If you’re a business major, odds are you’re going to look for a job and earn a paycheck after graduation. However, if you’re in the humanities or sciences, there’s a good chance you may be going on for more school. They always say hindsight is 20/20, so after applying for English PhD and MA programs, here’s the advice I wish I’d received a year ago. This advice probably will not be terribly helpful if you want to go to Med School or Law School, but will hopefully give you some good starting points for MA and PhD programs in the humanities.
1. Find out everything you can about the programs you’re applying to and ask questions.
This one sounds really self-explanatory, but odds are you will research your programs very comprehensively but probably not deeply enough. Find out as much as you can about classes, student life, special tracks, professors, the cost, etc. You should have a very clear idea of what life will be like for you at all the schools you apply to. If it seems like a program isn’t a good fit, don’t waste your time or money on the application. Also, if anything is unclear or you’re concerned about something, send a nice email. People are always happy to help.
2. Pick a program, not a school.
One of the ways that grad school is completely different from undergrad is the fact that you need to pick a program that is a good fit, not a school. Odds are you picked Notre Dame because you loved the atmosphere, campus, athletics, name recognition, opportunities, dorm life, spirituality or some combination of these facets and any more. For grad school, the name of the school does not necessarily correspond with best program or best fit for your interests. Research programs with faculty and classes in your area of interest. If they don’t have faculty in what you’re interested in, it’s a waste of time to apply. You’re probably tempted to argue with me, but I’ve discovered that a school won’t accept you if they don’t have professors in your area of study. It doesn’t matter how qualified you are, it won’t be a good match.
3. Do your test prep over the summer.
No matter how tempted you are to spend the summer prep book and practice test free, don’t do it. You will have the most time to focus on exam preparation when you’re not trying to worry about homework for your classes. Find out what format your test is offered in (many tests like the GRE are now on the computer, with limited paper testing dates) and practice in that format. I spent about a solid month prepping for the GRE, doing some work on it 4-5 days a week. I much preferred working on questions in a physical book, but since I had to take the test on a computer, Kaplan’s GRE prep book with 6 online exams and practices sections was the biggest help. Pearson’s review book was decent and I found the section specific test books to be helpful extra practice.
Be sure to research whether or not you need to take any subject tests. I tried to prep for the Literature subject test during school and will freely admit that it was almost impossible. There was one out-of-date review book available from 2010 and the three test months were not accurate. Double check everything online and make sure you register way in advance.
4. Disregard everything you know about application essays; a personal statement bears no resemblance to them.
Sadly, your experience applying for undergrad is not going to help you with grad school. See if anyone in your department has examples of personal statements and be ready to throw your first draft (or two or three) out completely. Write about your research interests, people you’d like to work with, and what you will bring to a program. For more specific advice on different types of programs, ask one your advisors or the head of your department. Every type of program is looking for something a little different.
5. Figure out if you 150% committed to getting your PhD or weigh whether a Masters is a better fit for you.
I was convinced I wanted to go on for my PhD and mostly applied for PhD programs. By March, I had decided that getting my PhD was not compatible with some of my other life aspirations. An English PhD is about a minimum of a 5 year commitment, usually more, especially if you get your Masters first. I applied for a few Masters programs and found the one to year options much more compatible with what I’d like to do in the next 5-10 years.
6. If you want to get your PhD, get your Masters first.
Another lesson I learned was that Masters degreed aren’t really as optional as they seem. Most programs will not tell you that they prefer you to have work experience or a Masters degree, but they do. It will help increase your likelihood of obtaining an interview with PhD programs, which will help you get into one.
7. Don’t go into massive debt for grad school if you won’t make a commensurate salary.
I will admit that I did not necessarily agree with this statement until I realized how much debt I have from undergrad and looked at the implications of doubling or tripling that amount. I don’t agree with the people who’ve told me flat out not to pay for a Masters degree. However, the people who told me to make sure my debt wasn’t higher than my starting salary seems like great advice. Money can often seem like a nebulous commodity, but don’t take on too much debt. It may limit you in the future.
8. Using your thesis for your writing sample isn’t the best idea.
I was convinced that I did not have any substantial and properly researched essays to use for my writing 20-25 page writing sample, so I brilliantly decided I would use my thesis. Which I was writing this year. During the fall. During football season. While I can say that I have no regrets, I do not recommend it. I had to be incredibly self-motivating and I spent a lot of Friday mornings and afternoons in the library. On the bright side, I have a favorite view of the dome and basilica now.
9. Get advice from as many people as you can find.
Get advice from as many people in your field as you can. Talk to current grad students, your professors, the head of you department, anyone who has gone through it or works in the field you want to be a part of. Their advice may conflict, but hopefully you will be able to get a comprehensive and fairly accurate picture of your future.
10. If you want to work with someone specific, reach out to them.
If you want to work with someone, e-mail them! Ask them questions and make sure they will be around next year. Professors often go on sabbatical or act as visiting professors at other universities. If the faculty member you want to work with will be gone the following year, a program may not accept you. However, your preferred faculty member may also be on the admissions committee which could help you get admitted to a program. A few friendly conversations may help you a lot!
11. Revise, revise, revise!
Triple check everything multiple times and continue to make it better again and again. Write and rewrite your personal statement. Edit your writing sample a million times. Keep making every aspect of your application better and better. At the same time, know when to stop and hit submit. The feeling of relief and accomplishment is amazing!
12. Listen to advice you don’t like.
You are going to receive some advice you do not like and do not agree with, but you should still take it into account. Everyone wants to help you and if they’re telling you something you don’t want to hear, they definitely have a reason. Try to be open-minded and don’t take criticism too hard.
13. Don’t take rejections personally.
I don’t think I need to tell you to be prepared for a few rejections, but I do want to remind you not to take them personally. You are still brilliant and talented, regardless of what decision appears on your letters. You will be successful and odds are, you’re going to get in somewhere you like.
14. Find at least one person who will not give you advice and will just be supportive.
At a certain point, you’re going to be sick of receiving advice. Eventually you’ll probably feel a bit overwhelmed by everything people are telling you. Find someone who has your best interests at heart and just wants you to be happy. Sometimes someone who will hug you when you get rejected and not offer their opinion is the best thing in the world. It’s also really nice to feel like your opinion matters.
15. Take your future into account: finances, location, significant other, etc.
The future sometimes seems like this far off mythical place, but the real world is closer than you think. Now is the time to start thinking about where you want to live and work and what you can afford. Money will likely be a somewhat limiting factor and you shouldn’t ignore that fact. Do what makes you happy and make sure you know what sacrifices you’re willing to make. You may also have a significant other in the picture, which will complicate the whole process tenfold. Don’t sacrifice your goals and desires for someone else, but if you love them, be sure to discuss your options. The hardest combination seems to be if one of you is applying for grad school and the other is looking for a job, but if you want it bad enough, you can make it work. Long distance is always an option, too!
16. Listen to your gut.
When you have a gut reaction, pay attention to it. Your first instinct is very rarely wrong. If you hate a school or a program after visiting, don’t try to talk yourself into it, no matter how big the name is. If you love a program and get in, make it happen, don’t let concerns bog you down!
I’m giving you this advice, because it was the advice I was most hesitant to take. No one told me it was ok to change my mind, but the best advice I’ve gotten is to do what makes me happy. So after writing you this lovely guide of all the things I wish I’d known, this is what I want to leave you with. And if you’re sitting there nodding, saying, “Well, did you take your own advice?” I can honestly say yes. I have changed my mind and decided I want to work before going on to grad school (which is about as much of a 180 that you can make from going on to a PhD or MA program). I want to be happy next year and that’s not going to one of the MA programs I was admitted into, no matter how fantastic the name is, it’s going to get a job and being happy. Don’t be afraid to change your mind and don’t be afraid to chase your loftiest aspirations and passions. Be happy, no matter where that takes you.