Ah, the life of an English major. The endless hours spent hunched over one of the twelve books you have to read by the end of the week, as well as the ten page papers all due at once… the sweet life. The smell of old books and the sound the leather bound covers make as you slowly open them to bask in their knowledge... it is the most delicious part.
But the one thing that I cannot stand, the constant question that I get from everyone:
What are you going to do with an English degree?
I have heard that specific question so many times it has driven me to start making up my major. Sometimes I pretend to be a psychology major, or a biology major, just to get people to stop asking that question, because it is always followed by: So what grade level are you going to teach?
That really gets my goat. I just stare at them blankly and say, “I want to do research.” That astounds them, you can research literature? Yeah, you can. It’s called going forth and getting this thing called a Master’s degree, or even a PhD. Say what?! That’s right, graduate school. The scariest step you will ever take in your academic career.
You might think you are insane, but after a nice long ponder with a warm cup of tea, you come to realize, that is exactly what you want to do. It is not some lackadaisical decision made on some sunny afternoon on a whim, and it is not a last resort. It is something that you have seriously thought about, like I have. You have come to love what you have been doing for the past four years so much, that you want to get down to the nitty gritty.
You have become passionate about what you want to do, and there is no shame in that. You might think that you have lost your marbles, as you start filling out the applications and you realize how long you are going to have to wait before you get the results, and you will go crazy. From the time you apply in December/January, to the time you hear back in mid-March, you will have gone through so many different levels of freaking out, you’ll feel like Jack Torrance.
But I warn you, think about this decision. I deliberated this decision for almost two years before finally sticking to my gut and going for it. I am here to help with this heart wrenching process. If you are considering applying to grad school, there is a list of things you should do long before the application due date:
1. Stop and think.
Is grad school really what you want to do for the next x amount of years? Do you want to be going to seminars and writing papers, where the length requirement will terrify the freshman in you? Are you willing to set yourself down for hours on end each night and roll up your sleeves to really dig down into the topic of your dreams?
If so, great! If your heart is in the right place and you know that you can do it, than by all means go for it—but start as soon as possible. Once you have made the decision, do whatever extra work you can and prepare for the most emotional, exacerbating, exhausting trip of your lifetime.
2. Consult your professors.
After all of that hard and long decision making on whether or not you should go, if any uncertainties still lie within that big juicy brain of yours, ask a professor. Your professors are there to help and guide you—they are such a valuable source of information. They have been through the same process as you, and know what you should be doing to get into the best graduate school, but most importantly, the right graduate school for you.
They will tell you what you need to hear to get on the right track, and they will give you fantastic advice. I absolutely adore my professors. They were phenomenal when I asked them what I should start with and where to go. Their advice is golden. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
3. Begin researching scholarships immediately.
Once the decision has been made, the planning begins. Get all of the scholarships done as soon as possible. I waited too long and most of the scholarships I qualified for were already closed for submissions. The Fulbright Scholarship, for example, has a deadline in October. I was looking for scholarships in November. Do not wait for them!
4. Start studying for the GREs sooner than later.
Those bad boys will kick you where the sun does not shine if you do not study. Their website is helpful and you can get a lot of good material off of it for free. There are also the subject tests, and many colleges want the English subject test taken to help further separate you from the others. I recommend taking the GREs and the subject tests more than once. They are meant to screw with you! They are difficult, do not be fooled. The summer of your junior year going into your senior year is the best time to take them, but taking them earlier would be better. That way you have a chance to get the results by October, and they are the results that you want to send out, not the ones you have to send out.
5. Make sure you have the necessary academic experience (this includes writing samples!).
While you are scholarship hunting and studying for the GREs, you are also going to want to start doing any extra work that you can. If you have great grades and can do any sort of Honors work, do it. Your school has an Honors Thesis program, so write one. Get involved with academia as much as you can.
Also, get started on what you will be using as your writing sample. The average length that graduate schools want for English/Comparative Literature majors is 20 pages. Some may want more, others may want less, but if you have a good enough sample there is nothing to worry about, especially if you have been doing well with your academics. You can even use your Honors Thesis that you worked so hard on for the writing sample.
Graduate schools want to see your best work to see how far you have come and if you have what it takes to go even further. All aspects of the application process are there to help you to stand out from other applicants. Your resume will help and you want to beef up your resume in your remaining years in undergrad.
6. Get your recommendation letters ASAP.
This is also something you do not want to wait to get done. Your professors, as great and as valuable as they are to you, also have jobs to do. They do not sleep in their offices like vampires and wait for your shining face to enter through their door. They have papers to grade and classes to prepare. They have meetings and who knows what else on their plate. They are not at your beck and call.
If you want a letter of recommendation, ask them early and give them a due date, before the semester even begins. The longer you take to ask, the longer you will be waiting to get them. If they do not have it done by the time an application is due… well, it is not good. The school you are applying to will try to work with you, but only so far.
You also want to make sure you are asking the right professors for those letters. You want to go to the office hours as much as possible; hang out with your professors, see them outside of the classroom and try to play nice. Once you get to know them, they are pretty cool people. I mean, you will still have that one professor who will not stop quoting Shakespeare every five minutes, but it is endearing and amazing that they can pull out a quote from one of his many plays and put it in context with the conversation.
They have stories from their times in school as well, and they love to tell them. Your professors will not bite! They love to talk about their research, you get them going on that, nothing will stop them. I mean nothing. Befriend your professors, stop by to say “hi.” They are amazing people and are there to help. I cannot stress that enough!
7. Carefully write your statement of purpose.
Your statement of purpose is the most important part of your application. They may give you a maximum word count, so you have to say as much as you can, as briefly as you can. Let the graduate school know why you want to research your topic, the topic you want to research, and the people you want to work with within the departments. It shows that you have dedicated yourself to the application.
And for the love of all that is vocabulary, do not reuse your statement of purpose. Do not take the names and change them around. You are not getting away with anything, because if you mess up and forget to switch a name, there goes that school. So please, please, please, rewrite the statement of purpose for each program you are applying to. Each program is unique and is looking for students who want to work hard, there is no cheating on applications. You will only be cheating yourself of a great opportunity.
8. Consider early submissions.
If you can, submit your applications early—the earlier the better! Submitting applications early means that you have been planning for this and spending valuable time working on the recommendation letters, the statement of purpose, your resume/CV, and all of the other odds and ends like TA applications. You want to get them done, and get them done right.
That’s right. Your head is going to be swimming as you apply to schools. You are going to be working on all of this while school is going on.
Your senior year is going to be stressful. I graduated a semester early and I am sweating bullets waiting to hear back from graduate schools. You are going to go through twelve stages of stress and then back again with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s on your lap. You will try to read and take your mind off of it, or maybe class work will make it go by faster… it will not. It is going to be absolute torture.
Then, when you hear back, you may even get a letter of rejection, and it is okay; repeat that to yourself about seven times and breathe while doing so. That school, that one school out of the six or so you applied to, found other candidates. Trust me, you will survive. Have a backup plan just in case—you may not ever need it, but it is there. This is something you want, and you have worked hard for it. It may be something that you have been dreaming about for the past few months, and you may get kicked in the shins once or twice, but you have to let your work speak for itself.
Do not be afraid of your writing sample, if you did the smart thing and started early and have worked on it diligently, then it will show. You have to have faith in your abilities!
* * *
So, my fellow English majors, this process may take you through some interesting times in your life. Don’t be afraid of taking that leap. You may think you are going insane, wondering why you wanted to do this from the beginning, but just reread the papers you loved writing the most. I do all the time. It brings back the passion that I have for this great literary world. It reminds me of the classes I wrote them for, and the professors I got to know and befriend.
English majors, Mr. Darcy was turned down by Elizabeth on his first try—we all know why. The second go, he received the acceptance he had wanted, and we all should learn from that. If at first you do not succeed, try again. Keep working hard and it will pay off—maybe not at first, but you will see a light at the end of that long tunnel. I wish you luck in your endeavors and hope that you remember to simply breathe, and that everything will work out as it should.
About the Author
Brittany Eldridge has a BA in English (Albright College) and is currently waiting to hear back from a few graduate schools, biting her nails every waking moment she can. It’s a stressful time, but she still keeps on writing and reading as much as she can. She even continues her research in her spare time. Brittany is an easily spotted bibliophile, as she always has her nose in a book. She wants others to know that they are not alone in such a crucial time in their life and to keep following their passions.