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Biggest factor in acceptance? -Newbie here

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Hello all! 

I'm new here, so apologies if there are already too many discussions on this topic. It appears I've fallen down the rabbit hole and have read (dozens?) of everyone's posts and replies, but I still have questions. Everyone seems very friendly and helpful, so thanks in advance for that! To be honest, I'm freaking out a bit about applying for English PhD programs for Fall 2018... I've wanted to apply to these programs for some time now, but finally got the courage to do something about it after being out of college for two years. It's not being in the actual programs or even job prospects that worries me but getting in as I'm sure it worries everyone else... I will also apply to a few Masters programs as "backup."

So for those who have been accepted into such programs or anyone with knowledge on the subject, what do you feel was/is the greatest factor in acceptance? GRE? Writing sample? Combination of both? I'm basically treating my studies for the GRE as a full-time job right now so I can ace it and will worry more about the writing sample closer to application season. I know most programs say they look at your application holistically (and especially the SOP and WS), but I'm just looking for some honest feedback from people who have actually experienced this. It appears even though schools may say the GRE is never the sole factor that it is an extremely important one since the average scores are pretty high. Thoughts?

Thank you all in advance! I look forward to becoming active on here. 

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3 hours ago, ExponentialDecay said:


Unless you are an exceptionally bad test-taker or ESL, I'm not sure of the utility of treating GRE prep like a full-time job. All you need on the GRE is to get a respectable score. The WS deserves all the extra time you have to spare.

I second this (or third it, or hundred it, or thousand it etc.). As I mentioned in the thread that ExD cited, the GRE scores are important (mainly the verbal on the GRE general), but you probably don't need to achieve much better than the 90th percentile to be competitive. I personally struggle with standardized tests like the GRE because I have a hard time filtering out possible answers from the purportedly "best" answers...but having a 90th percentile verbal didn't seem to hurt me in either round of applications. 

Speaking to the broader point of your thread, however, there really doesn't seem to be one "biggest factor" in acceptance. Conventional wisdom around here (based on experience, first- and second-hand observations, and just plain common sense) suggests that the WS and the SOP are the one-two punch of important factors...though some programs may have invisible GPA and GRE score cutoffs. That being said, even though most successful applicants in the past have undergraduate GPAs higher than 3.7, GRE verbals higher than 90th percentile etc., there are too many exceptions to make it a rule. Ultimately, you want to have every single element of your application as strong as it can be, but you absolutely have to have a strong WS and SOP. I've said it several times elsewhere on this forum (including in the above-cited thread), but both my SOP and WS went through several rounds of revision, based on the feedback of several professors and other grad students. It was a "good" paper to start with, but I whittled, honed, cut, added, showed people, whittled, honed, cut, added some more (etc. etc.) until everyone said "yes, that's very good"...either out of sincerity or exasperation! But it worked for me, and that revise-rinse-repeat process seems to have worked for most successful applicants who have come through here, so perhaps there's something to be said for conventional GC wisdom.


Edited by Old Bill
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agree all

WS and SOP rule. Everything else seems to tend to be boxes that must be checked. 

Edited by xolo
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The program that accepted me as a PhD Lit student emphasized how impressed they were with the package I put together. So it seems that everything combined made a good presentation. GPA, GRE, SOP, WS and CV are all very important and perhaps none more than the others, but rather the whole thing together. Somewhere in all of that is something the programs call fit. A student can have a great package, but the committee cannot see how they would fit into the department. That's why I think it's important to look at grad student bios, in addition to the faculty bios. Do you see yourself fitting in with the group? I applied to two programs I did not even begin to fit into, simply because one was in the same city where my daughter lives and the other had a good general American program, but no Southern lit professors. I was not accepted to either.

Be prepared for rejections. It's going to happen. Just be sure you apply to enough programs that the odds are you will get accepted. I spent time talking to each of the grad faculty at my MA school about how many applications they submitted and how many acceptances they received. But all it takes is one acceptance. I felt it very important to be in a certain geographical area for a number of reasons, so I applied to programs in that area. Some believe rankings are everything. Have you looked at the current English PhD ranking by US News? It's way different from what it has been in other years. For as long as I have been looking at these rankings Harvard has ranked #1, sometimes sharing the spotlight with UC Berkley with Stanford following a close second. Harvard is #8 this year. So what may be a top school one year may not be one another year. Being #8 isn't bad, but to drop to that from #1. Hmmmm.  

Wishing you all the luck in the world! Have a good season.

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