Practical Tips for Applying to Graduate School in the Humanities

As you consider applying to a graduate program, you might be asking yourself if it is too late, or what you might have done during the course of your undergraduate career to improve your chances of acceptance. The truth is that many graduate programs are becoming increasingly selective, accepting fewer and fewer applicants, while offering better financial packages to those elite students who do make it in. All of this is to boost the real bottom line for academic institutions, which essentially amounts to their statistics. Unfortunately, this means that there is less and less room for students who don’t meet high standards of academic excellence. Sure, they may be letting in fewer students, but the question is, how can you become one of the few?

Do Your Homewok

All academics know the value of research, and in this case, it is critical to evaluate your options. Find out what schools offer the most attractive programs in your intended area of study, and identify the differences between them. Requirements can vary tremendously from school to school, but there can be other features of a university that can make it particularly well-suited to your interests. For example, if you plan on studying abroad, you might look for a university that maintains facilities in a city or country you are interested in. In terms of understanding how schools rank in your particular field of study, a good resource is the US News and World Report (available online for free in part, with a fee for complete access). Before you apply, you’ll have to consider whether you will choose the M.A. or the Ph.D. Program (if applicable), and compare the two. In many cases, it is preferable to apply for the Ph.D. directly even though admittance requirements are more stringent – if you are admitted as a terminal MA, you will have to reapply if you want to continue your studies (and there is no assurance that you’ll be accepted). Furthermore, there are far fewer funding options for M.A. students, who often (unfortunately) function as “cash cows” for the Ph.D. programs, which use the additional capital to attract higher quality students. And to top it off, some master’s degrees which take 1 1/2 to 2 years through the M.A. program can be earned in as little as 1 year as a part of the Ph.D. program. So even if you fail to complete the full course of study, you save time and, ultimately, money.

Make sure that the schools to which you apply have professors who cover the fields that you are most interested in. If your primary interest in the history of Germany in the 16th century, and your school has no professor specifically working in that area, then not only will you be missing out on the intensive one-on-one mentoring that you should get out of a graduate program, but you may also be at a disadvantage in terms of funding and fellowships. That is simply because when the professors decide who they want to be their teaching or research assistants (which usually comes with tuition reimbursement and/or a stipend), they will generally select students who work on their subjects. You can easily get lost in the shuffle if you are not an ideal fit for a department. So while the name of the school matters on your diploma, even more important is having a prestigious professor in your particular area of study as your advisor.

In addition to determining which academic program is right for you in terms of the academic requirements and other advantages, financial considerations are all too real for many aspiring students. It goes without saying that you should always check that hopeful “I want to be considered for a fellowship” box on all of your applications, and pray for the best. The reality is that the difference between being rejected from one school, accepted by another, and accepted by another will a full financial package could come down to how well your application appeals to the tenured faculty member reading it. For example, your writing sample could (unbeknownst to you) be on a topic of particular interest to that individual. You might have (accidentally) participated in an extracurricular or study abroad program they’ve been associated with in the past. It is always a combination of factors that are impossible to predict, so apply widely. As you investigate different schools, however, look into not only how many of their students are admitted with funding, but what percentage of students in subsequent years are offered fellowships and teaching assistantships that come with tuition. Find out what opportunities are available for 2nd and 3rd year students, as well as workstudy, knowing that federal loans are available to make up the difference.

As you do your research, do not overlook the language component. Many graduate programs in the humanities require reading knowledge of one, or several, foreign languages pertinent to your field of study. If you do not already have several years of study in another language that will help fulfill this requirement, start now… in fact, do whatever you can to assure the individual reading your application that you are currently working towards this goal. Ultimately, you want your application to present you as someone who will be able to successfully complete the course of study and earn the terminal degree.

GREs Matter

The standardized test for entrance into any graduate program in the humanities is the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination. A few subject tests apply to students in the humanities, with the such as the exam for English Literature, yet even if your field of interest seems apparently unrelated to English or Mathematics, don’t think that schools do not factor in these scores. As you consider graduate school, investigate your opportunities to take the exam, and follow all of the changes in its format. The GREs function comparably to the SATs, and it is probably wise to prepare (especially if you haven’t done math, for example, in 3 or 4 years). If you perform fairly well on standardized tests, it may not be necessary to take a course, but you should buy a sampling of GRE preparatory books and take the sample tests, timed. You’ll be scored on a scale of 200-800 for the verbal and quantitative sections, and 0-6 for analytical writing (which replaced the analytical multiple choice section of the exam in existence until a few years ago); subject tests are scored from 200-900. How do you know if your scores are good enough for the school of your choice? While you can in some instances access enrollment statistics online from the universities, another good resource is the US News and World Report, which also lists the average scores at certain institutions for the various components of the GREs. And most important of all, take the exam early, so that if need be, you can prepare and take them again… while all scores earned in the last five years will be reported as part of your application, significant improvement will help.

Finesse Your Application

As the deadlines approach, much of what you put forth in your application are things that cannot be changed… your transcript will show in black and white what courses you’ve taken and how well (or poorly) you’ve performed, and your GRE scores are quantitative entities. The factors that you can control are your personal statement, your writing sample, and to some extent, your letters of recommendation.

For your personal statement, the most critical thing to do is get assistance. It must be pertinent, well-written and to-the-point, and in many cases by the time you’ve reached this stage, you’re bleary eyed, and probably too close to the process to see clearly what you’re doing. Visit your current school’s Career Center, where you will usually be able to attend workshops on writing personal statements and speak one-on-one with career counselors who can assist you in understanding what admissions officers and faculty members are looking for, and what pitfalls to avoid. Keep one thing in mind: graduate school applications are not processed in the same way as undergraduate.

That is, they are not handled by the admissions office, which sorts through applicants based on quality and makes decisions. In graduate programs, the professors are reading applications for those who want to study in their field. In other words, if you are applying to study Medieval art history, then the Medieval professors will be reading your paper. If you are applying to study 19th century English literature, then likewise appropriate faculty members will make the decisions. This means that you need to research and find out with whom you will be studying should you be accepted into the program. In your personal statement you’ll undoubtedly be discussing the subjects you are interested in researching (be as specific as you can – you don’t want to appear as if you are aimlessly wandering into a graduate program), and it is wise to cater each application towards the faculty members that will be reading it. Investigate their publications, the classes they teach, and the subjects they are most interested in, and tweak your statement to make yourself look like a good fit into the program.

You might say, for example, that one of the reasons you want to study at XYZ University, is because Professor Grimm’s text on flowerpots has been very crucial to your own research. This is not to say that you want to be overt about it, but scholars are by nature egotistical (I mean that in the most positive way), and showing that you are aware of their body of work and that you are in synch with it is critical. Much of graduate school (and success or failure in it) is based on the mentor-protÃ?©gÃ?© relationship, and you want to appear like the student they will want to work with for several years. On a general and more obvious note, your writing sample, which should generally be a senior thesis or honors paper from your major field of study, needs to demonstrate not only your promise in the field, but good, clear, and error-free writing.

The third factor seems like one that wouldn’t be in your control, but in fact, the choices you make here can be critical – your letters of recommendation. You’ll want to contact the (usually three) professors from which you’ll need letters as soon as you are considering applying to a graduate program. You’ll need to ascertain that they are willing to write a letter on your behalf, and of course you’ll want to give them plenty of time to write it (making for a better letter and a less stressed-out professor). Ultimately, what they write will be out of your hands. But WHO you choose to write about your abilities to your prospective university is critical. Though it seems tempting, you cannot simply choose your favorite professor, from the class in which you earned your highest grade. You need to think (for perhaps the first time in your undergraduate career) about who they are. Ideally, you should aim for letters from tenured faculty members who are well-respected in your field.

The reader of your application will be more interested in a letter from a scholar that they know, personally or by reputation. For this reason, you should make sure that the professor you ask for a letter is not an adjunct or visiting lecturer. While they may be wonderful teachers and know you and your work intimately, the professor reading your application will give the letter (consciously or unconsciously) less weight if they’ve never heard of its author. For the same reason, you have to tread lightly when you request letters from professors outside of your intended field of study. As an example, if you are applying for a psychology program, a letter from an esteemed English professor may not be as effective as one from a senior member of the psychology staff at your undergraduate institution. If you still have time to take classes as an undergraduate, go out of your way to study with the senior members of your faculty. Success in graduate school can be aided as much by whom you know as what you know.

When In Doubt, Interview

Many graduate programs do not require any interview process for their candidates, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the initiative and schedule not only a visit to the campus (where you will be spending a lot of time for future years) but appointments with the professors in your field. Of course much of this depends on how well you interview, and how articulately you can express yourself, but in most cases, it will be to your benefit if a professor has a face to associate with one of the many applications that will come across his/her desk during admissions season. If nothing else, they will remember you, and read your application with the care that it deserves. Again, you should have boned up on the background of the professor with whom you are meeting, and you should be prepared not only to answer any questions they may have about you and your plans, but also be prepared to ask questions about the program – remember, this is not a formal interview, so you need to be ready to take the lead in the conversation, if need be. These should not be general questions (How many classes do first-year graduate students take each semester? How many credits are required for the M.A.) that are better suited to the department’s office, or the professor will likely send you there. In this case the questions you have in mind will depend upon the school, the professor, and the discipline, but you should think long and hard, and be fully prepared.

Remember as well that while the professor and the department will ultimately decide if you have been accepted, you are interviewing him/her as well. Your satisfaction with your graduate school experience will often depend largely on your relationship with your professor, so a meeting with that individual will also give you an opportunity to see if you think that you can have a long and mutually productive relationship during the course of your studies.

Applications for most graduate programs are due in December and January, and needless to say, get all of your materials in on time, particularly if you are interested in financial aid. Other than that, there is nothing to do but sweat it out until the final decision letters are mailed out in the spring. Good luck!

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