Advice on Applying to Graduate School (in English)

Applying to Graduate School (Advice for English Majors)

First, for UMass Lowell English majors, you should check out the advice on our department web page here (updated Spring 2022).

What follows below is my own advice, much of which is similar to Dr. Nash’s (we used to do a grad school application panel together). I only applied to grad school once (to four different schools), and I’ve never been the one on the application-reading end of things.  I’m not an expert, but I have collected what I believe to be some sound advice for those of you thinking about graduate school in English.

Things to do before you even apply:

  • Obviously, do good work in your English (and non-English!) classes: the grades do matter
  • Take more than just the minimum number of required English classes
  • Take more than just the required distribution of English classes – even if you don’t think you like the literature of a certain period/country/genre, you will be well served to try out as many different classes as you can.  Showing broad preparation across the field will be a strength, and you may well discover a new area of interest.
  • Develop your foreign language skills.  Most Ph.D. programs require at least one foreign language at an intermediate or even advanced level; some required two.  In many cases, you can take a test to prove your proficiency.
  • Take multiple classes (at least two) with the same professor.  This will be essential as you look for letters of recommendation (see below).


  • If you’re not offered it, don’t go.


  • Start early.
  • Get organized.
  • Establish your support system – let people know what you’re doing!
  • Most schools have application fees.
  • You’ll (usually) need to take the GRE (which also has a fee).
  • Make sure you look at the due dates for application materials – there are no exceptions to these dates, so make sure you are prepared and organized to meet them.

Choosing your schools:

  • Don’t just look for names like Harvard.  The real goal is to find a program that has strengths in your areas of interest.  Take a look at faculty – what kind of work do they do?  What specializations do they have? 
  • But beware, don’t go to a school for a particular scholar; in many, many cases, professors will move to different schools, spend a semester (or more!) on exchange, doing research, or working elsewhere.  Consider the program collectively – has the school made a commitment to a particular field or program, or is there only one person working in this field, who will likely take the program with him or her when moving to another place?

Letters of Recommendation:

  • These are important, so choose wisely.  And be as kind as you can to those recommenders.  First, ask before assuming – approach the professor via e-mail or in person, and ask if he/she would be willing to write on your behalf.  Once they say yes, collect all the necessary information and organize it clearly so that your letter writers can find what they need easily.
  • Keep in mind that the best letters will be specific, not only about the student, but about the specific school/program.  Ideally, your letter-writers will write a separate letter for each school; at the very least, they should write a letter that speaks specifically about your interests (American literature, gender studies, etc.) 
  • You should give your recommenders the list of schools you’re applying to; you might also include some BRIEF information about why you’re interested in these particular programs.
  • You should give your recommenders a basic Curriculum Vitae, or CV.  This is similar to a resume, but focuses on academic work.  It might include a list of courses in the major, but also information about other majors, programs, certificates, etc.  This would certainly include a list of honors and accomplishments.
  • You should give your recommenders a copy of your writing sample (see below).
  • Ask if there is any other information that the recommender might want.
  • You should provide the information packet well in advance of the due date – 4 to 6 weeks in the best scenario.  As the date approaches (say, 2 weeks out) send a kindly reminder about the approaching date.
  • Once you learn that your writer has completed and sent the letter, WRITE A THANK YOU NOTE.  This can be via e-mail, but old-fashioned hand-written notes are often very much appreciated.
  • Note: if you’re asking me (Dr. Marshall) for a letter of recommendation, I request a standard list of information, which I’m including below:

    It’s most helpful if you can give me a packet of stuff so I can write a strong letter. Here’s what’s useful:

    • any forms the school/agency/organization wants. Some have a form they want recommenders to fill out. Note that sometimes you need to sign this form before giving it to me. Recommenders want to see confidential letters, so it’s in your best interest to waive your rights to see the letters, as then the content will be taken seriously.
    • please highlight or otherwise draw my attention to the deadline when the letter has to be sent in.
    • a resume or something of that sort that lists things like your major, GPA, classes taken in relevant areas, activities that are relevant to the position, etc.
    • a brief statement from you about why you want to join the program/deserve the award/etc.
    • any other info that you think will help me write a better, more detailed letter.

Writing sample:

  • Your writing sample should be your very best writing, showing off your advanced thinking, clear prose, and thoughtful approach to a subject. 
  • You will probably use a paper you wrote for a course.  If you do this, be sure to send a clean copy, not one with comments and a grade on it.  Application reviewers will not be impressed by the “A+” emblazoned across the top.  If possible, meet with the professor who responded to the paper and ask if there are revision suggestions.  At the very least, clean up ALL copy editing errors; in the best case scenario, do a substantial revision and get some more feedback.
  • Have a few people read your paper.  This should probably include someone other than the professor you wrote the paper for.  The application reviewers probably won’t specialize in the same field as your professor, so the writing should be clear to someone without that particular specialization.  Don’t go too jargon-crazy (unless you know that a particular jargon is appealing to a particular program.  Even then, beware, unless you are absolutely sure of who is on the committee!)

Turn to resources
My main suggestion is to ask questions.  Use the resources available to you.  Talk to professors here and elsewhere.  Talk to graduate students.  Hit the internet and find some answers.  A quick google search will yield numerous pages devoted to applying to grad school.  Here are a few that I found useful:

Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School, from Phil Agre, UCLA: Yes, this page is dated (originally 1996, updated in 2001) but it still has good basic background information.

I think this page from Washington & Jefferson College is useful, too:

This page from UC Davis is good:

Having given you all of this advice about how to apply, I would be remiss if I didn’t also tell you that you should consider this choice very carefully — not the question of which school to apply to or which literary period to study, but whether or not graduate school in English is really a good idea. There are a lot of voices out there saying that it is not a good idea. I urge you to read at least a few of these articles to get a sense of some of the issues in graduate education and the academic job market.

Thomas Benton’s ” So You want to go to grad school” is one of the first of these (2003).

Benton’s follow up pieces include the January 2009 “Just Don’t Go,” the March 2009 “Just Don’t Got, Part 2” (he really doesn’t think you should go), and his 2010 “The Big Lie.”

You’ll hear a different opinion from Stephen Mexal, who tells you “Don’t Be Afraid,” but note that he suggests this is because there are employment options other than being a professor.

I like Joshua Rothman’s 2013 piece: “The Impossible Decision.”

You should also look at the MLA’s advice (and generally familiarize yourself with the MLA, which does more than just tell you where to put the citations for your papers.

I would also encourage you to just generally get a handle on what’s going on in higher ed these days. Two excellent sources are The Chronicle of Higher Education (many articles require a subscription, but some sections are open to all), and Inside Higher Ed. Both provide a ton of information, advice, and perspectives on higher ed generally and often on English departments specifically.

We hope to run the “Going to Grad School” panel sometime soon, so keep an eye out for that. We typically have folks there to talk about MFAs, MAs, PhDs, law school, Education, etc., so there will be opportunities to discuss grad school possibilities there.

Last updated 6 January 2021..