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Well I'm on here, I guess I'll put my two-cents in on perspectives on success.

 

I'll let everyone else be the judge of to what extent I was successful; I didn't get into any Ivy Leagues, but I also didn't really apply to any of them besides Stanford, and that was at the behest of my advisor.

 

I got into one PhD program that is top-20 for Medieval Lit. The school itself fluxuates around 20-22 in the USNWR for overall English program ranking, but obviously it was more important that it be highly ranked for my field. I got into two top-tier masters programs that were unfunded, and one funded masters program that is from a small state school that doesn't even offer a PhD, but is well-known specifically for its medieval studies resources (that would be Kzoo for all you medievalists).

 

Aspects of my application I wouldn't/couldn't change if I did it all over again:

- a 3.97 undergraduate GPA from UIUC in English and minor in Spanish (if said it before on here recently).

- 90th percentile GRE verbal and writing scores

- an abmismal 57th percental subject test score (what a waste of time and money, am I right?)

 

Things I think could have gotten me into more PhD programs:

- Been less specific on my SOP. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think I pidgeoned-holed myself into Anglo-Saxonism when I was still interested in the medieval period more broadly.

- Consulted more with my advisors about which schools I applied to. To be honest, I should have looked into this way more than I did. I only applied to 8 schools, and I wish I would have applied to more and picked them more carefully.

- Spent even more time on my writing sample/conferences with peers. While a professor eventually came through and really helped me out on this one, I think I could have had a better writing sample if I had sought out more opportunities to revise.

 

Hope this helps!

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What a great topic, SleepyOldMan. Last year, I didn't get into any of the programs for which I applied, and I would have really appreciated something like this. My experience is a little different tha

Most of the top-tier schools have notified applicants of their decisions, and certain forum members have had repeated success.  (I can think of four in particular, but there are probably more.)  I thi

I thought Jazzy's first post was very helpful and that she (or he-- sorry I can't tell from you profile) was very clear both times. It's sort of, well, rude to compare how helpful people are, if they'

Not sure if that's a dig at me...? I fully intend to answer your response to my post but you know, got caught up in other things. I wanted to make sure I took the time to fully explain, but figured it wouldn't be right to spend however many minutes writing a long post on GradCafe when I had an abstract due that at the time wasn't even started.

 

Not so much a dig at you as an accolade directed at Academicat...but yes, I had you in mind and sorry if it came off as a dig. Of course you've gotta do what you've gotta do and posting to an online forum probably isn't the highest on anyone's priority list. I can be patient and I totally look forward to your reply. I just thought it was interesting how the dynamic of this thread was shaping up very recently here, what w/ Academicat basically being off-the-charts forthcoming. I have no problem pointing these things out. There it is, right there on my computer screen. But no, nothing personal whatsoever, just an observation of one poster's coolness in relation to what is established, here. Fair is fair, credit where it is due and so forth. 

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Not sure how helpful this thread can be when we know the most important things are SOP, LOR, and writing sample, the very things that can't be shared.There will be a correlation between the above and the GPA/GRE/institution/pubs/confs types of things, but probably not to a helpful extent

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Not sure how helpful this thread can be when we know the most important things are SOP, LOR, and writing sample, the very things that can't be shared.There will be a correlation between the above and the GPA/GRE/institution/pubs/confs types of things, but probably not to a helpful extent

 

I've found it incredibly helpful already, most specifically because of what people have shared about altering/revising SoPs and WSs. I shall be considering these things throughout my own drafting processes. 

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Well this certainly got interesting in a hurry!

 

Let's be fair to Academicat, who took the time to write a hell of a post and then followed up with explanation when asked (unlike others)...and who said the cover letter was partly the result of being pissed about a year of rejections and who was told that most applications do include them. It strikes me that this has to do with the particular people/departments that got specifically contacted for advice. On top of all that, Academicat is admitted to 4 programs. I for one don't sneeze at that. If, when it's my turn, I have a choice of 4 programs, I will do some unmentionable mode of celebration, it will be epic. And hell, if you get shut out one year and you get 4 acceptances the next time around, and one of your main differences is this tangible and identifiable, and we're asking, and Academicat is will to share, then I guess the neighborly thing here would be to continue seeking clarification:

 

Academicat, you mention taking a calculated risk with your writing sample...do you think the cover letter was another calculated risk? Would you have drafted and submitted a cover letter if you were pissed but did not get information that most applications contain them? If decorum by and large deems a cover letter irrelevant to other departments' application protocols do you still recommend it based on your current success, or do you think your applications were to an unusual set of departments in this regard? In short, what do you make of this mess we have on our hands? Please help to un-confuse me and possibly others.

Wow, I went to a meeting and came back to a flurry of activity. First, I want to let you all know that I am absolutely not telling you what to do, nor am I claiming to have all the answers. I'm just sharing what I've learned and what seems to be working for me. You can choose to do a cover letter or not. I didn't see the cover letter as a risk, and I wouldn't have written one if I hadn't gotten explicit advice to include one. I was at the Council of Writing Program Administrators conference this summer, hanging out with some older WPAs who serve on adcomms. They were trading stories about crazy applicants, and I asked them what they look for in an application packet. During the conversation, they discussed the cover letter AND the SOP as if they were two different documents. For what it's worth, they also suggested that they favored applicants who were "normal" (and not crazy/obsessive/haughty). That's what led me to write a cover letter. I figured these guys who worked at different schools and had a couple of decades worth of experience on me knew what was up. I wrote the cover letter and presented it as part of my CV with no second thoughts.

 

To respond to the writing sample questions, I saw the writing sample as a risk because the document I used was an old essay, from five years ago. I considered writing a new one based on my current work, but decided against it because of time. Instead, I revised and updated the older essay.

 

I'm really glad that some of you have found value in my post, and as I mentioned, I'm willing to share/discuss off-forum. If you contact the department and they explicitly say not to include a cover letter, then it'd probably be best to heed that advice. I'm not ready to share which departments I got offers from publicly, but they're major universities, so I don't think the programs were especially unique. Keep in mind that the cover letter isn't the only change I made to my application packet. Every single document went through heavy revision, and I didn't write in a vacuum. I talked with my writing group, which is comprised of both TT and NTT faculty and graduate students from across disciplines, about my documents, and nobody balked at the idea of including a cover letter, for what that's worth. But like I said, you are all smart and capable and free to revise as you see fit.

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I very much appreciate this thread.

 

Jazzy, when you write, "The thing about my field of interest is that even in the best of circumstances, a department is really only going to have 2-3 people who fall broadly in that area, so it’s more important to find a department with great people who are doing great work than the absolute perfect fit," then presumably you make a distinction between "the absolute perfect fit" and "a department with (2-3) great people who are doing great work" "broadly in [your] area." I can think of a few reasons for the distinction but I'm curious about your take since, after all, there is another perspective from which 2-3 people doing great work in your area, broadly, is how some people are defining "the absolute perfect fit." Or another way to ask, I guess, is, what do you specifically have in mind when you didn't stress about an absolute perfect fit?  I take note and keep in mind that you didn't dwell on this, and in fact I've posted a bit where the OP has also posted and am coming to my own conclusions about fit - namely, I also won't stress, either. But I am curious and still learning, so hit me w/ it.

 

 

 

Anyway...

 

I'll try to explain with a hypothetical example, but if that doesn't clarify enough then I'll just use specifics. 

 

But say you're interested in how women writers conceived of Victorian era medicalization of X. Okay, well one approach to finding the perfect fit would be looking for faculty who also do research on this exact same topic. Or, you could just look for places with really strong Victorian and feminist faculty whose research intrigues you. Versus looking for faculty who are exactly inline with your (current, subject to change) research interests, the second option (what I went with) is about finding faculty who would be able to successfully guide and advise you in a dissertation project even if it doesn't look exactly like their own projects.

 

Does that help at all?

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I'll chime in, if you'd like. I got into 4 top 20 schools, for what it's worth, although I'm still kind of meh about rankings.

 

I go to an average state school, but our English department is wonderful (I gush about it whatever chance I get) and I had recommendation letters from two full professors who are really well known in their fields (which were not related to my field of interest) and one assistant professor who was in my field, sort of. Close to a 4.0, although I definitely had a couple of Bs in English classes during sophomore year, GRE scores, subject and general in the 90-95th percentile. 

 

I personally think there was a huge correlation between colleges that I thought I were a better fit and colleges that I got into. Like jazzy above, I didn't look for people specifically doing what I want to do. In fact, I realized early on that there were very few people doing EXACTLY what I wanted, so I branched out, both in trying to research POIs and in terms of how I framed my SOP. For instance, I realized that I'd only taken maybe one course in my area of interest, so I started looking for intersecting interests in other classes/periods that I had studied to tie them into my interest. Actually, what was extremely helpful to me as I wrote my SOP over the fall semester was that I began to also simultaneously choose paper topics for my seminars that were in some way related to my theoretical and thematic interests. This made everything come together a lot better, and made me more well rounded I believe.

 

Finally, my writing sample. I was planning to submit a really strong paper that I'd been working on for a while, but which was only tangentially related to my area of interest. I asked a bunch of people their advice regarding this matter, and they all strongly indicated that having a directly related paper would be much more helpful in the application process. Luckily, my senior thesis was pretty much on the exact topic that I was interested in-- and I'm really glad that I put in all that effort to complete it and submit it. In fact, I had a professor say that the former paper was better overall, but that I should go ahead and submit the second one because it would just make my application more cohesive.

 

So all that. And the fact that my professors were incredibly supportive, and read over all my materials numerous times. 

 

Hope this helps!

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I thought Jazzy's first post was very helpful and that she (or he-- sorry I can't tell from you profile) was very clear both times. It's sort of, well, rude to compare how helpful people are, if they're all being helpful. There's a way to compliment someone without taking a jab at someone else. All of this info is volunteered. No one's obligated to answer questions, not even follow up ones.

As for the cover letter, and obviously this is just my opinion... There are plenty of people who got into 4 or more top ranked programs who didn't include a cover letter, myself included. I'm sure the cover letter is not a make or break thing -- or even very helpful, by most accounts. At best it's overlooked or ignored in favor of the SOP/WS; at worst it annoys someone on the committee because it wasnt asked for, and why should one applicant get more time and space to "make their case," so to speak? (Not my opinion - just playing devil's advocate here!) So the net effect is either 0, marginally positive (but not enough to make a difference, all other things being equal), or negative.

All of this is to say that the time is probably better spent on the SOP and writing sample. Unless you can dash off a quick cover letter! :) I am being 100% serious when I say that at every school, THAT's what they mentioned post-acceptance. They quote things, point out what they liked, what they could incorporate in their own work, how their school's offerings align with my interests, etc.

It's ridiculous that so many great applicants don't get admitted anywhere. So the other thing I will add is that luck was a big factor. You can do everything right and still not get into the school where your work and background "fit." Those are just the odds. I totally understand the point of this thread and it's definitely helpful! But I just want to say that it's also a crapshoot. I don't know what I did to get in, not really. I don't know why they picked me over someone else who is just as qualified, who fits just as well. I can guess. But none of us can know for sure. And in a pool of highly qualified people, the power of luck shouldn't be ignored.

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Anyway...

 

I'll try to explain with a hypothetical example, but if that doesn't clarify enough then I'll just use specifics. 

 

But say you're interested in how women writers conceived of Victorian era medicalization of X. Okay, well one approach to finding the perfect fit would be looking for faculty who also do research on this exact same topic. Or, you could just look for places with really strong Victorian and feminist faculty whose research intrigues you. Versus looking for faculty who are exactly inline with your (current, subject to change) research interests, the second option (what I went with) is about finding faculty who would be able to successfully guide and advise you in a dissertation project even if it doesn't look exactly like their own projects.

 

Does that help at all?

 

 

Anyway...

 

Yes, it does help, thank you. It seems to be the difference between how broad or narrow interest would align between you and faculty. I guess my confusion probably centered on your use of 2-3 faculty on the broad side of things vs. what I would guess to be only 1 faculty on the narrow side of things, and I mistook 2-3 for a so-called "small" number, when in fact it now seems as though the even smaller number of, say, 1 seems (to you, unless I'm reading you poorly) to be more conducive to some hypothetical perfect fit. Which is not intuitive to me. Which is why I asked. I think I'd have been more inclined to find a larger number on the broad side of things rather than a single narrow alignment in the first place, but in any case that seems to be part of what this thread is bearing out. Perhaps it is just a semantic over-reading of "perfection" that I got hung up on. Still, I think it's productive to work through this. The thread, after all, is called "perspectives," and even when "fit" gets talked about explicitly, "2-3" is much more specific than the "half dozen or so" that I would have imagined to have to find within a given department (again, for broad interest overlap, not "narrow" or "exact"). And when this can be articulated, things begin to make more sense, and future applicants like me get a better picture of what to expect.

 

I do appreciate the clarification. If nothing else, I bet just about everyone can agree that fit = the trickiest part of the whole application. I get the sense that I wear out my welcome posting about fit, bemoaning the impossibility of it all, but I find it completely opaque. I'm just letting you know. By drafting any given piece a million times and with a million pairs of eyes, you can really fine-tune a piece of writing or a statement of purpose. But no amount of drafting will clue anyone in to the inner workings of a given department. 

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I thought Jazzy's first post was very helpful and that she (or he-- sorry I can't tell from you profile) was very clear both times. It's sort of, well, rude to compare how helpful people are, if they're all being helpful. There's a way to compliment someone without taking a jab at someone else. All of this info is volunteered. No one's obligated to answer questions, not even follow up ones.

 

 

I completely agree.  #1: that first post was helpful, and I thought I said as much. #2: I can totally see how I was rude. My bad. My apology to Jazzy for my rudeness. Jazzy, I am sorry. I tried to explain it, I thought it was fair, but I'll happily concede the rudeness. And I'm still happy and thankful for the follow-up, and I still think it was productive to work through some clarification. In my rude world, this is all good stuff. Go team.

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Not to say that the information provide thus far hasn't been helpful, but after reading everything I still feel like I'm waiting for the mystery of how to get into programs to be unveiled. 

 

It's just so hard to know what helped people get in without seeing their writing samples and SOP. I feel like I followed all of the advice that was given here--except having a cover letter--and I'm still not getting in anywhere. I thought I had a really good SOP and writing sample, good fit with the departments, good GPAs (3.7 undergrad, 3.92 MA), decent verbal score on the GRE (89th percentile), and still no success. I went to a good undergraduate program, but not ivy by any means (it was a Big 10 university). My MA school is unknown and not great--so my LOR were from people who were not well known. So, my theory is that since my letter writers and my MA institution were not prestigious, they are my demise. 

 

I guess I'll never know...unless I ask the departments in a few weeks/months for advice. Ugh. Grr. Boo. 

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Not to say that the information provide thus far hasn't been helpful, but after reading everything I still feel like I'm waiting for the mystery of how to get into programs to be unveiled. 

 

It's just so hard to know what helped people get in without seeing their writing samples and SOP. I feel like I followed all of the advice that was given here--except having a cover letter--and I'm still not getting in anywhere. I thought I had a really good SOP and writing sample, good fit with the departments, good GPAs (3.7 undergrad, 3.92 MA), decent verbal score on the GRE (89th percentile), and still no success. I went to a good undergraduate program, but not ivy by any means (it was a Big 10 university). My MA school is unknown and not great--so my LOR were from people who were not well known. So, my theory is that since my letter writers and my MA institution were not prestigious, they are my demise. 

 

I guess I'll never know...unless I ask the departments in a few weeks/months for advice. Ugh. Grr. Boo. 

 

glasspagodas reminds you of the luck factor too...a good addition, probably...and I can't exactly speak from any position of authority since I've never been admitted, but I still feel like this is pretty helpful. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but everything from some nuanced phraseology to the macro approach to discerning patterns within SoPs to trying to relate SoPs to WSs is useful information. I see my early drafts of each of these documents, now, and I see how they can be improved based on this thread alone. That very tough-to-strike balance between having direction and being flexible in the way a department wants you to be flexible is now what I'm striving toward...explicitly...

 

Now for a totally unrelated thing - how long do people suggest studying for the subject test?  I'm thinking of the April '15 test and was going to start probably around November-ish on Norton anthologies.  Too soon?  Too late?  I realize this is going to vary hugely between individuals, but from your own perspectives of course is what I'm asking.  That would be 5 months-ish.  Time better spent on WS/SoP?  Or time well spent?

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Not to say that the information provide thus far hasn't been helpful, but after reading everything I still feel like I'm waiting for the mystery of how to get into programs to be unveiled. 

 

It's just so hard to know what helped people get in without seeing their writing samples and SOP. I feel like I followed all of the advice that was given here--except having a cover letter--and I'm still not getting in anywhere. I thought I had a really good SOP and writing sample, good fit with the departments, good GPAs (3.7 undergrad, 3.92 MA), decent verbal score on the GRE (89th percentile), and still no success. I went to a good undergraduate program, but not ivy by any means (it was a Big 10 university). My MA school is unknown and not great--so my LOR were from people who were not well known. So, my theory is that since my letter writers and my MA institution were not prestigious, they are my demise. 

 

I guess I'll never know...unless I ask the departments in a few weeks/months for advice. Ugh. Grr. Boo. 

 

There's just so much variability. It just depends on so many different things.

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I can totally see how I was rude. My bad. My apology to Jazzy for my rudeness. Jazzy, I am sorry. I tried to explain it, I thought it was fair, but I'll happily concede the rudeness. And I'm still happy and thankful for the follow-up, and I still think it was productive to work through some clarification. In my rude world, this is all good stuff. Go team.

 

Strong Flat White, I've seen you have to apologize more times than any other person on here. Just chill and realize people are trying to help as much as they can.  

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I don't know if telling people to chill is the way to go about anything, really. Doesn't make you look any better... Anyway, not trying to create tension. I've also found this thread incredibly helpful, and am so grateful to SFW for all the questions and nagging so we can get some answers we may not have gotten otherwise. Also, kudos Academicat; you're a great help! Thanks for all of your insight.

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Strong Flat White, I've seen you have to apologize more times than any other person on here. Just chill and realize people are trying to help as much as they can.  

 

I know that people are trying to help. I have some hotheaded tendencies and you can consider me chilled. I don't mean to offend, if you can believe it. Thanks - again - to everyone's input here. 

It is really very appreciated.

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There's just so much variability. It just depends on so many different things.

 

 

glasspagodas reminds you of the luck factor too...a good addition, probably...and I can't exactly speak from any position of authority since I've never been admitted, but I still feel like this is pretty helpful. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but everything from some nuanced phraseology to the macro approach to discerning patterns within SoPs to trying to relate SoPs to WSs is useful information. I see my early drafts of each of these documents, now, and I see how they can be improved based on this thread alone. That very tough-to-strike balance between having direction and being flexible in the way a department wants you to be flexible is now what I'm striving toward...explicitly...

 

Now for a totally unrelated thing - how long do people suggest studying for the subject test?  I'm thinking of the April '15 test and was going to start probably around November-ish on Norton anthologies.  Too soon?  Too late?  I realize this is going to vary hugely between individuals, but from your own perspectives of course is what I'm asking.  That would be 5 months-ish.  Time better spent on WS/SoP?  Or time well spent?

 

Yeah, a lot of it is luck. And, other things that we'll never know--until we are on the other side! 

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I don't know if telling people to chill is the way to go about anything, really. Doesn't make you look any better... Anyway, not trying to create tension. I've also found this thread incredibly helpful, and am so grateful to SFW for all the questions and nagging so we can get some answers we may not have gotten otherwise. Also, kudos Academicat; you're a great help! Thanks for all of your insight.

 

Thanks!  Kind of weird to take nagging as a compliment, but indeed that's how I take it.

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I don't know if telling people to chill is the way to go about anything, really. Doesn't make you look any better... Anyway, not trying to create tension. I've also found this thread incredibly helpful, and am so grateful to SFW for all the questions and nagging so we can get some answers we may not have gotten otherwise. Also, kudos Academicat; you're a great help! Thanks for all of your insight.

 

I wasn't trying to create tension either, and perhaps I should have kept my comments to myself. I just think the people on this forum provide a great service, and we can encourage and facilitate sharing great advice by being cordial to one another.  

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I wasn't trying to create tension either, and perhaps I should have kept my comments to myself. I just think the people on this forum provide a great service, and we can encourage and facilitate sharing great advice by being cordial to one another.

I 100% agree with you. Definitely no hard feelings.

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For anyone making campus visits as part of their decision process, it would be really interesting for you to ask them what was it about your application that made you stand out and ultimately led them to offer admission.  Especially to see if they picked up on those things that you thought they would, or if they instead focused on something else.

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For anyone making campus visits as part of their decision process, it would be really interesting for you to ask them what was it about your application that made you stand out and ultimately led them to offer admission.  Especially to see if they picked up on those things that you thought they would, or if they instead focused on something else.

 

Fwiw (since I never explicitly asked the question) the only thing faculty remarked on when I spoke with them was my writing sample. And then it was just something to the tune of, "I really enjoyed your sample on [Name of Author]"... "I was actually just speaking with Professor X about [Author] the other day," or "[Grad student] also does work on [author]/[time period]/[genre] if you want to speak with them" etc. I can't remember anyone being all that specific about a certain part of my sample that struck them... maybe my sample wasn't that remarkable, ha. But the fact that it's the WS that got brought up is significant I think. No faculty member has ever mentioned my GRE, GPA, or CV (granted, my CV wasn't worth commenting on).

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My admits have only remarked on my writing sample as well. Also nothing terribly specific, but they Said enough where they obviously read it and remembered. The DGS also forwarded to a professor in my area, who then contacted me.

I was also told that they were "very impressed" by my "credentials" more than once, whatever that means. I guess my CV?

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