Blog Post

But I Really Want This

I've just finished my third year as Director of Graduate Studies for my university's English department.  I've read a couple thousand applications for our MA/PhD program and spoken in person or on the phone to who knows how many prospective students (and to unsuccessful applicants).  I thought I'd share a few of the common mistakes that people make, in the interests of perhaps improving the process for everyone involved.

(1) "I Really Want This."  A large number of applicants seem to think that "really wanting" to study for a PhD somehow constitutes a compelling reason to admit them.  They waste a lot of ink and face time asserting how passionately they desire to study at my institution.  I find especially unnerving the folk who stare into my eyes and repeat "I really really want this," as if they are waiting for me to affirm that the intensity of their emotions will in itself magically open the pearly gates. But we receive five hundred plus applications a year and have an acceptance rate around nine percent.  Wanting has to translate into concrete actions or demonstrated eloquence before it is going to have any impact on our admissions committee.

(2) "But I Love Literature."  Yes.  So does everyone else in the applicant pool.  We're pleased that you fell in love with Melville, Morrison, or Mandelshtam during a life-changing undergraduate survey course.  We grok that Emily Dickinson takes the back of your head off, we really do.  But loving to read books will not alone make us sit up & take notice.  You have to be able to talk about why you like a genre or an author in a manner that is thoughtful and articulate.

(3) "At My Grandmother's Knee."  People persistently begin their statements of purpose by telling us about their first encounters with the written word.  Hungry Caterpillar, Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss.  Then they spend too many paragraphs connecting the dots between Their Sainted Grandmothers or Library Storytime and the present day.  A rule of thumb:  PhD programs are most interested in your life post-high school.  Yes, there are exceptions, and if a life event, tragic or blissful, helps us to understand you better as an intellectual and future teacher, then why not notify us.  Moreover, the study of children's literature is a viable, valuable field in its own right.  But think twice—if not five or eight times—before beginning your statement with you fingerpainting in kindergarden or (horrors!) receiving a Xmas gift from Papaw when eight.

(4) "My Colleagues Love Me."  We care about your potential as a scholar.  We do not care what your friends, pals at work, or family have to say about your intrinsic excellence.  We might listen, in an embarrassed fidgety way, when a clergyman shows up in our offices to testify to your strong character, but it will not make a difference one way or another.  It might be helpful for one of your letters of recommendation to come from a work supervisor, if you've taught on any level, from primary school to community college, or if you've taught English abroad.  But stay away from letters from peers, e.g., somebody who also taught math at Mineola Prep.   Regardless, we need at least two letters from people who can speak to your academic preparedness for graduate-level work in the field of English.  

(5) "I'm a Styliste."  "How to Get into College" books often recommend making yourself stand out by being outrageous, especially if you have a chance to write a personal statement.  Ph.D. programs, though, do not give you points for turning a statement of purpose into an occasion for madcap punning. They do not want you to mock everything in sight in order to establish your hipster superiority to all things bourgeois.  Please do not come up with a distracting gimmick such as "I'm going to pretend I'm talking to Oprah" or "I'll write this as if I'm ordering a pizza from Dominos."  We will say bad things about you in our comments, and it will be held against you.  Graduates of MFA programs are especially prone to turning Writerly-Flashy when they should instead be telling us soberly, factually, and clearly about their plans for future study.  Resist!

OK, that's all I have time for now.  If there's interest out there, I can try to speak more substantively about any phase of the application process.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.