Help with Grad School Applications

If you’re an undergrad who enjoys your studies, you might be thinking of applying to graduate school in the fall. We’ve offered our thoughts on what you should ask yourself and others before applying; if you’ve decided to push forward, you’ll need some practical advice. Most graduate programs in classics require a pretty similar package of materials. You’ll need a cover letter; letters of recommendation from 2-3 faculty members in your current program (that is to say, in classics); a personal statement about why you want to attend the program (typically, this statement covers any proposed research plans); and possibly a list of the texts you’ve read in the original Latin or Greek.

For advice on how best to position yourself in your cover letter and personal statement, we turned to Jason Tham, a professional rhetorician in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota. We’ve added a few Classics-specifics updates to his examples to help you communicate to your Classicist audience.

If you are applying to a research program and are still finalizing your application, I have three tips here that might be of use:

1. Align your research interests with the faculty members’ in the program

It is often made obvious in graduate program applications that the applicant should mention which faculty member they would like to work with as part of their graduate education. Before writing your personal statement, do a thorough search on the program’s people page, such as this page that’s housed in our Writing Studies department [Ed’s note: our Classical Studies faculty page is quite similar]. Include the faculty member’s specialty areas as keywords in your letter as a rhetorical move to show that you have done your homework. As part of the UMNRSTC program, applicants are asked to select a professor to be his/her desired academic advisor. It would be smart for the applicant to get in touch with one or two current grad students in the program to get a sense of the “advisee-load” that the desired advisor has already had to avoid choosing someone who are already occupied and so are not able to undertake anymore new students.

2. Showcase your research trajectory, past and future

Include a trajectory of your scholarly works as well as future directions (where you came from and where you want to go), including past or present seminar research topics and classroom/teaching workshops. This will help the admission committee to see your scholarly agenda and give them confidence that you are self-motivated because you have clear goals in mind. Remember, the grad school application is also similar to a job application: while admitting new students, the program or department is looking for individuals who are competent in conducting research (in and out of lab, classroom, etc.) as well as teaching (some are even looking for applicants with certain specialization to teach specific classes).

3. Define your scholarly identity

This last advice should be taken with a grain of salt. While it is good to exhibit excitement and flexibility as a graduate applicant, I think it is equally important to define one’s scholarly identity. Especially for Ph.D. applicants, the individual should have already had a sense of what it means to be a part of an academic discipline or community, and what it means to contribute to the development of that community. By defining one’s scholarly identity, one is performing a(nother) rhetorical move that situates him /herself in an ongoing conversation–thus increasing the credibility of the application. For a program with multiple tracks (such as RSTC and programs like Arizona’s RCTE and Iowa State’sRPC), I think it would be helpful to define yourself as a rhetorician, compositionist (basic writing, first-year writing, advanced composition, etc), or technical or professional communication scholar (scientific writing, tech or business comm, technology and culture, etc), or somewhere in between these (but you have articulate how you fit in such a niche). [Ed’s note: for Classics, the equivalents are, first, Hellenist vs. Latinist; within those categories, it’s helpful to know whether you’re interested in history, archaeology, and/or philology.]

There are certainly many other factors that concern the admission committee and these are just my two cents. If you are reading this and are interested in applying to the RSTC program at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), feel free to send me a message and I’d be glad to help!


This week’s guest post was written by Jason Tham, a doctoral student in Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota, and originally appeared on his blog.

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