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Graduate School FAQ

Whether you’re planning on pursuing a law degree, a master’s degree in education, or a doctorate in literature, the time before graduation presents many important deadlines.

Below is a list of links, suggestions, and a rough timeline you might follow. As in most cases, it’s better to be over prepared than under, and getting an earlier start will help!

The information below caters to seniors interested in pursuing graduate study in English (MA, MFA, PhD), but can also be applied (generally) to other graduate study.

  • Graduate School in the Humanities – General Timeline
  • Graduate Programs (General Information)
  • GRE Information
  • Letters of Recommendation



  • Start studying for the GRE (and possibly, GRE subject) exam.


  • Start researching graduate programs in which you might be interested.
  • Register to take the GRE exam (and the subject GRE) if any of your intended programs require it).


  • Begin thinking about which professors you might want to ask to write a letter of recommendation for you.
  • Select an essay or essays (usually from a previous class) which might make a strong writing sample to submit with your application. (Although it varies with different programs, the writing sample usually totals around 25 pages.)  Revise and tighten up this document to the best of your ability.  Asking an instructor or tutor from the WRC to help isn’t a bad idea.
  • Narrow down your list of schools.  Verify (via their websites, over the phone, or both) what application materials these schools require and any relevant deadlines.
  • Start working on your “Personal Statement” document.  (Like the Writing Sample, you’ll want to have plenty of time for revision – not  to mention others’ fresh eyes and perspective as you continue to work on it.)  The WRC is a great place for free help.
  • Take the GRE.


  • If you haven’t already, take the GRE.
  • Contact Professors (and possibly employers or former employers) about writing Letters of Recommendation on your behalf.
  • Continue revising your Writing Sample and Personal Statement.


  • Arrange to have your GRE scores sent to the schools to which you’re applying.
  • Arrange to have your undergraduate transcripts sent to the schools to which you’re applying.
  • Send email reminders and pre-thank yous to professors who are writing your letters of recommendation.
  • Assemble application materials and put final touches on writing sample.


  • Depending on the deadlines of your intended programs, have all application materials sent.  (Call or email each school to verify that ALL of your materials were received).


If you have no idea where to start in choosing graduate programs, begin by asking yourself some of your preferences with regard to the questions below.

General questions:

  • Size of campus (e.g. small liberal arts program versus large state school)?
  • Urban-versus-rural location?
  • Preference to remain in-state versus ability or preference to leave the area?
  • Private versus public institution?

More detailed questions:

  • If you already know what specific area you’ll be studying, which programs* offer strong faculty and competitive rankings in that specialty (e.g. Medieval, Renaissance, Gender, Victorian, Composition/Rhetoric)?
  • What, if any, are the opportunities to cultivate (college-level) teaching experience while a grad student in this program?

*NOTE: If you have no idea which schools have strong rankings in a particular field of English study (e.g. Victorian, Queer Theory, African American Lit), the US News and World Report rankings are a great place to start. This ranked list is updated annually. You can also Google your particular interest (e.g. “Renaissance Literature Doctoral Program”) and explore. As always, your teachers are also a great free resource. UHD faculty (particularly those individuals that you’re comfortable with) are also helpful in figuring out which schools are a “good shot,” a “long shot,” or a “safety school.”

MOST significant questions once the above are answered:

  • What are some of my top picks’ funding opportunities? (more on this below)
  • What is the approximate GPA of applicants who are admitted to this program?

There is no minimum or maximum number of schools to which you should apply. Since the application process is expensive (you’ll have to pay fees for taking GREs, applying to schools, having your GRE scores sent to schools, etc.), you’d be wise to apply to more than one school. (If you apply to only one and that school doesn't accept you, you’re out of luck for an entire year.)

Many people find the formula below helpful (This, of course, assumes you can afford it!):

  • Apply to approximately two schools that are your “dream” programs, schools that you don’t think you have a strong shot with, but it’s worth the application fee because you might get in; these schools might be a long shot, but your particular application (with your particular personal and academic background) might also stand out in the applicant pool.
  • Apply to at least two schools that you’d be happy to attend and to which you’re pretty certain you’d be admitted; these are not your “dream schools,” but are nonetheless schools at which you’d be happy to spend a chunk of your time.
  • Apply to approximately two safety schools. These are schools that you’re 100% positive will accept you and you’re applying to them, as their name suggests, as a safety net in case the above opportunities don’t pan out. These are on the bottom of your list for whatever reason, but you also know that your acceptance is a sure thing and you’d rather attend this program than no graduate school at all.
  • For students interested in the PhD, it is a good idea to apply only to schools with a PhD track in your desired field, rather than to schools with only MA programs. While many doctoral programs do allow transfer in with an MA from another institution, these slots are often limited and difficult to obtain, as preference tends to be given to those entering with a BA. Additionally, you should also know that it is generally easier to get funding – teaching gigs for free tuition and a stipend for living expenses – in PhD programs, as opposed to their shorter counterparts, MA programs.

How do you figure out which schools would be more likely to accept you? (Or, how do graduate programs determine who they’ll admit?)

Graduate Programs in English usually* break your application into the following categories, listed in terms of importance:

  • Your Undergraduate GPA
  • Your Writing Sample (in the case of the MFA, this is probably the most important)
  • Your GRE score
  • Your GRE Subject Exam score (if they require it)
  • Your Personal Statement
  • Your Letters of Recommendation (what they say, as well as who they’re from)
  • Your Real-life Experience (professional and personal)

*In the often maddening, always expensive, frequently frustrating process of applying to graduate school, you’ll quickly see that many schools have their own idiosyncrasies. While the above information is all mostly true for most programs, you should always check with the individual program to which you’re applying (and verify what their requirements and deadlines are). Again, your teachers at UHD can be a wealth of information in everything from individual steps in the application process to figuring out which schools would likely accept you.


What is this GRE exam and is it really that important?

The GRE (like the LSAT for law school admissions, the MCAT for medical school admission, or the GMAT for MBA programs) is given by ETS (Educational Testing Services).

Website for ETS:

There are two types of GRE exams you should be acquainted with:

  1. The GRE General Exam
  2. The GRE Subject Exam

The GRE General Exam (usually referred to only as “the GRE”) is a test that most, but not all, English MA and PhD programs require their applicants to take.

The GRE Subject Exam (e.g. the GRE English Literature) is a subject-specific exam which tests only subject-specific material. A portion of English graduate programs require the GRE English Subject exam as well, but many very good, competitive institutions do not, instead requiring only the GRE General.

In the old days, the GRE (General) exam was a paper and pencil test given only a handful of times a year. This standardized test (kind of like a higher version of the SAT) is now completely computerized (except in some places outside the US) and can be taken at more flexible times and locations. (Houston alone has 7 testing centers.)

This test can seem scary, is expensive, and can have a lot of influence on a school’s decision to admit you (this is assuming a program requires you take it; not all do). Most important for you to know, this test does not necessarily reflect how intelligent you are. According to the official website, the GRE

“measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills that have been acquired over a long period of time and that are not related to any specific field of study.”

Many people (people in higher education, people who have taken the GRE) strongly believe that the GRE measures only how good a GRE test taker you are.

Regardless of where you fall on this issue, the GRE is a test that has a lot of weight in admission and sometimes scholarship decisions, and further, it is a test that one can study for. Preparation and homework can absolutely influence your score.

Prep courses are often very costly, but also often valuable. Some offer varying levels of financial assistance. Some schools offer lower-priced, shorter-term prep courses as well. The great news for UHD students: The University of Houston-Downtown offers its own prep course for the GRE general exam. Even if you can’t afford an entire course, getting your hands on practice books, old exams, or even vocabulary flashcards can make a difference. If you can’t afford any live or web-based preparation, check with libraries for old practice books, exams, and other support materials. Most will have something.

Each prep course has its own pros and cons in terms of how it compares to other courses; you should definitely figure out what option (a private course like Kaplan, UHD course, etc.) is best for you, but particularly for those who can’t afford a lengthy and expensive course offered by a private firm, the UHD prep course is an amazing opportunity and can greatly influence your score.
The UHD GRE prep is like a regular course for which you sign up at the beginning of the semester. It's a two-credit class and is offered every semester, on Fridays, from 10-11:45 a.m. The contact person is the coordinator for the class, Dr. Tyra Montgomery (email:, phone: 713-221-8485). The class is taught by three different people, each responsible for a main part in the GRE (math, writing, and verbal). To register, look for BIOL 4290 or CHEM 4290: GRE PREP on the UHD course schedule.

GRE (via ETS/Educational Testing Service)

Princeton Review


Who do I ask to write a Letter of Recommendation for me, and how do I go about asking him or her?

Asking for a letter from a teacher or employer (former or present) can feel uncomfortable, but it doesn't have to be awkward. Follow the suggestions below and you should have no issues with a letter writer, her/his reluctance to write, or a letter submitted after a missed deadline.

  • Give your letter writer plenty of time. Asking for a letter that is due in 48 hours is impolite, certainly, but more importantly, your potential letter writer just might not have the time to write a good letter. Two months is great, but one month is fine. If you have less than one month in advance to ask a letter writer to help, just explain your circumstances, offer an apology, and do your best to get the request in as soon as possible.
  • Give your letter writer all of the relevant information. In addition to the obvious needed info, such as the deadline and to whom the confidential* letter should be sent, make sure your letter writer knows the nuts and bolts of the program to which you’re applying. Is this for a fellowship or grant versus plain old admission to a Master’s/PhD program? Should she make a point of mentioning your character, your written work, your professional experience, etc.? Is there any personal, professional, or academic info about you that your letter writer may not know, but would look impressive if mentioned in his or her letter, such as awards received, special projects completed, or relevant extracurricular activities or leadership positions you’ve held?

*If the school offers you the option of submitting a confidential versus non-confidential letter, always opt for the “confidential,” as it carries more weight. Also note that many schools will not take any non-confidential letters into consideration for an application, so read the fine print when checking the confidential/non-confidential box on the form!

  • If the letter needs to be mailed by the letter writer, provide a stamped, pre-addressed envelope.
  • When asking a potential letter writer, use language that allows him/her to opt out gracefully if they’re not willing to write a strong letter. It’s better to ask a potential letter writer in person if possible – because it’s an important request, but also because you can gauge the individual’s reaction when you ask (when you ask, does she look sick and turn grey at the prospect of singing your praises, or nod her head enthusiastically and smile broadly, confiding, “I’d be happy to!”). Whether over email or in person, try to use language that gives the other person an “out” if uncomfortable with the task. (The worst thing to do would be to have a person write you a confidential letter of recommendation who is – unbeknownst to you – not a big fan of you and your work.) Asking something like:

“I’m applying to several graduate programs and I need some letters of recommendation. Would you feel comfortable writing something on my behalf? If you feel like your schedule/our limited contact over the last year/the fact that I’ve never had you for a full class would make this a bad idea, I would totally understand...”

Giving the person you’re asking the language to comfortably say no (e.g., “I’d love to, but you know I don’t know your work that well”) should ensure that you won’t end up getting a letter written by someone who either doesn’t want to write for you, or would have to write something negative, but in either case was caught off guard and unsure of how to say “no.”

  • Don’t forget a thank you! Once the letter is written and submitted, most letter writers appreciate a brief thank you note or, if that’s not possible, an email expressing thanks. It’s a professional and polite way of acknowledging that the deadline was met (by the writer, you hope!), and, also, it’s just nice.
  • The University of California, Berkeley, has a great body of resources that offer more detailed information on letter writing, requests, and content:

Currently UHD does not have a centralized location or department that maintains/holds letters of recommendation and/or placement materials for graduating seniors. Instead of having all of your letters sent out individually (by the letter writers or yourself), some people have found it more efficient and professional to have an outside (internet) company hold one’s letters and send them out confidentially (similar to how ETS sends out GRE scores to the schools that the test taker indicates). One such company is Interfolio (

CHSS Web Tech.

Last updated or reviewed on 6/14/10

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