I spent three months last fall/winter applying to graduate school, and — as tends to happen when you dive into something you’ve never done before — I learned by trial and error. And by begging friends for advice/their personal statements/their souls. And by googling. Lots and lots of googling.
And I got in! To every school I applied to, somehow, miraculously. Probably because I picked a really nice font for my CV, but also possibly because of some of the revelations below.
I hope you find them useful if you’re just starting the application process. And if you’ve been down this road before, I hope you’ll shout out your advice in the comments.
What I Learned From Applying to Master’s Programs:
1. You don’t need to know exactly what you’ll write your thesis on … but you should know your area of interest. To give an example, in my personal statements, I wrote that I was interested in studying the experiences of women living in early America. That’s pretty broad, right? But knowing even that little bit allowed me to find programs that had at least one faculty member specializing in women/gender/sexuality during that time period. Further, when I attended graduate program open houses I always asked — wringing sweaty palms in my lap — whether I needed to have an MA thesis idea ready before classes started. The answer I got from every single professor? Absolutely not. In summation, there’s room in an MA program to find your niche, though you can’t find a program that will suit your interests unless you know what your interests are.
2. When choosing where to apply, it’s mostly about the faculty. As I allude to above, it’s vital that you apply to programs with faculty whose interests overlap with yours. This makes sense when you think about it: you’ll need an advisor who can actually, well, advise you on things like which primary sources and scholarly writings to take a look at and which theses have already been taken (tough love, baby). Not to mention, when it comes time to defend your thesis, you’ll want to defend it to people familiar with your topic. The vast majority of graduate programs make it easy for you to learn about their people: websites contain faculty bios, often including lists of publications, areas of interest, and current research. Knowing that a professor is working on a really cool project you’d love to be part of is also something you may be able to mention in your personal statement, admissions interview, etc.
3. But the little things count, too. When I first started researching schools, I mistakenly thought “atmospheric” qualities such as school size, location, and campus vibe didn’t matter as they had when I was searching for undergraduate schools. This is graduate school, I proclaimed, I’ll be there to learn how to be a historian, nothing more. Campus experience is for 18-year-olds. Thank goodness I came to my senses; even as a graduate student, of course I wanted to love where I was. I found that I was drawn to quirky, small schools in quirky, small communities just as I had been at 18 when I attended my beloved liberal arts university on the prairie. Go figure.
4. Only apply to schools you want to attend. I felt some pressure, initially, to apply to as many schools as possible in order to increase my chances of getting in somewhere. I also considered applying to schools I wasn’t interested in just because they were good schools. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t want to go somewhere just to go somewhere or just because it had a good reputation. I wanted to go to a school and be part of a program I would be excited about and challenged by. I narrowed my list of schools down to five: a few I knew I could get into, a few I was pretty sure I could get into, and a few dream schools that were long shots. That’s not to say that five is the magic application number you should strive for; I have friends who found ten schools they wanted to apply to, and friends who found three. Just make sure every school you apply to is one you would be eager to attend.
5. Make a spreadsheet to track moving parts. Applications require a lot of paperwork, and what’s even more challenging, they require paperwork from other people. Beyond crafting personal statements, writing samples, and CVs, you’ll also need to send your GRE scores, request transcripts from previous institutions you’ve attended (and if you studied abroad, as I did, doing so is extra complicated), and request letters of recommendation from former professors and employers. Ensuring that all parts come together to meet the same deadline requires good communication and follow-up on your part. A spreadsheet will help you stay on top of requesting, reminding, and submitting. Here’s what mine looked like (click to enlarge):
6. When writing your personal statement, tell your story. Several kind friends sent me their personal statements so I could get a sense for how one is written. I was astounded by how different each person’s approach was! What ended up feeling most natural to me was to focus on telling my story. I wrote about how my undergraduate fascination with Virginia Woolf got me thinking about historic women’s perspectives, how working at the Library of Congress helped me fall in love with public history, how moving to the East Coast sparked my interest in colonial America. Within these narratives, I found ways to play up my research and work experience. I concluded by explaining what I hope to accomplish in graduate school (learn more about colonial women’s experiences and prepare for a career in public history), and why _____ school is the right place for me.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask your undergraduate professors/advisors/mentors for help beyond letters of recommendation. This piece of advice relies on you having maintained good relationships with your undergraduate professors/advisors/mentors. Maintain those relationships, people! Not only for your future benefit, of course, but also because they’re good people, and trust me, you’ll want to keep knowing them after you graduate (professors’ social media posts are the best, for one thing). After three of my undergraduate professors agreed to write letters of recommendation for me, I asked if they would mind also taking a look at my personal statement and CV. Having gone through graduate school themselves — not to mention having helped many other students through it — their advice was invaluable. And because they taught me and know me well, they could actually say things like, “You should mention this research experience,” or, “Let’s dial it back a little with the Virginia Woolf rants. You’ll scare the selection committee.”
8. Pepper the graduate directors with questions. That’s what they’re there for. In fact, they’re being paid extra to be a resource for potential and current graduate students. They will be happy to tell you more about the program, or to refer you to other faculty, staff, and current students who can answer your questions. I recommend you make contact with the graduate director of every program you’re applying to; they’ll always give you insight you can’t find online. And if they’re unresponsive or unhelpful? Well, that tells you something about the program, too.
9. Your writing sample doesn’t have to foretell your Master’s thesis. I agonized about my literary analysis-heavy writing sample. It was the most impressive research and writing I’d done as an undergraduate, but I was convinced it didn’t contain enough history for a history application. In the end, the topic of my writing sample hardly mattered; programs mostly wanted to know that I could do primary source research and synthesize that research into a well-argued paper.
10. You’re a better candidate than you think you are. I’ve implied it, but let me say straight out that I was extremely insecure about my prospects as an applicant, for two primary reasons: I was an English major, not a history major (would they believe me when I said I loved history?!), and I didn’t go directly to graduate school from undergrad (would they believe me when I said I was committed to earning a graduate degree?!). I doubted myself so completely that when my phone rang and it was the William and Mary graduate director, I was utterly convinced I was about to be rejected. By phone. But to my great shock, my nontraditional route worked in my favor. The graduate committee actually appreciated my “real world” experience, and the analytical and writing skills afforded by my English degree.
Now, that’s not to say that going straight from undergrad to graduate school is a bad idea. In many ways it would have been more convenient to earn an MA at age 23 and to jump right into a career path I was sure about (not to mention, to do all this while still covered by my parents’ insurance … 26 is now looming). But the thing is, as a senior in college I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I needed those three years to figure it out. I’m grateful that the schools I applied to seemed to understand.
My point here: don’t sell yourself short. If you want a graduate degree, if you’re willing to work for one, if your past experience speaks to this drive, then believe that the schools you apply to will see this.
You can do it!
How to Do Well on the GRE
College of William and Mary visit
A flashback to my first day of college in 2009. Oh, baby Holly. You have so much to learn.