Start saving.  Squirrel away money wherever you can to foot the bill for as many application/GRE fees you can.  I applied to thirteen programs and the total fee (GRE scores, application fees, transcripts from three schools, GRE subject test) was close to $2000.  It was a huge financial burden, but so many of these applications are dice rolls and you need to give yourself as many rolls as you can afford.  Eventually, boxcars are going to come up.


3.) Make contact with professors who you want to work with, even if it's just to inquire about whether they are able to take on students.  You never know when one of them will give you a huge amount of inside information or will let you know that they are on the adcom.


4.) Unless you have no other choice, don't be restricted by geography.  Look at programs across the U.S. (or international programs).  A number of schools offer stipends to help you move across country.  It's also good for you as a person to experience living somewhere you never have before.


5.) Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite your writing sample and statement of purpose.  These are the single two most important parts of your application.  Unless you have an absolutely brilliant piece of writing outside your area of expertise, make sure your writing sample lines up with what field your statement of purpose says you want to work in.


6.) Be prepared for the fact that, even working extremely hard and preparing as much as you can, you may not get into your top picks.  Half of this battle is mental preparation.  Getting rejected always sucks and even if you have an acceptance in hand somewhere else it stings to have a program tell you "no."  There are a lot of very talented applicants who strike out every single year, and even if you feel a program is perfect for you, you can't predict whether a school took four students in your specialty last year or your POI is the black sheep of the department who has serious enemies on the adcom.  These things are out of your control.  Getting rejected is a part of this experience; people who get in to every single program they apply to are an extreme exception to the rule.


7.) If your GRE (or TOEFL) scores are low, work to increase them.  Yes, these tests are horrible and don't give an accurate picture of you as a scholar.  You still do not want to give an adcom any reason to cut you, and unfortunately this is an objective number they can look at when it comes down to the nitty-gritty.


Above all else, try not to get discouraged.  If this is your dream, keep at it.  Last year, I got three waitlists, none of which converted.  This year, I had an acceptance the first week of February and have two other waitlists, with half of my schools still to officially tell me anything.  It may not feel like it now, but you can always strengthen your application and try again.  These schools aren't going anywhere.  If you really want this, take a long, hard look at your application materials (or have a professor you trust look at them) and determine what you need to work on in order to make a stronger run at it next year.

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Of course, it's early and I can't speak to my overall outcome. I can say, though, that out of the 4 schools I've heard back from, I've gotten good news from two, including a wonderful fellowship at a dream program for me. 


1) This spring will mark my seventh year out of undergrad. This wasn't part of my initial plan, but outside life factors interfered. That said, working outside of academia for so long (and in a strange variety of fields) gave me time to mature as in my interests. I whiled away my time really thinking long and hard about programs and specializations, and what I could imagine devoting a lifetime to. I know I wouldn't have made the same decisions straight out of undergrad, but right now, I'm feeling zero anxiety about whether I'm doing the right thing. Also, having worked both in the private sector and for the government, I'm incredibly excited to have the opportunity to spend six years going to school for a living (and really, for the rest of my life). I know deeply what's out there, and I'm absolutely certain it's not for me. I also know now I'll treat my graduate studies like a job, because I never want to go back to my old one(s).


2) Related to the above--my stats are definitely solid all-around, but I don't think I really have that "next level of exceptional" on my CV. This is to say, as an undergraduate, I worked a lot of hours and took a really heavy courseload, so I didn't present or have any publications. To make up for that, I ensured my plan was really thought out, and revisited my writing sample from undergrad pretty heavily. I found that I was still confident with the arguments and structure, but I spent a lot of time editing away the "cocky twenty year-old" voice. Trust me, your undergrad work has that voice, too. I spent nine months working on my application materials pretty heavily (and had the luxury to devote a lot of time on weekends I was "feeling it" and not a lot when I wasn't). Since I'm not in school any longer, I swapped my SOP with other GC members. I had tons of eyes on that thing (even then a few errors on early submissions, but nothing too serious).


3) Regardless of what everyone says, spend some time on your GREs--look for your weak spots. I've always been strong (for a literature student) in math, and actually do statistical analyses as part of my current job. But, I, too, tested out of undergraduate math, so I hadn't had a math class in 12 years when I took the test. Sure, you can figure out a lot of the formulas using logic, but that takes a lot of time on a timed test, and someone else already went through the trouble of working out how to solve it for you. It's much faster to memorize a few important formulas, and time is a huge factor here. This definitely won't be the end all, be all, but as datatape mentions, if it comes down to two otherwise equal apps, it could make or break. (Plus, they may not admit it, but having a high average GRE score does make a department look good). If you're crunched for time, this would be where I'd cut corners, but the number one lesson here--DON'T GET CRUNCHED FOR TIME. This is the rest of your life; it's better to take an extra year and really be sure you get into the best program (fit AND rank) you can. You want a good job later, after all.


4) I differ a little with datatape on the writing sample. My research in undergrad is vastly different than what I've been working on moving forward. I considered for quite awhile using my second-best sample (still had won a minor prize), because there was an obvious link to my current research. But I drove to my alma mater to speak with one of my UG professors (incredibly respected in her field), and she was firm that I should use my strongest. I was still doubting, but then  I realized that I wouldn't want to attend a program that was off-put by my seemingly-discordant critical interests, because I love looking for connections where there initially appear to be none. In fact, my whole application was a bit risky (my current critical interests aren't terribly common either), but that helped ensure my ultimate choice was a great fit.


5) Apply to as many programs as you can afford, will fit, and will give you the best prospects later. I think perhaps some people are too specific with fit, and they want to find a program with a POI working on the very same ideas. I looked for programs that, on the overall, would support what I'm working on. I could see my studies (despite somewhat esoteric interests) being supported and cultivated at a number of institutions. Maybe you can't, but think long and hard about it. And don't send out sloppy applications, either, because that's a waste of time and money. (See #2 re: time crunch).


6) Give yourself a long time in the "submission" phase. I put myself on a schedule that included submitting three apps per weekend for 5 straight weeks. Ideally, submit to your bottom choices first (this requires organization and judicious use of spreadsheets). If you're anything like me, you're going to pour over your apps once you've submitted anyhow, so it may as well be productive. Everyone round, I found a few small things I wanted to fix. (Also, realize errors aren't the end of the world. My first weekend was pretty sloppy, but my very first, very early acceptance came from a submission that weekend). Again, see #2 re: time crunch.


7) Be polite, professional, and appropriately deferential with everyone you come in contact with.I met with a number of DGSes from programs I didn't apply to but were highly ranked (my departments at my alma mater, as well as some individuals associated with friends' schools). As expected, they all had conflicting suggestions. One thing they always had to say, though, was that they really try to weed out "undergraduate attitudes," and look for individuals that would be a pleasure to work with, and would be mature and professional both in their classes and when representing their school. The worst thing you could possibly do is to appear entitled. I cannot underestimate the importance of this one (and not just when applying to grad school, but I digress).



And of course, to some extent, all of this is still a lottery. Most of your schools are accepting 3-5% of applicants (and these are applicants who've taken the time and money to apply for graduate school, a very self-selecting population as-is). They have a very finite number of slots, and a lot of really interesting applications. It may be that your dream school loves you, but is filled to the brim with Victorianists this cycle. Who knows what the programs composition will look like next year. Don't go to a graduate school (or graduate school in general) because a) you don't know what else to do B) you don't want to look for a 9-5 job or c) you feel like you're supposed to. Go because you've considered long and hard what 's out there, and you know that this is exactly what you want to do. It's your future in a way that very few other decisions ever will be (save having children and maybe getting married), so give it the gravity it deserves. You are committing to a very specific lifestyle from here on out, and it's not a path that most people understand and experience. Be sure you're willing to make the appropriate sacrifices. When I was 21 and fresh out of undergrad, I was in no space to commit to the rest of my life (I couldn't even imagine "the rest of my life"), and made some decisions I wouldn't have made in retrospect.


I hope this wasn't pedantic, and take it with a grain of salt. But, I can positively state I'm incredibly happy with my life (both now and broadly) and excited for my future, and I have no regrets.



Edited by Magical Realist
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I know a lot of people suggest applying to lots of different programs to increase chances of getting in _somewhere_, but I did the opposite with much success.  I'm not saying it works for everyone, but it's something to consider.   I applied to only two very good schools and was accepted to both with attractive funding packages.  I carefully chose which schools to apply to based on the following criteria:


1. My own connection to the school.  For one, I had communicated with a current prof related to my undergrad research projects.  I basically didn't consider schools where I didn't have an inside connection.


2. My research interests and those of current faculty. I made sure to find schools with professors whose research interests complemented my own.


3. My interest in the schools.  To be honest, it's hard to sound enthusiastic in your SOP if you barely know anything about the school and don't know specific reasons that you'd want to attend.  For me, I visited one of the schools, and for the other I talked to past and current students before deciding to apply.


You can and should be selective about the schools you apply to, because most people wouldn't be happy just anywhere, and it doesn't necessarily increase your chances if you're applying to places you don't actually want to go to.  It'll show. 


The other reason I think it's good to apply only to a few places is that you have time to concentrate on crafting the SOP and your writing sample and other app materials to fit the bill for each school.  This really helped me.  I had initially wanted to apply to 7+ programs, but I got overwhelmed and didn't have the energy to generate quality application materials.


The other thing I think played a role in my acceptances was that I didn't stress about it.  It kept me level-headed because I knew my worth wasn't going to be crushed if I didn't get in. 


Also, don't freak out about your GRE score. As long as it's respectable, retaking it probably isn't where your energies should be focused.  Your SOP and writing sample are probably the most important things you can work on.  Let your personality show through your SOP and take trite, generalized advice with a grain of salt.  For example, so many people say not to use a childhood story.  Well.... I started both SOPs with a childhood anecdote, and it worked just fine.  Just don't start with, "I've loved reading since I was kid..."  That is lame.  I think anything that shows who you are and what you are passionate about is fair game for the SOP as long as you craft it in a way that shows you're serious about academic research and are prepared for a rigorous step up.  Also, play up your strengths.  If you don't know what they are, ask someone.   If you are confident in yourself and your application materials back up that confidence, I believe you will stand out.  


The last thing I can say is use this time (when you are not in grad school) wisely.  And by this I don't mean reading up on everything in your field and writing up drafts of your future dissertation. You'll end up driving yourself insane and you'll have time for the dissertation when you actually get to that point.  Instead, get a good job (e.g. don't settle for Starbucks, you have a degree), maintain plenty of non-academic hobbies, develop healthy eating habits, stay fit, try new things, and get to know yourself in lots of different settings.  Adcoms may not care about this at all, but it will keep your outlook positive, and you won't feel devastated if you have to wait a little longer to go to grad school.  


As context, I don't have qualifications that would blow anyone out of the water.  I did well in undergrad, I have solid stats, and I work hard.  But I don't have a million publications, presentations, or an Ivy League undergrad degree.  I just figured out which programs I would fit in with, and I did the best to show them _how_ I knew that.  

Edited by Emelye
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