how I applied to grad school

Warning! Now that I’ve actually applied to, was accepted to and have committed to a graduate school, I am able to look back and realize the reality of the situation I have just thrown myself into. Do not, truthfully, apply to graduate school as a senior. I was told by so many people, and I ignored them because I thought I knew better, and I wouldn’t necessarily say I regret it, but I do understand the strain now that I have been through and am now out of it. I really don’t recommend it, although for reasons which are different from the ones that my friends told me a little over a year ago. It was a severe drain on my life and honestly not the way I would have wanted to spend my final semesters of undergrad. I was rarely at Swarthmore during the month of March because of all my visits, and I didn’t even go to all of them….

I have been asked more than once about my graduate school application process. I’m not sure why. Perhaps its because this stuff is visible through this blog and through my other social media platforms, or perhaps because people are intrigued by my journey. As I said in the blurb, I really don’t suggest undergraduate seniors apply to graduate school, even if you are as hard-pressed to continue your years of toil as I was. Nevertheless, for all of those who are interested in my detailed process, this post shall be a guide.


My timeline for applying to grad school was as follows:

May/June/July 2016 Attended MURAP summer research program (GRE prep, presentation and writing workshops, research project)
August 2016 Began to compile a master list of schools. Began reading up on professors who I’d like to work with (compiling and skimming articles). Asked for recommendation from my professors.
September 2016 Contacted professor at schools to which I was applying. Registered for the GRE. Began saving up for my application fees. Made accounts for all of my applications.
October 2016 Last minute GRE preparation. Took the GRE. Began compiling a master list of personal statement prompts.
November 2016 Personal statement template done and reviewed by professors. Sent invitations to recommenders to submit their letters through online portals (very important step!)
December 2016 Writing sample done and reviewed by professors. Applications handed in.
Late January 2017 First responses from schools


Fellowships: scholarly communities and resources for the future

It is not necessary to have a fellowship when applying to graduate school, but they are still quite useful. I am a Mellon Mays fellow, and was admitted to Swarthmore’s MMUF program in April 2016 as a junior. The Mellon coordinator at Swarthmore helped me work out some of the kinks in my personal statements, but I joined too late to really reap most of the benefits of the graduate application workshops. I had already read up on most of the stuff that we discussed, had already picked my schools, and I found that I was being put on the spot to explain things to other fellows because of my own application journey. Nevertheless, these fellowships give you a network to rely on in the future, open doors for publication and job opportunities down the line, as well as give you some money to pay for these terribly expensive application fees.

I also applied to the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers, but was rejected. IRT is a pretty good program, too, and offers you some pretty rigorous counseling during your application process. They also waive most of your application fees and offer you a pretty extensive workshop / convention for applying to graduate school, along with a rich assortment of useful documents. I would definitely recommend it.

Fees: the worst part

I was quite unprepared to pay for applying to grad school and I am now realizing that one of the biggest deterrents for some people may be the cost of the applications. Whether it was the $205 registration fee for the GRE or simply shelling out about $100 a school to apply or paying out of pocket (with the promise of reimbursement) to visit school, paying for grad school applications was definitely something I had not been properly warned about. Because of MMUF, I was given a bunch of waivers, as I said, but not everyone has this luxury. That is why I’d like to highlight that if you are planning to apply to graduate school, you should be ready to shell out a decent amount of money ($400+ if you’re taking the GRE [once] and applying to two programs). Many schools will offer you fee waivers or reductions if you meet certain criteria or belong to certain groups, but you can’t really be certain about anything. I was told when I was applying to Mellon Mays that all Mellon Mays institutions offer fellows fee waivers to their graduate programs, and I was quite pissed when I could not find said information on the Penn website (!) So save up if you can. Certain schools do give need-based waivers or reductions, although this is not universal. Not everyone has the means to save, especially if you’re trying to conduct independent research during the summer between junior and senior year. For this very reason, I recommend applying to a summer research program.

If schools have the means (it’s always good if they do) to fly you out to visit, or pay for you to otherwise get there, that’s a plus. One of my schools (Stanford, a school which I still think has perhaps too much money) flew me out before I was even admitted for a sort of interview weekend affair, and Berkeley arranged for my flight and transportation – I only had to give them what days I’d prefer to go and leave. Yale reimbursed me, and Penn, because it was only a train ride away, said they would pay for my train tickets, although I didn’t ultimately visit. However, I would advise, in the case that some of your schools are not as generous as the ones to which I was admitted, that you save up during the semester, too, to pay for trips to the schools you’d like to see the most. The schools are more than likely to either partially or fully reimburse you, and you may also be able to find some funds at your home institution, too. Just requires some forethought and sending a couple of emails.

Academic Preparation: Research, disciplines, and connections

By June 1, 2016, I was in a summer research program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was working on a paper which would eventually become a chapter of my thesis. I had a thesis proposal which I had submitted and which had been approved by the comparative literature committee at Swarthmore, and was on the road towards beginning the monumental task of writing my thesis. I was taking a preparatory course for the GRE which was part of my summer program, and was also attending graduate school preparedness seminars once a week. This is pretty unorthodox, but I do really recommend these summer research programs for people who really think academia is the best route for them. You just need to be forward thinking, because all of these apps are due in January or February, typically.

Another reason I recommend these summer research programs is because they give you some experience conducting independent research under the supervision of a professor. While your project may be really a literature review, or a proposal, or the beginning of a longer piece, you will still have the opportunity to say that you know how research is conducted, and you’ll have someone to walk you through the process, give you feedback, and point you in the right direction. At the same time, a lot of these programs, primarily for people of color, are pipeline programs that look impressive to admissions committees, and can help you get your foot in the door. Some of these programs, like Leadership Alliance, will offer your fee waivers when applying to graduate school.

By this point, I was beginning to ask graduate students about grad schools and how to pick one. I had a rough idea coming in; find a professor with whom you’d like to work, whose research has inspired or influenced yours, etc. But I found that this was somewhat a daunting task, since I hadn’t at that point begun to see the people writing papers I’d read for this or that paper as breathing human beings with heartbeats and families. I would look at English or French department websites and seem to glean very little information. Yet, I had still developed some criteria about what I was looking for in a graduate school.

It is essential that you figure out what you’d like to do, and what you’d like to study, before figuring out your discipline. Disciplines are not everything, but you should ideally pick a discipline and a department which can support the research you’re interested in. For some people, this is pretty cut-and-dry: You want to study African-American women’s drama, you are likely going to go for an English program, or an AfAm/English joint program. You want to study Ancient Minoan pottery, you may go for an archeology or art history program. Yet, it’s the distinctions between the archeology and art history programs which can be somewhat daunting. I had some conflicting experiences when figuring out my discipline my junior year because I had my French professor telling me that an Africana or comp lit program would make it difficult for me to get a job, while my English professor told me the exact opposite. I knew I didn’t want to do English, and I knew I didn’t want to do French, and so I had to choose between comp lit and Africana, two disciplines which seemed to doom me to joblessness. I struggled with this for a couple of weeks, and began compiling programs from a variety of disciplines which looked impressive and useful to me. Then, I began to think about the long-term: “What are you going to teach? What will your specialization be? Which discipline will open more doors?” I realized in Dakar that the idea of being a French professor was not so horrifying given that I enjoyed French and Francophone African literature enough to research it, and that focusing on French may allow me to use my comp lit degree to open up jobs in French departments, be it as a language instructor or as a literature professor. I also realized that Africana would do the exact opposite; it would limit me to what few posts I could find in English or the occasional Africana department. At the same time, most of the comp lit programs to which I would then I apply had ties, be them formal or informal, with Africana/AfAm/African Studies programs at the same institution, and because comp lit departments expect a degree of academic roaming, I would be allowed to take classes in these departments in conjunction with my comp lit requirements. I ultimately dropped my Africana programs, and then focused on comp lit. Dope.

This was one of the harder parts of applying to an interdisciplinary program, save the constant, looming feeling of career doom; the lack of guidance. I didn’t know any professors who had gone to school for comparative literature, and because Swarthmore’s do-it-yourself major didn’t give me much guidance, I had this nagging feeling of uncertainty follow me throughout the process. Even now, I’m not really sure how comp lit research is supposed to look, but I’ve talked to former and current comp lit undergrads at other schools (namely Princeton, Yale and Brown) who said that they didn’t really know what comp lit research looks like, either. Dope, we’re all together in our abject uncertainty.

Early in the semester, preferably during the summer, ask your professors for letters of recommendation. Don’t wait too late, and don’t email them if you can speak to them in person. In general, it’s always better to ask people for favors in person, because it’s way harder for them to say no to your face than over an email. I was fortunate enough to have four recommenders, but I believe most schools only require three. Send them a list of all of the schools and programs you’re applying to, and make sure to consult with them in person about your choices and why. When you get all your responses, let them know and thank them profusely.

Schools and Programs: picking from thousands

Going to Swarthmore kind of encouraged me to be elitist in my selection process. It was hard for me to grab hold of a definitive ranking of comp lit programs, and I’m also quite skeptical of these rankings anyways, so I ended up looking at the best overall graduate schools in the country (mostly because I felt that a comp lit degree from a lesser-known or lesser-respected school would solidify that anxious feeling of career uncertainty) and then choosing schools from that list. I was also fortunate enough that I didn’t have to worry too much about scores on my GRE, although I’m not sure how much those scores are really considered. I originally had planned to apply to about 12 PhD programs, but eventually narrowed this down to 10 – University of Chicago, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell (from which I was rejected although Cornell never notified me, still hasn’t to this day), and UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Penn, Stanford, Yale, and UNC. I was also admitted to my French Masters programs abroad in Canada, although I won’t go into detail on that here. I was originally going to apply to Brown Comp Lit, Duke Literature, CUNY Graduate Center Comp Lit and Yale French/African-American studies, but dropped all of these in order to focus on these other applications. I was also looking at Columbia English/Comp Lit, but couldn’t actually figure out how to navigate the website so I didn’t apply (lol).

My criteria for picking programs had to do mainly with 1) the presence of an Africana studies program in which I was free to take classes 2) a focus on critical theory 3) at least one specialist in English, French, Africana studies or comp lit specializing in one of my geographic regions (Francophone West Africa, Anglophone West Africa, Anglophone East Africa, the Caribbean, or North America) 4) at least one reference to the word postcolonial on the website. You’d be surprised how flexible I was forced to be, especially given that Yale, the school I’ve decided to attend, did not meet all these criteria, nor did any other school I applied to. The closest was UC Irvine, which had the only comp lit program I’m aware of focusing primarily on the postcolonial, and while it would have been incredible to work with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I was too worried about other things (namely, is Irvine a prestigious enough school for my comp lit degree to be taken seriously; a terribly elitist notion, but I found that, in the moment, as critical as I am of elitism, my ultimately anxiety about my future seemed to force me to slip into elitist ideas; I still haven’t forgive myself for this) to take Irvine as seriously as I should have (I got into greater detail in this post). Besides this, I also looked at what the professors were researching and tried to make ties between them. “Hm, this professor researches Francophone women’s literature, although she’s a specialist in North Africa,” which isn’t one of my geographic areas. I still considered this an option, keeping my fields broad enough to be applicable to a broad spectrum of professors. Really, admissions committees are looking for students who would make a good addition, but many programs are also looking for students who can help academically (or perhaps even physically) diversify the program with new ideas and perspectives. Me researching African-American literature in comp lit, a discipline steeped in the glorification and theorization of Euroamerica, may have well been an advantage and not a detriment. So long as your research is feasible and well-described, you shouldn’t worry too much about this.

However, if you are doing really cutting-edge research and applying to a relatively conservative program, be very aware of the fact that you may get rejected/waitlisted for reasons which have nothing to do with your research. In reality, no school is going to reject you “because your research sucks” (or more hurtfully “because you suck”) but because the school is unable to support that kind of research. That could mean that they don’t think your research would fit in the program, or that none of the professors could adequately supervise you, or that it’s simply too far from the program’s core tenets. The rejections will likely come first, and you should not let them discourage you.

Try to get a working list of schools early on in the process and consult with an advisor. Tell them your list and see what they think. Be prepared to answer some “Why X” questions if you’re adamant, but also be willing to take suggestions. If your advisor says you should add a school, even if it’s in Montana, take their suggestion seriously, research the school and see what it has to offer. That may very well be the best school for you, although location is very important for a lot of people (it was the reason I did not go to Berkeley or Stanford).

Personal Statements the fun part

I kind of enjoy writing personal statements, but I’m a writer, so that’s a bit unfair. I also like talking about myself, so it’s doubly unfair. Yet, the drafting of the personal statement was the longest part for me. For one, I had the ludicrous idea of writing individualized personal statements for each school I applied to, which just didn’t work out because my Mellon coordinator literally said “stop doing that.” My reasoning was that the schools would be able to tell if I just used a template (good ole superstition from when I was applying to undergrad knocking at my mind’s door), but by attempting to spread myself thin writing 10 personal statements for grad schools apps I was also making each statement much weaker. Some of the statements started off with an anecdote, others were direct with my research, and other still gabbed about why I’d like to go to Princeton and study under X and Y professors while barely talking about myself. When my Mellon coordinator looked at three personal statements I sent him and saw they were all different, he suggested I just save a paragraph for unique content on a template and work towards making the template as fully-functioning as possible.

My writing style is different from most of the personal statement samples I’ve seen. I don’t like using anecdotes, mostly because I don’t have these heart-touching moments to go off of, and I don’t like lying or falsifying the truth by pretending that “I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was 5” (which isn’t true.) My personal statements are quite direct: “I am applying to the comparative literature program at [school] in order to prepare myself with the tools necessary to succeed as a scholar of comparative Africana cultural studies.” (this is the actual first sentence of my personal statement template). I listed some of the prominent Marxist and postcolonial scholars who have influenced me before riffing on my research interests and geographic regions. Each sentence of my personal statement is punchy and necessary; there is virtually no filler, because there isn’t enough space for that. When reading other people’s work, and my own work, too, I will often write “what does this sentence accomplish?” because if it doesn’t add anything, it in fact takes away from the message of the piece: why I need this, or better yet, why you need me.

One thing I learned when writing my personal statement template is to master the humble brag. I didn’t wax eloquent about how I’m an accomplish scholar or whatever, because I wasn’t and I’m still not that accomplished, but I also didn’t just make it seem like I’m someone who hasn’t been working towards this application for years. I mentioned my study abroad experience and how that lent itself to my research on Ousmane Sembène, and how my research project at UNC provided the foundations for my undergraduate thesis (whose introduction was attached to my application as my writing sample). I namedropped the scholars whose work I had read and with which I had engaged in a way which showed that I have been and continue to think about how my research can become something greater. In my earlier drafts, I had a hard time talking about myself without putting off the reader with self-conceit. I had this weird idea that “if I seem too braggy, they’ll think I don’t need them and will reject me” which led me to cut myself short. Don’t do this.

My method of writing personal statements is to highlight all of the reasons why I should be given an opportunity. Essentially, if I give you a bunch of reasons, saying 1) that I am qualified 2) that I have researched the program and know how I’ll use the benefits of the program to further my career / field 3) that I’m consequentially forward-thinking and career-oriented 4) that I am familiar with the program and its faculty and believe my research to be applicable to theirs 4) that my research is necessary and groundbreaking, but still capable of being supported by an assortment of professors at the school / in the program. With all of these checks, it becomes increasingly difficult for the committee to say no to an applicant that seems so sure of their place in the program, although clearly this isn’t a surefire model since I didn’t get into some of the schools to which I applied. Nevertheless, I have had a lot of luck with these method, and will continue using it in the future.

There are hundreds of tutorials on writing graduate school personal statements, and I may eventually get around to writing my own, although my method, as I mentioned, may seem a bit unorthodox. A good tutorial is this one by Eve Ewing. I am also willing to give more personalized advice if you contact me, and perhaps even share my personal statements.

Writing Samples wooing the pedants

I personally made a gamble with my writing sample by sending in the introduction to my thesis, but I think the gamble played off quite well. For one, I was quite confident with the ideas in my thesis, all of which were best synthesized in my introduction. As someone interested in theory, and who actually is somewhat self-conscious of his critical abilities, I thought that sending my intro would work by demonstrating how I can draw liaisons between the big concepts in the disciplines of comp lit and cultural studies and bring them into conversation with postcolonial theory as they relate to questions of language and ideology. I’m certain that I will continue this research, and by showing what I am currently working on and writing that it is in fact an excerpt of a longer piece, I in theory showed the admissions committee a taste of the kind of work I will continue to do as a graduate student. This was a gamble because the paper was an excerpt of a section of a longer piece, and focused far more on drawing neat lines than breaking significant ground. I was admonished by one professor that it would be risky to send it, but the paper I had written for my summer research program wasn’t sufficient and perhaps the weakest section of my thesis (and I hadn’t finished writing the other sections), and therefore I had the option to either 1) translate a (poorly-written) French paper 2) expand on a paper for a class I didn’t care much about / unrelated to my thesis 3) rush an edit of another chapter and send that. Ultimately, I sent the intro to the chagrin of that professor, and all was fine.

I think it’s essential to think about your writing sample quite early. If you wrote something good for a recent class or for your summer research program, great. Just edit it and have a professor eye it over and you’re set. However, if you’re not so fortunate, I would first find a paper that is closest to the research you are presenting in your personal statement, and then add to it, restructure it and make it punchy. Do not write for the admissions committee per se, but make sure it is as sound and argumentative as possible.  You will also want to remove a lot of the sort of rhetorical expressions typically engaged when writing for a term paper (like assuming the professor knows a great deal about a topic you won’t properly introduce, which isn’t good for an admissions committee who may be completely unfamiliar with the subject). If the piece is too long, cut out an entire section (don’t just stop at the sentence that is about to take you over the limit; don’t cut your work cited !! ) and write in italics, at the end, before the bibliography, what the rest of the paper discusses. If the paper was written for a class, or was published somewhere, make sure to add that at the beginning as a note.

Curricula vitae credentials, credentials

In short, a CV is about depth, a resume brevity. CVs outline all of your accomplishments as a scholar, including any awards, fellowships, presentations or publications you may have, as well as any jobs you may have had or still have. Resumes typically don’t include academic accomplishments, and are more specific to certain jobs, and therefore don’t show the full picture, but a clipping. The CV is probably the easiest part of this whole process and can be done in an afternoon. Like almost everything on this list, there are tons of tutorials on how to make a CV. If you have a career center at your school, they can help you transform a resume into a CV.

Contacting professors wholly optional, but perhaps useful

My summer research program at UNC had a writing workshop that focused not only on our independent research projects, but also on other kinds of writing styles essential to graduate school life. One of them was the dreaded “email to the potential adviser.” Like personal statements, there’s tons of tutorials online for drafting these emails, and many of them are quite contradictory. What’s essential is that you let the professor know exactly WHY you are contacting them. Professors seem to love dodging emails, and if they get an email from a non-university address, they’re even more likely to never open it. My writing workshop made sure to drill into us that we ought to make our intent known in the subject of the email: “Potential applicant to Sociology doctoral program seeking advice,” “Question about [Article Title] from prospective applicant to Women’s Studies PhD program,” etc. Another important point is to provide a reason for a response. The professor opened the email, but you only said “It’d be great to work with you! I read your book! You’re incredible!” and therefore they have no reason to respond, other than to thank you. You want to ask a question they can answer like “As someone who studies African-American women’s spirituality, do you think the Religious Studies program at X will be able to support my research in the role of women in traditional African religions in West Africa?” or “ Because you study narrative and the sociologies of literature, do you think my interests in cultural studies and literary culture would be well-received by the graduate committee at X?” Asking a question like this will not guarantee you a response, but it at least gives the professor a reason to draft something up instead of sending your email to a folder, never to be seen again. Many professors won’t respond, or will only respond several months later once you’ve become the top candidate in the program and they’re trying to woo you. And you shouldn’t feel any type of way about this because professors are busy, especially at big R1 universities where they are being pushed to teach AND conduct their research at their maximum level of productivity.

This step is optional and does not seem to have much weight in the end of the day. I’ve met with professors when visiting who never responded to my email, and they were quite warm with me despite having ghosted me. I’ve also been admitted to schools at which I didn’t contact anyone, and therefore it isn’t safe to say it is helpful or not. If anything, it helps you get your foot in the door, and it puts your name in people’s minds so when they see your application they can say “Oh yeah, they contacted me a few months ago, they seem like an alright student.” Yet, I’m not too sure how many professors really read these emails. I imagine most do not.

In short, start planning early! It doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but the more time you give yourself, the more you’ll be able to work on things. If you’re the type of the person who needs a crushing time-limit, that’s fine, but you also need to provide your professors ample time to read your work over, and you really should pass your statements by someone, too. That means writing your personal statement the night before its due is highly unadvisable, and sending your professors a quick email saying “hey could you write a three page letter of rec for me real quick” a week (even a month) before it’s due is likely to insult your professor before it convinces them to help you. Save early, take your GRE early (no later than October), begin writing early, and good luck!

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