Thursday, March 16, 2006

Grad School Reality Check

It's fallout time in my little world. Around the department, several students have found out that they didn't get into the grad programs they applied to and some of them are wondering why.

I've talked before about discouraging students from going on to grad school in English lit, and about some of the problems relating to the NYU grad student strike. ) My posts have links to others, too.) But if a student really wants to go to grad school, then part of my job is to help them put their best foot forward to get there.

So in order to help me give my students some realistic and helpful feedback, I'd appreciate some feedback from you folks out in the blogosphere. When you answer, please say generally what kind of school you're at (for example, I'm at a regional comprehensive, with an MA program with X and Y requirements/expectations). I'm most interested in PhD programs, but will gladly learn from folks elsewhere, too. Feel free to give feedback based on your PhD program experience, even if you've moved on.

First, what's your sense of GRE scores for various places? (My school doesn't require a GRE for the MA program.) If you're a grad student, do you have a general sense of what kinds of scores folks got who got in? (There's a student here who got in the low 600s, and I'm thinking that's lower than s/he realizes.)

GPAs? What are minimal expectations, and what do averages seem to be like? (We "require" a 3.0 overall, and a 3.2 in English courses, but some students get in with slightly lower GPAs.)

Source schools? Where do students in your programs come from? (Our students are mostly local people, HS teachers wanting an MA, or geographically local students who want to go on to a PhD program but stopped here along the way because they're geographically bound or whatever. We also get a few people who aren't sure, and are taking another year or two of study to figure things out.)

Thanks, all!


  1. I can't adequately respond to the GRE question because I don't work at a place with a PHD program and I took the GRE so long ago that it was a paper/pencil test and there was no writing portion. What I will say, is that I only got a 580 on the Lit Subject test, and I ended up in a top PhD program. The sense that I got was that what mattered more to the department was my writing sample and personal statement. That said, I was wait-listed for that program, so had some other people not said no....

    GPA: Entering my MA program, I had something like a 3.3 accumulative GPA and a 3.9 in my major. This program was pretty middle-of-the road, but a step up from my undergrad institution. I didn't get into any of the better programs to which I applied. In my MA program, I had a 4.0, and that allowed me to move up the food chain to fancy PhD program.

    Source schools: In my MA program, students came from all over, but many were local to the city (it was an urban university). Again, though, they did have a decent PhD and MFA program, so it really was a population of people from various places around the country, generally from middle-of-the-road sorts of schools or liberal arts colleges without grand reputations. A lot of people from middle-of-the-road state schools, too. At my PhD program, the source schools were primarily: ivies and very selective liberal arts colleges. There were a few oddballs like me who came from decent programs at state schools from the MA, but even among those they tended to go to very presigious schools for their BA before that. I was a total oddball in my PhD program in terms of academic pedigree and background. I had catching up to do because of that.

  2. As an MA student applying to PhD programs in the fall (for the following year), I look forward to reading responses to your questions. For the schools on my list, I have a good idea of the desireable GRE percentiles and GPA requirements; the schools wouldn't be on my list if I thought my scores would discount my chances.

    The role you want to play -- realistic and helpful feedback-giver -- is an important one. I'm lucky to have people in my dept who look at my list and say things like "no, yes, maybe, never in a million years, yes but you don't want to go there" and so on, and that's extremely helpful. Your description of your school matches mine, and we are definitely looked down upon by some other schools, especially those in the UC(alifornia) system. For example, if you have an MA from a C(al)S(tate)U school like mine, forget going to a CU like Berkeley and sometimes Santa Cruz but it's possible to go somewhere like UC San Diego or UC Davis if you're the cream of your crop. My dept. does a really good job of informing people who come in with an inflated sense of worth that no, in fact your MA and 80 percentile GRE scores are not going to get you into Berkeley/Stanford/wherever you think you're going to go. Some people just don't get that, and it's really sad to watch, so I'm a big fan of faculty being completely honest and helpful to the grad students in their care.

  3. I'm in a super-fancy PhD program, and I get the sense that GRE scores and GPA's are almost meaningless, unless they're really horrible - what that cutoff is, I don't know. The applications get divided up by essay topic/stated interests and given to members of the committee, who read them and then get together to discuss candidates. If they really really like your writing sample or something else about you, they'll fight for you. I have heard that what they are looking for is really "potential," that is, good writing and some idea or angle that is unique and sets the person apart from the pack (yeah, how to reproduce that, I don't know). I wouldn't say that undergrad school matters that much, since we have your usual Ivy-grads entering every year, but we also get people every year from all over the place (including me).

    To be honest, from this end, seeing the arbitrariness of it (or what I see as arbitrariness) scares me a little. I can tell you more about me and why I think I got in, but I don't wnat to do it in the comments :)

  4. Anonymous10:22 AM

    I work as an administrator (with a faculty appt. in English) at an R1 and have a couple of impressions:

    In speaking with our grad folks, one of the biggest things, although the won't always admit it, is where the student is applying from: do they know anyone there? Is the dept. publishing? So a 4.0 at a small BA-Gen school is going to count far less than a 3.0 at an R1.

    MFA programs and Rhet/Comp programs are bursting at the seems. And I don't know why - the MFA is a degree that doesn't really help you get employed (although it's a hell of a lot of fun to get) and the rhet/comp degree dooms you to a life of freshman comp and getting pissed on by folks with Ph.D.s in literature, unless you get really lucky. I think a lot of schools are starting to limit the number of Ph.D. candidates they let into literature grad programs - all but the most oblivious have to realize that their students aren't getting jobs and that there are some moral/ethical concerns associated with taking the students' money, having them teach the courses you don't want to teach yourself, and then telling them "sorry there are no jobs for you...".

  5. I'm with Anonymous. I got my degree from, let's say, a top-three school, and I was scandalized by how few grad students there were--at least in my early years--who had gotten undergrad degrees from schools that weren't, basically, exactly like INRU. That is to say, in every entering class of 10, you knew there'd be a person or two from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and UChicago. Probably Princeton, Brown, and Columbia. Pretty frequent were Berkeley, UMich, and Duke. And each year there was ONE person from a top liberal arts college. (This was the "diversity" admit, it seemed!)

    And honestly? My impression was that it was laziness on the part of the committee. They knew the recommenders at those schools, and they knew what the undergrad curriculum looked like, and so they knew what they were judging. They didn't have to perform any real assessment of the work in question.

    However, I will say that all this changed starting several years ago, and now the department's admitted students come from a fairly impressive range of public and private schools all across the country. But don't mistake: those public schools are all R1s, even if they're in out-of-the-way locations.

    I don't have any sense of the GRE scores or GPAs of my fellow students, now or then, but I vaguely felt, like NC, that your GRE score could harm you if it was too low, but that it wasn't a major factor. GPA I'm sure matters more, but it probably matters more depending on where you got your degree. If you got your degree at Harvard, and your recs and writing skills are strong, no one much cares unless your GPA is really bad. But if you went to a less well-known school, you'd damn well better have a 3.8.

    God, it's depressing writing all this down! Success breeds success, right? And if someone thought you were smart enough when you were 18 to let you in somewhere, you must be smart enough now to go somewhere else. Please don't let me ever become someone who thinks that way.

  6. This year, I sat on the PhD admissions committee, and while we didn't receive boatloads of applications, there were some pretty clear dividing lines--GPA and GRE's weren't really among them. Pretty much everyone's GPA was up to snuff, and we saw some strong writing samples with appallingly low GREs.

    So here's what mattered most:
    1) The writing sample--preferably with a somewhat sophisticated deployment of a critical/theoretical framework, and a bibliography that was in keeping with current critical discussion on the topic. I deally, the toppic will fall in line somewhat with what the student claims to want to study in . . .

    2) The personal statement--what helped was a clear sense of what the student wanted to do with the degree: what areas of concentration, which faculty they might work with. Really helpful was a sense that the student was self-directed enough to accomplish a longer project even if it wasn't precisely in a faculty member's specialty. Generic personal statements that weren't tailored to this university were less compelling. Even less compleling were those that had the school wrong (oops!).

    3) Recommendations: I'm kinda new at this game, so I haven't yet deciphered all of the codes for good recommendation letter, which the more senior members of the committee had a much clearer handle on, so I don't have much to say, but they mattered.

    Hope this is helpful!

  7. Alright, now I'm looking at the B+, and wanting to drink myself to death.

  8. Fascinating discussion. Of course, my Ph.D. will be from an R3, so I don't think I can add much. They didn't just let anyone, for sure, but I suspect they were somewhat less concerned about GREs and more concerned that people had realistic expectations about what the degree would entail (revealed in the personal statement, I suppose).

    Personally, though it's not for everyone, I like being at a "low-class" school. There's no competitiveness. It's much more about helping the student reach their potential than it is about grooming them as prodigies (which is what I've heard happens at some of the big R1's). Most of the graduates go on to teach at either private high schools, community colleges or regional state schools. I'm either going to move up the career ladder in my current profession or I'm considering community college and/or satellite campuses myself.

  9. Anonymous7:22 AM

    I see this from both sides. I admit students to a master's degree program in education at an urban state university and I'm in a PhD program in education at a traditional residential R1 university. I can tell you that we look at GRE and GPA and personal statements and recommendations. Good GPA can offset not-so-hot GRE scores and vice versa. We look closely at the analytical writing and anything under a 5.0 is suspect. If the writing in the personal statement is good that might offset or we may ask for an additional writing sample. The other big thing is that the statement clearly shows that they know what they want out of the degree and it meshes with what we actually do. Avoiding student loan payments is not a good reason for letting you in to our program. Generic letters of recommendation are also a negative in an application for us. Our students come from a wide range of state and private schools but I would say over half are local.

    On the student side, I had a 3.6 or so in undergrad from a big state R2 and top 20 percentile GRE scores when I applied to my master's program. This, however was more years ago than I choose to remember. When I applied to my PhD I knew some people in the department and had a pretty good idea what they were looking for - high GPA in the masters and the ability to self-manage my program of study. I came in looking very focused and like I would be a "low maintenance" student. That level of self-direction combined with research interests that intersect with more than one faculty member and a solid academic track record seem to make the most viable candidate for a department that may not be all about nurturing students (like you see in a lot of R1s) If I would have been looking for more nurturing and personal attention in a graduate program I would have applied to a less-prestigious, smaller institution. I guess my best suggestion for your students is for them to know what they want affectively as well as educationally out of a graduate program and apply to programs that fit that bill (and are attainable with their grades and GRE scores) and present themselves in their personal statement in a way that seems to match the institutional culture.

  10. Thanks for all the responses, everyone. I’m learning lots. I’m getting a strong sense that the writing sample and statement of purpose are probably most important for our students, since they can’t do anything about where they went to undergrad by the time they’re applying for grad programs. Should the statements be really specific to a given school, and include specific faculty one hopes to work with? (It seems to me that strategy has large backfire potential, especially if the admitting committee hates that person, or knows s/he’s retiring or moving along or whatever. And you can’t really predict that from outside, right?) (And our students simply aren’t that sophisticated about academics.)

    Dr. Crazy, thanks for your point about the value of an MA program. I think my experience correlates, since I got into a pretty good program after doing MA work at a regional U.

    JM, Thanks for the encouragement, and very good luck to you on getting into the program you want. I sure as heck hope I’m doing something right here.

    NC, Arbitrariness sometimes seems to really rule in our profession, even more at the other end, when it comes to reading job applications from 200+ candidates. It’s scary indeed!

    Anonymous, I didn’t realize that rhet/comp programs were getting so many students. It’s still my impression that rhet/comp and sci/tech writing program grads tend to have a much less nasty job market. Am I totally off base and wrong? Is it changing, or about to change? (Because I still felt pretty comfortable encouraging students to go on in those areas.)

    La Lecturess, It’s hard to think how much social class comes into decisions many years down the line if it’s about who even imagines themselves applying to Ivies. (My students are mostly first generation college students, and they just can’t even imagine applying to private schools.)

    Cats and Dogma, Could you say more about personal statements? Should students really have a strong sense of the Diss project? How much should we encourage students to look for a strong program overall or a strong program in a more limited area with specific scholars?

    Heocwaeth, /comfort Grades are meaningless once you have the degree, I think.

    Laura, thanks for contributing. I think you’re absolutely right that finding the school that helps YOU accomplish what you want to accomplish is absolutely vital. School X isn’t a good choice for everyone at the undergrad, grad, or faculty level, and if we think it is, we’re aiming for unhappiness.

    Anonymous, Your point about knowing what you want “affectively as well as educationally” seems completely right. I wish I could put things that well. Thanks!

  11. Anonymous4:57 AM

    I am also at a super-fancy PhD, in another humanities discipline. Sense I get it is GREs should be above at least 700 in both categories to get admitted into Super-fancy and GPA should be above 3.7-3.8, and very high in the major. *The most important thing for humanities PhD admissions seems to be the writing sample, which should be concise, original, and display excellent logic and clarity. The second most important thing is a set of reccomendations that strongly support the candidate.

  12. Anonymous8:07 AM

    bardiac, i was just admitted to 3 of the top history programs for fall admissions. i graduated from undergrad last may. i wrote very very specific statements of purpose. if you want to see one, i'll happily e-mail it to you. i know it's not your discipline, but it might help? (sasserbic at gmail dot com)

  13. I've never been involved in the admissions process, but I recall having a conversation once with someone who was. He told me that GPA and GRE were rarely used to admit people; rather, they were used to exclude people.

    Let's say I'm chairing the committee. We can admit 8 students this year. We've got 400 applicants. We can't reasonably assess all 400 in the time allotted, so we cull the herd a bit. We create an arbitrary cut off figure, and say something like 3.75 GPA and 700 GRE. Once we've done that, perhaps we've got the number down to 100 applicants. After that, we cull out the applicants a bit more based on other things from the application; finally, it all comes down to the writing sample.

    All things being equal, GPA and GRE matter, but all things are rarely equal. I'd focus on non-numerical stuff, like presenting papers at conferences that accept undergrads, seeing if you can get something published in a journal that accepts undergrad work (usually in-house publications), and polishing that writing sample.

    Like I said, I have no first-hand knowledge, but that was how it was explained to me. It sounds plausible, since I've seen hiring committees cull job applicants using similar methods.

  14. Anonymous12:26 PM

    I teach social science at a second tier liberal arts college. I recently had a student admitted to two of the top 10 PhD programs in our field, with GRE scores of zero. She refuses to take standardized tests out of principle, so signed up, answered no questions, and submitted the results for a score of 0. But her application was brilliant, including a writing sample that had already been presented at a regional conference and had been accepted to a panel (not a poster) at our major national convention. Her letters were amazing as well. So my experience, at least, is that some top universities don't care at all about GRE's if the rest of your record is sufficeintly good.

    Now, I had a similar student apply last year, also with a regional conference paper presentation and a co-authored article under revise and resubmit with a good journal. He did take the GRE's, and scored VERY high. He became the object of a bidding war between two top 5 grad programs that wanted him; ended up with four years of funding at $20k+ per year and only two years of TA/RA service required.

  15. First time commenter, Bardiac. I'm in a super fancy doctoral program, too, but cut my teeth at big public unis for the BA and MA. For my field, I'm pretty sure the only reason I got into this program was language skills. I don't know if that's at all relevant, but it's simply got to be true. But my mother is a dean in a fancy graduate school admissions office, and she always told me what a crapshoot it was. She says they look for interesting people, and interesting people rarely have 4.0's. Students should try to set themselves apart with what they care about, not what they think others care about. Of course, I am still trying to learn this!

  16. Anonymous5:32 PM

    Slight correction: Getting a PhD also allows you a terrific job teaching critical theory, media theory, digital writing, cultural rhetorics, and a hell of a lot of other things. Of course, it's no exciting poetry class (whoo hoo, kiddies, let's tackle Whitman again!), but it's a living.

    Damn, lit folks are so clueless sometimes. And try this on for size: literature departments will be the next classics departments. It's a dying species, my friend.

  17. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Anonymous sed...
    MFA programs and Rhet/Comp programs are bursting at the seems...and the rhet/comp degree dooms you to a life of freshman comp and getting pissed on by folks with Ph.D.s in literature, unless you get really lucky.

    Maybe I got really lucky, but I graduated from a top rhet/comp program and now I'm junior faculty at an R1 where I not only make more than many tenured faculty in lit but where I'm also afforded a great deal of respect. Though I do teach comp, I also enjoy it, and I get the opportunity to teach rhetorical theory, history, media theory, and lots of other interesting things. Honestly, I don't know why the lit faculty anywhere would abuse their rhet/comp colleagues--they need us, and good rhet/comp candidates are hard to come by. And rhet/comp people have a great deal more mobility than lit people because the job market is so much better for us. I got over 20 offers for interviews at MLA, over ten offers for 2nd-round interviews, and job offers everywhere that I visited.

    But this is a digression... To answer Bardiac's question: I've been on the committee that reviews applications to our PhD program in Rhetoric for 3 years now. Most of us in Rhet/Comp want to see a personal statement that shows some sense of the discipline and the profession, something more than, "I love teaching writing." We're also very careful about people who say they're interested in rhetoric but who then pitch a literary research program. Finally, I find that the rhet/comp people are more invested in extra-academic experience in our candidates--teaching, writing, editing, etc.

    Last things last, b/c I can't help myself: Anonymous, it should be "bursting at the seams." Of course, you might know that if you studied the craft of writing more carefully. Sadly, I find many (in English departments) don't. I guess they're too busy pissing on those of us who do. Perhaps, though, you're not really pissing on us. Maybe you're just pissing down your own pant leg.

  18. Seems like there is a multi-tiered argument going on here:

    1. Graduate school admissions and how they are affected by

    2. The job market.

    I think that #2 actually hasn't yet been fully figured into #1. When admissions reflects a more accurate picture of the job market, I suspect some of the angst will abate. As is, there is still a vast overtraining of Lit. PhDs (for most the reasons Dr. Crazy mentions). The market is vastly better for Rhet/Comp and Technical Writing (as well as English Ed.). I fear, though, that the same motivation for self-replication and empire-building could swamp these favorable conditions if we don't heed the problems that Lit. wrought with overproducing PhDs. That may have sounded a tad impersonal, but it isn't meant that way.

  19. Here is an interesting question that somewhat relates. I'm not sure if this will generate any additional comments and will be posting this on my own blog, but I thought, since this post is getting so many comments, I would also post here since it relates.

    How often is it that student get false acceptances? My roommate got notice this week she had been accepted, got a letter telling her congratulations in the mail today, and then got a phone call at 4:50 telling her that there was an error and she hadn't been accepted. She's crushed! They called back later and told her that since it was their mistake she was still welcome to come to their program (a prestigious school in New York in a philosophy department) but she's unsure if she should accept. Thoughts and similar stories would be wonderful.

  20. Anonymous3:34 PM

    I am happy to have found your blog. I was googling for just such a place since today I received my rejection letter from a second-tier branch of a large southern state university.

    I applied to the English Lit ph.d. program with the following credentials/qualifications:

    B.A. in history from a small, prestigious private college

    MLIS (library/info sciences) from a well-regarded program at a good, though not flashy state university

    I will graduate with the MA in English Lit from a small university whose program mostly caters to school teachers desiring a master's degree. Most of my classes during this program have been with a mix of undergrad and grad students (I imagine this was a strike against me)

    BA: 3.414
    MLIS: 3.78
    MA (Lit): 3.6

    I had a well-regarded and in my opinion, brilliant, professor coach me through submitting my writing sample

    My personal statement, according to mentors who read it, was strong and original.

    I did not take the GRE until very recently (my two grad programs did not require it), and with ZERO preparation. My verbal score was 600. Math was a dismal 350. Writing was a so-so 4.7

    Also possibly a factor?

    1. I am not a traditional aged graduate student. I am not ancient, but I'm not 24. Try 45.

    2. I applied to an out-of-state program.

    Now, the thing that really has me puzzled, is that this is not some hoity-toity school. It has a *sister* school which is the crown jewel of the state univ. system and is considered one of the best on the east coast. The one I applied to was her homely cousin, which lets ph.d. students attend part time and the language test is waived if you've got a transcript from anywhere showing you have two years of any language.

    Maybe I fancy myself a bit too much, but I (and pretty much everyone who knew I applied) figured I was a shoo-in.

    Luckily I had a backup plan, my original plan, which was to return to my first love, history. I begin an MA program this summer.

    I would really like to know what exactly caused me to be rejected. Am I write to suspect ageism, outofstate-ism ;), or because my MA school mixes grads and undergrads in classes?

    GRE scores? My understanding is that the point of the GRE is to demonstrate one is capable of taking on graduate studies, but with one and three-quarters worth of master's degrees should stand for something, shouldn't it?

    Then again, I understand that when faced with a large number of strong applicants (esp from out of state), the selection committee is forced to become hair-splittingly picky, and that's when the GRE plays a larger role in the decision.

    I don't know. :/

  21. Anonymous3:37 PM

    Forgot to add that I graduate this May with the MA in English lit.

    Could it be that I was rejected for not already having the MA in hand?

  22. Hi Anonymous,

    It's really hard to say, especially not knowing the school or subfield.

    The grades might be a problem, especially if your MA school doesn't have a solid reputation.

    But I'd think that a 600 verbal would be a big red flag. I'm guessing that most people coming from an MA program have well into the 700s. What was your lit subject exam score?

    My experience is that most programs prefer out of state applicants. So I wouldn't expect that to be a problem. Nor would I expect the MA not being finished to be a problem, since most people apply while still undergrads.

    Depending on the program, and despite the illegality, age might be a factor. Another issue might be that you are changing fields; that might look suspect to some programs, I suspect.

    The real issue is probably more difficult to solve, and about subfield. My program was pretty big and accepted about 30 people a year. Of those, say 4 said they intended to do early modern/Ren English. No program wants an unbalanced incoming group, so if you're in a really competitive field, they may have accepted 4 people in your field, and you'd have been number 6, so you weren't accepted. Or maybe you wrote about wanting to do X sort of scholarship, and they know that their biggest X scholar will be retiring next year, and have no plans to hire a new X scholar because they want to hire a Y scholar.

    Good luck; it's never pleasant to be rejected, but a major part of most academic's experiences in all sorts of ways.

  23. Anonymous2:09 AM

    Hello, Bardiac--first time commenter on your blog.

    [Rev. note: This is pretty long. If this post exceeds the general accepted size guidelines for your blog--peccavi, and please pardon my inexperience.]

    First, thank you for posting this, and thank you (all) for your comments--you’ve been very helpful. I'm not sure you wanted this to become an "explain my rejection letter" blog, but I am confused/worried because I have been "regretfully informed" by three of four grad (Lit PhD) programs so far, and I should hear from the fourth soon.

    Granted, these were fairly prestigious schools I applied to. From what I've read above, the thing holding me back might be that I am graduating from a fairly distinguished school, but not a school so distinguished that it (for instance) is into sports that involve horses and long mallets in a really big way.

    Anyway, I wasn't planning on getting into all (or even most), but I am now worried I might not get into any. Selective or not, I only applied to the schools because my advisors and I thought they were feasible. If I don’t get in anywhere, I will be applying next year, and here is where I could really use your help identifying weaknesses unbeknownst to me. Any advice/comments would be greatly appreciated. So, if you’re looking for a way to rack up some good karma...

    First, what I’m concerned about. I will be grateful for any insight into whether these concerns are baseless or well founded.

    - I will graduate in three years instead of the normal four. I have no idea if this would be seen as positive, negative, or both (or neutral).

    - In my application I brought up creative work I’ve done, along with scholarly work. I had hoped this would come off as “hey, here’s an aspect of my character you may not have recognized.” Perhaps I sent the wrong signal?

    - I did not take the Subject: GRE test (exigent circumstances), but only one of the schools I applied to required it, and the one that did reassured me (in a manner I believed) that I would still have a shot, and should apply. I researched other schools demanding Subject GREs, some of which still entreated my application, but with more of an “uhh, sure, just make sure you pay the application fee” sort of tone. These schools did not convince me, so I did not bother applying.

    - Again, I’m not from a top-notch school traditionally associated with enthusiasm for playing polo. (Although, incidentally, my colleagues here certainly enjoy wearing polo.)

    Anyway, beyond my self-second guesses, here was my application, in a nutshell:

    + GPA:
    [BA in English] 3.97 cumulative, 3.93 in major
    w/ Minor in Interdisciplinary Studies

    + GRE General:
    Math- 670

    + Strong writing sample and personal statement (at least, so I thought; I had friendly faculty advising me about these)

    + Strong reccomendations. One came from the Dean of the Department of English, whom I had been lucky enough to take as a professor for an upper-level class.

    + I am writing and presenting a (non-mandatory) senior thesis at an undergraduate research forum hosted by my university.

    + One official publication to my name, so far, although the publication in question is not scholarly (it’s an interview)

    + Pretty solid extracurricular experience relevant to my interests (e.g., I have worked for two years as a peer-tutor of a writing center on campus, and became student manager of it my senior year)

    + Currently working with a professor on a project that may lead to a published paper in a scholarly journal. Our work is related to different genres of argumentative writing.

    {I couldn’t really figure out a way to put this last point in my applications, though. What would I write? “I’m working on something that could possibly lead to a paper being published in an unspecified journal of some variety, perhaps. This journal would almost certainly have pages, and the project in question generally lies somewhere in the rather ill-defined penumbra of English-related academic study.”}

    So, anyway, your help/advice/criticism/antidepressant rationalizations are welcome, and will be received with a surfeit of gratitude that might make you feel slightly awkward and embarrassed if we were talking about this in person.

  24. Hi Anonymous,

    The comment length is no problem so far as I know.

    I wish I could help you figure out the problem. Nothing about your application seems out of place to me for a PhD program, but then I've never been to a really top tier place, so I have no clue what those students look like.

    I would take your portfolio into your advisor and ask what s/he thinks you can do to strengthen it.

    Some schools put out information about their grad classes, field, BA school and so forth. If you can get that information (check the web or ask if there's a graduate manual you might look at), you might find something helpful.

    Grad school acceptance is like a big black box. Try not to take it personally if you don't get in. At the other end, the job market is even more hellish, so you have to develop a really thick skin along the way.

    Good luck!