(I'm writing this up to post on the new "Graduate School" bulletin board in the department, but I thought it also might be useful here. This is a draft, and when I get feedback from colleagues or from here, I will probably revise before giving the paper copy to the students. Some of this is Wheaton-specific, but I am too exhausted after the first day of classes to do more than paste right now).
Frequently Asked Questions about Graduate School in English
Q: Why go to graduate school?
A: Don’t go just because you liked college and want more of the same. Go because you have a passion for a subject and want additional training. Graduate school is a significant expenditure of time and money—think carefully about your decision. If you want to be a lawyer or a professor, graduate school is essential. For fields such as teaching, you want to investigate whether or not getting a job first is beneficial: that job may, after a few years, pay your tuition to go to graduate school.
A trite but often-true comment is that you don’t go to graduate school to get a good first job (because it often doesn’t help there), but to move up the ladder faster after you get that first job.
Q: Where should I go?
A: You need to investigate. A school’s overall reputation is not particularly helpful for graduate school. You want to go to a program that teaches what you want to learn. Talk to your professors, particularly those members of the faculty who have most recently been to graduate school. Check the websites of the schools that interest you. Be willing to look outside New England. Who you study with is more important than where you study, so do some research.
Q: How do I pay for graduate school?
A: You can apply for scholarships and fellowships, but they are difficult at times to get. Large, land-grant schools, particularly those in the Midwest, will often pay your tuition and give you a stipend in return for your teaching first-year writing. Getting some experience tutoring can help you secure one of these teaching fellowships. See the Filene Center for more help with scholarship applications.
Q: When do I apply?
A: A general rule of thumb is that you want to get your applications basically finished up around Halloween of your senior year. But each program has a different deadline (usually in January), and you need to check these out on your own.
Q: Do I have to take the GRE? Which exams?
A: For most graduate programs in the US, you will need the general GRE (which has three areas, Verbal, Math and Logic). Most graduate programs in English only care about your verbal score. The GRE in English Literature is not held in high esteem by most members of the Wheaton faculty, as it measures more how many survey courses you have had rather than the in-depth thinking that we value. However, if the place you want to apply requires the GRE in English Literature, you will need to take it. We do not recommend taking both exams on the same day. Generally, you want to take your general exam in the October/November time frame and the subject exam, if you need it, in the later period.
Q: How do I handle letters of recommendation?
A: You want letters from professors who know you and your work well and can speak specifically about you. You should schedule a meeting to talk to your letter-writers well in advance of the deadline. Faculty on research leave will usually be able to write letters, but you need to give them plenty of notice. It is a good idea to give a professor a copy of your personal statement and an example of your work when you give them the paperwork for the letters.
Q: What about all that paperwork that comes with the letters?
A: You must be sure to print it unless it is to be submitted electronically (many law-school applications are, for example). Give your letter-writer:
1). Copies of all forms, filled out by you, with your signature in the “I waive/don’t waive” box. This is important and many students forget.
2). An addressed and stamped envelope. If the application says for the professor to return the sealed envelope to you, give the professor an envelope addressed to you. Write, in pencil, the deadline on the lower right-hand corner of the envelope. On the lower left-hand corner, write the school to which you are applying (this is for your benefit, so that you can put the right letter in the right packet if you are assembling it).
3). A list of the places to which you are applying and the deadlines for each of them.
Q: What is the most important part of my application?
A: For creative writing or journalism, your application will be judged almost entirely on your portfolio, and often on the first few pages of that portfolio. Revise, revise, revise! And use the resources at the Kollett Center to help you. Your personal statement will be important as much for the quality of the writing as for the content. Your sample paper (if this is requested) should be as perfect as you can make it.
Q: What if I don’t get in?
A: Try again. Graduate schools used to look at students who came straight from undergrad as “fast track.” This is no longer true. Some additional life experience is actually a big plus, so by doing something other than grad school for a few years, you will actually be improving your chances. Of course if you can sail around Cape Horn in an open boat with only a sloth and a chinchilla for companions, you’ll have a compelling story. But the average age of students in graduate school has been steadily creeping up for years. You may run into setbacks, but, as a Wheaton student, you can overcome them with the same qualities of perseverance and intelligence that got you this far.