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I need advice on "how to look competitive"


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I'm a college sophomore at the University of Delaware and I'm planning on applying to grad school for English literature (probably gothic lit) in the fall of 2010. I'm an English major (literary studies) with a history minor; I will be writing a senior thesis; I have done 3 credits of undergraduate research in medieval literature with a known scholar. I work at my university's writing center (as a peer tutor), I have been accepted for my school's summer scholar program (doing research in literature over the summer). I plan to do at least three more credits of undergraduate research with another professor. My GPA is currently a 3.92.

I would like to know (honestly) ways in which I can look more competitive. I know a big part of my application is the personal statement and writing sample, but in terms of my major and minor and the activities I am doing, what else do I need? Is there something else I can be doing that will increase my chances of getting into a kickass grad school? What else can I do during my junior summer...more research? Should I have a committee position with an honor society or a publication on campus?

Any advice or recommendations would be greatly appreciated. I am interested in UC Berkeley, U Penn, Princeton and the like. Thanks so much!!! (also.. any advice on what type of writing sample I should submit...or personal statement?)

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All you can do is just advance and grow; by the looks of it you're off to a really great start already.

The writing and experience portion of your resume seems to be good, so just keep doing what you're doing in those areas and you'll naturally progress. As for other areas I would recommend working on to "look competitive," I would suggest establishing a good professional relationship with your professors and your research advisers. The LoRs that these people will write for you in the future will be a crucial part of your application package and can have a significant impact on whether your schools will accept you. These letters, along with your sample and SoP, will give the adcom committee a good look at how you work as a scholar and whether you would make a good addition to their group.

Also, and although some may agree but because you are going to apply to some competitive schools, work on getting the best GRE score you can. Definitely invest in one or two of the GRE study books because, while your scores may not secure you an admission, they will help insure you make it past the first round of cut-off, especially at the really prestigious schools. Try figuring out the relative GRE benchmark scores at your school to give you a general idea of the score you need to get to even have your application looked at.

Other than that, good luck!

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After being somewhat successful this season I'd have to say that my writing sample most definitely was the aspect that pulled me through. I edited that thing like no other, and every page was the best page I had written.

Start thinking now about what you plan on submitting. If your writing is great, polish it more. Make sure the grammar and punctuation is error-free, and alternate between short and long sentences to create an enjoyable cadence to your ideas. More importantly, make original connections between literary theories and the text (in my first page, I connected Derrida to Shakespeare). This means you should create links adcom professors hadn't even thought of before. This will catch their eye, make them remember you, and make you "more competitive."

My writing sample was publishable quality (not my words)--make yours that, too.

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I agree that GRE prep classes are money drains and that the material you learn in those classes isn't really different from what you can find in the books put out by the same companies. BUT--I coughed up the money and am glad I did because the class gave me the structure and discipline to study for the test, structure that I couldn't have provided for myself. My situation is different than yours, as I'm a few years out of school and was juggling work and grad school applications. Since I wasn't in student mode, the time-management skills needed to study independently for an obnoxious standardized test eluded me. For me, then, the question was whether it was worth the money to have the accountability--and, yes, the opportunity to ask questions and get access to a bunch of prep material--the class provided. I decided that it was and feel good about that decision.

Since you're still on a college campus, you might want to a) ask if there are any GRE prep courses you can take through your school (I know some colleges are starting to offer their own one-credit courses that compete wtih the test prep companies), and B) see if you can get together a study group.

Good luck!

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Some good advice in the above posts. I would also make sure you have taken enough language classes. Although I'm fairly proficient in Spanish from high school and independent study, I didn't take any Spanish classes in college OR for my Master's, and I think this really hurt my application to several programs (seeing as my literary interests involve Mexican-American Literature). Of course, the specific language study that would benefit you for your area of focus is different, but make sure you have the requisite language study on your transcripts. It's one less way for them to count you out.

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1) Can you take a grad seminar this fall? That could help you put together a good writing sample.

2) Make sure that you find out who, specifically, you want to work with and get in touch with them ahead of time.

3) Think about how you will pull together all of the pieces of your application to tell a *single, unified* story...so that the SOP reinforces the writing sample, which is in turn reinforced by the letters, etc.

4) Possibly use your history major to help differentiate yourself...

5) Make sure that you give your letter writers enough information to write well-informed letters (i.e., their past comments on your papers, your SOP, etc.), and see if you can get them to agree to customize your letters for your top-choice schools. Give them your customized SOPs for those schools ahead of time, and tell them exactly who you plan to work with at those schools. This means giving them plenty, plenty, plenty of notice.

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Hi there,

I'm a medievalist in English who got admitted to a few schools this season. Here's my advice:

First, show some initiative. What really helped me out, I think, was my self-motivated language study. I don't actually have Latin (a big plus for any candidate in medieval) but I had Greek, Old English, Middle English, and reading knowledge in a bunch of others. At once school, on my visit I was referred to as the 'autodidact.' I think that's a big reason why I got into that school. Since most undergraduate programs don't have the most rigorous medieval program, and since most graduate programs don't have super-extensive course offerings in medieval, market yourself as a self-starter, someone who is going to thrive in a good program and make the program look great with minimal pampering.

Second: the writing stuffs. Your writing sample and personal statement need to be some of the best writing you've ever done. In my personal statement, I showed that I had done extensive research on the programs I applied to. In one statement for example (for one school I gained admission to), I listed the courses I would take to complete a dual master's in Medieval Studies. It's that kind of specificity that's going to make you stand out.

And third, take yourself seriously, and present yourself seriously. These programs get a whole bunch of half-hearted applications, sometimes from people who don't know what grad school is about. You can immediately distinguish yourself with just a touch of professionalism and self-confidence in your writing and communications with the school. Present yourself as a competent scholar and an affable colleague. Really own it; self-doubt tends to shine through in writing.

That's my two cents.

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Oh, yeah, hey, MonoE is totally right. I overlooked the fact that you are (presumably?) a medievalist. If you are a medievalist, languages are very important. Like MonoE, I applied this year as a medievalist this year and did decently well, and I think my languages (several years each of Latin, OE, MidE, and French) helped quite a bit.

MonoE, I'd say that if the OP is starting from scratch, the first things to consider picking up might be Middle English and Latin, right? OP, have you done Latin? Latin is not totally necessary especially if you have another strong classical language, but I think it's one of the first things committees look at, so you might start there. Old English is wonderful (I'm an Anglo-Saxonist myself), but not all schools offer it, and it tends to be quite time-consuming. It's the kind of thing one can do as a grad student if necessary.

Maybe think in terms of taking summer Latin courses, depending on where your Latin is right now? Decent Latin + historical background + medieval research interests + proven medieval research ability might be an interesting combination when you apply.

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I'm researching Chaucer right now with a professor, but I signed up to do this research project the first semester of my sophomore year, and I didn't know really what I wanted to study in the field of literature (because of the way the English program is set up here at Delaware - they don't let us take survey classes until our sophomore spring semester). While I enjoy the work I am doing I find myself more drawn towards 18th -20th century British literature. Because I am taking three credits of undergraduate research I can't change my course of research this semester or summer semester. In the fall I can move onto research more my style. So, this was a long way to say no, I'm not a medievalist. Are languages still as important in this case?

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Nope. :) If you *do* have them, they will help, but if you *don't* have them, it probably won't hurt (whereas not having them *would* hurt you if you were a medievalist).

If you have a strong research background in medieval stuff but you like more recent British stuff, I strongly suggest you think (AND WRITE) about the many links between the two: Victorian medievalism comes to mind, though I know little about it myself. I ran into several people this application season who had gotten into top programs by studying the influence of medieval lit on much later periods (such as Victorian lit, as I mentioned, or the poetry of World War I). Talk to the people on your campus about a research project that would allow you to tie the two together, perhaps, and see if you can come up with a writing sample that focuses on the era you're most interested in but shows off your knowledge of earlier eras. And if you do have any kind of language background at all, try to pull it in a little.

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Try to pick up relevant languages - at least French. Latin too, preferably.

If you're interested in the Gothic novel, read Gothic novels. People are generally confused about what the Gothic novel is and when they were written since the technical usage in literature is a tad different from the everyday, architectural, or historical one. Generally they were written in the mid to late late 18th and early 19th century. It's stuff like Northanger Abbey, Castle of Udolpho, Mystery of Otranto (or maybe vice versa - I always forget which is the mystery and which is about the castle). In general, they're fairly forgettable, give or take. Most English majors have never read any of them. I can't blame them. The books really aren't very good - creaky castles, secret princes, twins, hidden passageways. Kind of like reading any of the late romances. Lots of longwinded sentences riddled with genre cliches.

If you'd like to learn more, Lovecraft has a great piece of literary criticism called "Supernatural Horror in Literature" that has a subsection on the Gothic novel. It's the most succinct outline of the genre I've ever seen. Oxford has 3 Gothic novels in a single paperback, too. It's Udolpho, Otranto, and Valthek, I think. Maybe you're interested in Victorian Gothic novels rather than Gothic ones. Apologies if I got off on a bit of a tangent there. Where was I? Ah, yes.

I think it's too early to think about a specialization, to be honest. Relax. Take a deep breath. Keep doing what you're doing. Just stay away from the drugs and French post-structuralism and you should be fine.

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Well, no arguments about the drugs. But don't deprive yourself of Derrida or Barthes!

I honestly liked Derrida's notions of Deconstruction in "Writing and Difference", but I liked it better the first time I read it - when it was a 2000+ year old text written by Nagarjuna called the Mulamadhyamakakarika, and the sophistic notions it expounded upon were called "Mahayana Buddhism" instead of "Deconstruction".

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