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Advice for a Second-Year Undergrad Student? (I'm desperate.)

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So I'm currently in my second year at a very small, virtually unknown liberal arts college. 


I've been perusing all of these threads on English/CompLit/Rhetoric and Composition, and it's making me (understandably) overwhelmed. I feel like there was so much I could have done had I known what it'd be like applying and preparing for grad school. 


Does anyone have advice for undergrad students? 


I specifically would love to know what you wish you would have done in undergrad. 

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Hi OP, why are you feeling so desperate? I'm assuming that you are still very young (unless you are a non-traditional student), and you still have plenty of time, regardless of age, before even thinking about grad school.

Edited by fancypants09
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I agree with Fancypants09. If you're just finishing up your sophomore year, generally now is when your peers are thinking about what they want to major in, rather than where they'll be going with that major. Then again, I knew what my plans were right from the first day of my first freshman classes...though I am a non-traditional student, for what it's worth.


Having said all of that, I don't think it's a bad thing to be thinking about grad school at this point -- just don't beat yourself up for not having done more thinking about it up to this point.


My biggest suggestion is this: try to make a conscious effort to diversify in terms of literary time periods, if you are interested in the literary track. I made a point of trying to cover as many bases as I could, which is why I'm currently taking a couple of 20th century poetry courses...even though I generally dislike Modernist and Contemporary poetry. I also took a literary theory course, even though I don't particularly like theory...simply because I recognized its importance. It also can't hurt to take a course in the classics (Greco-Roman mythology, or even classical philosophy) given how much influence the Hellenic and HRE eras had on Renaissance literature (and trickled down through the centuries from there).


As an undergraduate, however, there's just no way you'll be able to plug all of your knowledge gaps. You'll have to fulfill general requirements that will prevent you from taking courses you might otherwise take. So again, don't beat yourself up over it! If you're a sophomore, then you've got up to twenty courses (or depending on where you're at with your general reqs, possibly ten or fifteen) to diversify as much as you can. If you do find an area you become particularly smitten with, then definitely take another course or three in that area (i.e., somewhat disregard my above advice). For for the time being, I think the best objective is to get as broad a sense of your options as possible, and narrow down from there.


Good luck!

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My advice? Get to know your professors, take classes that sound interesting, and challenge yourself to write interesting final papers.

And after that, make lots of friends, try different things, and enjoy. Undergrad is like nothing else in the world. Once you're done, you can never go back. So, as much as you can, enjoy.

Oh! And study abroad if you can! This has nothing to do with grad school (though knowing a second or third language is always a good thing). I just wish I had studied aboard when I had the chance.

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I went to an unknown school as well. My first advice to you is: that is not a bad thing, and don't apologize for it. Do not sell yourself short. If you are doing good work, no one on the adcomm is going to care what school you went to.


I did pretty well this season, so I'll speak to my own experience. I studied hard for the GRE--I knew that no one was going to accept me just cause I got a 780 or something, but I also knew that because my school was unheard of, getting a solid score was a great way of showing, even subliminally, that, yes, I actually learned something in school. Multiple adcomms mentioned to me that my letters of recommendation were really, really strong. All of the writers were full professors that I had known between three and six years. That's a great thing about going to a small school.


The most important document by far is the writing sample. My writing sample was not something I wrote for a class, so don't stress about crafting the perfect essay in your sophomore year of college. I would strongly recommend taking a year off--to study abroad, yes--but also so that you have plenty of time to devote to finessing your sample into the perfect specimen. Taking time off meant having time to make my personal statement and writing sample sample identical. Your personal statement gives adcomms an idea of the research questions you most anxious to explore in graduate school; I made sure my writing sample did a thorough job of beginning to answer those questions.


The one thing that I wish I had done while I was in school was, I wish that I'd taken advantage of our school's internship program, in publishing or in marketing. I wish that I had taken advantage of external funding earlier, as well. For example, Sigma Tau Delta and other English fraternities have all of this scholarship money that's pretty much up for grabs.

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Upvote to hypervodka! That's advice I wish I had in my early years of undergrad. I also want to add that Sigma Tau Delta hosts a conference for undergraduates every year, and conferences like PCA/ACA generally welcome submissions from undergraduates. 
University foundations (in my experience) are enthusiastic about giving undergraduates money for conferences--I was able to receive $1500 one year, and a couple other students received enough money to at least cover hotel and flight costs. This was probably the last time I ever will be fully funded (including food) to attend a conference, and I had a wonderful time exploring a different part of the country. Plus, conferences and travel grants can go on your CV. 
I was overwhelmed when I found this forum, too. Keep in mind that you don't have to apply to only PhD programs. You can apply to smaller funded MA programs as well. Disclosure: I had an absolutely dreadful writing sample from outside my field of study, and the worst generalist SOP imaginable. The MA programs I applied to overlooked those errors. I think they saw my GRE (163V), GPA (3.95), and wonderful letters of recommendation. 
Edited by empress-marmot
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To the OP, you might find this helpful: http://arcade.stanford.edu/content/post-critical-reading-and-new-hegelianism

It's okay if you don't understand much of what the writer is referencing, but, if you can, poking through this bibliography at the bottom might be helpful to you. Even if you decide that the trend described in the above is BS, being able to position yourself against things like surface reading (knowingly) will be a great thing to have in your wheelhouse. 

Also, read a lot, generally. It's early enough in your college career that that is still the best advice.  

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There is s SO MUCH I wish I had known. First, try to figure out what M.A. programs are going to best prepare you for PhD acceptances and programs in the future. More importantly, though:


1) See if there is an honors program you can still join, especially if the honors program requires a research project and thesis.

2) Go to, and present at, conferences - preferably large conferences or conferences specific to your own interests. I was a member of Sigma Tau Delta in undergrad and even served as president of my local chapter in my senior year, and yet, for some reason I didn't realize the importance of conferences.

3) I agree with the advice about getting to know your professors, figuring out your interests, and study abroad.

4) Plan to apply for programs such as Fulbright, the Jack Kent Cooke award, Marshall, Rhodes, etc. You have a limited time in which to do so after graduation, and you will learn a lot from the process.

Edited by Imaginary
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I agree with everyone here. I also went to a small school that literally no one had ever heard of (until recently), and I think the biggest obstacle for anyone applying from a small school is being able to recognize your competition and what graduate applications should really look like. I don't know the make up of your school, but my department had nine professors, and only one was actively involved in publishing and attending major conferences. As a result, while they're more than well versed in the traditional canon and can provide good overviews of the different theoretical schools, they just aren't aware of the contours of the discipline as it stands right now, or the way that graduate applications work. I applied to grad school twice, and the difference between my applications was night and day because the first time I tried, I was holding incomplete information about what the actual function of the SOP and writing sample are, which is how I ended up with a handful of unfunded MA offers and not much else. 


My advice? Take as many different classes as you can and don't try to specialize until you've actually gotten to the point where you're sitting down the summer before your senior year to begin preparing to apply. This might be controversial, but I think it's important to have as wide of a base as you can in undergrad because you have forever to specialize. I know multiple people who's specialties changed right before they started working on their dissertations. You want to leave yourself open to finding something fascinating that you never would have expected. When you do apply, find people who are already in grad school or professors who have experience on adcomms to read your work. Don't stress the GRE because, while important, it's not that important and I don't think repeatedly throwing money at ETS is productive.


Also, spend some time seriously thinking about why you want to go to grad school. On the nights when your prof assigns 300 pages and you also have to turn in a draft of your Seminar paper, you're going to need those reasons to keep you going.

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I am so glad to have found The Grad Cafe this early because everyone here is so supportive! Thank you to all of the responders. 


I have a habit of thinking way too far into the future, which ends up making me anxious and, on the worst days, nihilistic. My ten-year plan is to finish up undergrad having presented at the British Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies conference in Georgia (any other undergrad conferences I should consider?), graduating summa cum laude, and having a killer writing sample; then go do a Fulbright in Viet Nam; and apply to grad schools while I'm there. My top choice is Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature program. I'm just so afraid that I actually have no chance. I have complete faith in my writing (of course I overestimate myself at times too), but I'm not the best with testing and writing something like a statement of purpose. 


I wish I had known about complit programs earlier because I would have tried to get a headstart on those languages. But I'm more than happy with English Literature. I had planned on specializing in postcolonial literature, especially in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, but I will make sure to cover a broad range of topics. I also am interested in transgender studies, biopolitics, and Black feminism. I'm currently reading Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and it is everything. Does anyone have a list/article tabbed on the best postcolonial programs; I only have Chronicle of Higher Ed and US News as my references. 


I guess I'm just worried that I'll finish up undergrad not having done all I could have done to maximize my chances at grad apps. 

Edited by diacritics
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Find local conferences. Your field, related fields, something you just find interesting. Find out who is organizing them, email offering to work in exchange for registration (they always need help), and just attend the crap out of sessions, keynotes, mixers, ect. This year (my first as a grad student) I've worked at three conferences outside of my field, but have met some great people, learned some things I hope to apply in my own teaching, and made contacts that I've already used. I too went to a tiny-ass school with no reputation, but I lucked out that we hosted a conference in my field (where I learned about the field for the first time).


Go to guest lecturers, meet and greets, ect. at your campus, and other campuses, if possible. If you are in Orange County, you've got UCI and CS-F close by, and they will both host conferences and speakers in your field and outside of it. UCLA, USC and the city of LA will also be good places to look to for those opportunities.


Look for undergraduate research and poster competitions as well. It's a good way to get some early CV lines, interact with professors, ect.

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