Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blog VI: Getting in the Door: The Graduate Admissions Process

The sixth entry in this blog marks the first “guest contribution.” Several more will follow in the weeks ahead. The purpose of this blog is to share with budding and newly minted historians, things I have learned about “how the game is played.” Before you can play the game, however, you have to get into the stadium. That brings us to the admissions process, which is a topic with which I have had little direct experience from the faculty side. I am fortunate, though, in that I know people who do have that knowledge. Dr. Michael Creswell knows this topic well. He is the director of graduate studies in the history department at Florida State University. Creswell has a huge voice in determining which students are accepted and rejected for admission at this research university. He shares with us some of the insights he has gained from this position. An associate professor at Florida State, Creswell is a graduate of Indiana University and earned an MA and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Before arriving at Florida State, he was the Annenberg Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as an adjunct professor of strategy for the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe (2006). Here is his guest blog:

The application process is relatively straightforward and uniform throughout the country. You are required to take the Graduate Record Examination, write a personal statement, include a writing sample, arrange for letters of reference, send your undergraduate transcript, write a check, and wait for a response. Yet when that letter arrives, it might not contain the response you expected or offer any money or assistantship to help you pay for your studies. “How can this be?” you wonder. “I received excellent grades as an undergraduate. I also told them how much I love history and that I want to become a college professor. What went wrong?” As the director of graduate studies in my department, I read a great many graduate applications. What is surprising, and a bit saddening, is how many bright students submit poor applications. Some simply don’t know any better, while over confidence undermines the others. What follows are a few suggestions that, if followed closely, will improve your chances of being accepted to a graduate program and raise the odds that you will receive funding.

1. Start the process early. Your senior year of college is a special one and you should enjoy it to the fullest. Yet while most potential applicants are aware of deadline dates, some begin work on it only a week or two in advance. This is too late to start the process. You should begin thinking about graduate school well before your senior year, which means doing research on various programs and finding one that suits you. Once you have narrowed down the schools to which you intend to apply, you need to assemble an application package tailored to each individual program, as the procedure varies among the different history departments. Despite these differences, there are some elements common to all departments.

2. Decide what you want to study. All programs require a statement of purpose. Although many students write passionately about their love of history, it is often unclear what part of history they want to study and why. Admissions committee will want to know your intended primary focus. You should therefore ask yourself the following questions: Why do I want to pursue a graduate degree in history? Do I intend to focus exclusively on either teaching or research or am I committed to both? If teaching, do I want to teach in the public schools, a community college or a state university? Do I want a graduate degree for self-fulfillment or to augment my current teaching credentials? Or do I intend to work outside of education once I receive the degree?

3. Determine which area and period of history you want to study. Is it Medieval England, Colonial America, or Meji Japan? Choose a primary field of study from among those the department offers. Otherwise, you will have no one to guide you in your chosen area. You should also recount what sparked your interest in this field or period. Perhaps a book or a teacher or a vacation. If you wish to study a foreign nation, mention if you possess the appropriate language skills or have lived in that country.

4. Choose a major professor. You will be guided in your graduate studies by a major professor. Review the department website carefully and find a professor or professors whose scholarly interests mirror your own. You application will likely be denied if you apply to a department to study a field without faculty representation. And even if the department does accept you, having your thesis directed by someone who studies a completely different area of history will not increase your attractiveness to potential employers.

Once you have identified a professor who shares your scholarly interests, write to that person well in advance of applying. Introduce yourself, describe your academic interests, and indicate your intention to apply to the department. Ask the professor if he or she would be willing to serve as your major professor should you be admitted to the program. Some schools have admission committees, but others have systems whereby one professor can admit a graduate student on his or her own volition. In either case, strive for a match between your intellectual interests and the strengths of the faculty.

5. Indicate your previous training in history. This topic is especially important for applicants with majors other than history. If you have no prior training in the field, explain what led you to history and why you believe you are qualified to study it at the graduate level. Anticipate these and other concerns and respond to them fully and candidly. For example, if there has been a long gap in your education, explain why. If your GPA is relatively low, explain why they should nonetheless admit you into the department.

6. Draft a curriculum vitae (CV) or resumé that provides a clear representation of your experiences. Include honors (scholarships, fellowships, academic honors), publications (if appropriate), professional experience (museum volunteer, secondary school teacher, etc.), foreign language(s) taken (indicate the language, level, year, grade and institution). There are several guides available that contain samples of CVs and resumés.

7. Ask three professors who know you and your work well if they would write you a letter of recommendation. Professors are busy, so if they agree to write you a letter, give them at least three weeks advance notice before the deadline. A polite e-mail reminder a week before the deadline is usually well received—especially by absent-minded professors. Be sure to provide them with copies of your CV or resumé, as well as the statement of purpose you are submitting. You should make your request in person. Letters from academics are preferable to recommendations from employers.

8. Submit your best writing sample, preferably from a history course. Faculty on an admissions committee will evaluate you based on its analytic power, creativity, and clarity of expression. Ideally, it should be a research paper that demonstrates your facility with primary documents.

9. Make sure to visit your career and placement center. There you can find guides that explain what to say in an application statement. In addition, some of the universities to which you are applying might also provide examples of statements that secured not only admission, but funding as well.

10. Even prior to formal application, contact the graduate advisor or coordinator well before you submit your application. Ask if the department grants transfer credit. If so, consult with the academic adviser to see which of your previous courses are acceptable and which ones might benefit you the most. Knowing this information beforehand will make it easier to obtain the needed documents, such as syllabi, before you arrive on campus. You should also inquire about how to apply for departmental assistantships/fellowships.

While taking these suggestions to heart will not ensure that you will be accepted to the graduate program of your choice, ignoring them will likely guarantee that you will not be accepted to any program, preferred or not.


  1. These suggestions offer some very sound and logical advice on the do's and don'ts of the admission process. I will recommend this blog to any students aspiring to enter grad school

  2. I am proud to announce that this essay was published in the December 2009 issue of the American Historical Association newsletter, "Perspectives on History." If you are not a member of the AHA, the article version can be found at:

  3. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.
    Graduate Research Papers

  4. I'm entering my senior year as a undergraduate in history and economics, and this post, as well as the blog as a whole, is extremely informative. I have found myself somewhat lost in terms of the undergraduate/graduate school transition process, and this post is restoring a little of my confidence.
    Could you make any recommendations on where to gather information relevant to school selection?