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Grad School Application Narratives

Page history last edited by Caitlin Horrocks 10 years, 3 months ago

Graduate School Application Narratives


This page includes narratives from students who have endured, at least, considering graduate school and its application process--and writing this narrative.  Little else in their lives is guaranteed.



Charlie Lemmink

Graduated from GVSU in 2006; began Southern Illinois University's (Carbondale campus) M.F.A. program in fiction writing with a position teaching two sessions of freshman composition beginning fall 2008. 



Deciding graduate school was my next major step after undergraduate work was, for me, an entirely practical, well reasoned, and, I suppose, a self-centered decision.  Some of my most passionate, contented, and fulfilling moments have been while working on or discussing writing.  Maximizing this entails embracing academia, so that’s what I’ve done.  I’m skeptical of anything with bureaucratic demands like those inherent in applying to grad school, but that’s the machine we all deal with.  I am pleased with my years at GVSU, so I’m sure I can handle that part of it.  I’m incredibly excited about it on the whole.


After finishing with GVSU, I planned one year off to gather my bearings and confirm to myself that grad school was wise, but this stretched into two.  Application materials must be ready, typically, by November or December, which would’ve meant beginning the application process almost immediately after graduating.  I chose to indulge in my easy-going, slow (and steady?)-moving nature.  That seems to have been wise, as I wouldn’t have had the perspective or the quality writing sample to impress anyone.  It would’ve been a frustrating waste of my time and money. 


Regardless of this delay, though, I unofficially began work on my grad school application almost immediately by keeping its most important aspect in mind: the writing sample.  I gave myself some freedom in what I’d work on, but I mostly restricted myself to fiction, as that’s what I would need.  My best writing samples at the time were creative nonfiction essays, as a nonfiction class was one of my most recent classes, and I hadn’t taken a fiction class in over a year.  Naturally, I was frustrated with and somewhat disconnected from the pieces I’d written for that distant fiction class, so I needed something fresh.


I struggled with this and failed at every “great” idea I began work on.  Everything had changed: my roommates and best friends had moved out of state for their own plans past graduation, so I lived in my own one-bedroom place, mostly self-sufficient to figure out how to adjust.  Continuing my full-time job, it took time to learn how to motivate myself and write well and consistently outside of the university’s structured setting—and with that extended time, as mentioned, I failed several times—but I eventually sorted things out and wrote a first draft that meant something to me.  Unfortunately, by then, a year had gone by, bringing deadlines only a few months away, and I hadn’t yet decided on where I would apply. 



The Application Process

I knew I wanted to stay within a day’s drive from Grand Rapids and sought schools that promoted or were at least friendly to experimentation, so I spent some time finding schools on the Internet and made a preliminary list.  After making some decent notes on each school, including some pros and cons to each, I went to Ander Monson and Chris Haven for their opinions on my choices.  I was surprised by their breadth of knowledge in this: they had at least a general idea of what was going on at all the schools I’d been interested in.  Maybe this seems obvious, considering that they’d each been through the grad school search a couple times before, in addition to helping plenty of other students before me, but I hadn’t realized how much they would know.  Since they knew the kind of writer I’ve been developing into, their knowledge helped me narrow down my choices, and I ultimately (after toying for a while with one more) decided on ten schools.


Continuing with further drafts of my writing sample, at that point I began compiling lists of the schools’ application requirements.  This was far more work than I’d expected, as few of the schools go out of their way to make the process easy.  There were sometimes separate requirements for the writing and English departments, as well as requirements for application to the university’s graduate school in general and for graduate assistantships, sometimes all with different addresses for these submissions.  Some schools accepted online applications either in full or in part, occasionally revealing new application requirements.  I waited until the application deadlines to explore these online systems, and in hindsight, I should’ve looked at them sooner to gauge the full load of work I had.  Aside from this, I thoroughly noted application requirements, and this checklist was a good base to work from.  I continually discovered new, modified, or contradictory requirements up until mailing my application packets, but this list was helpful.  I probably should’ve contacted each school for their application checklist as soon as I’d decided on schools, as that would show them that I was responsible and on top of things, let me know what they expected, and, generally, help me organize the process.  One school had a particular requirement in their mailed application packet that they only alluded to online, and realizing this sooner would’ve prevented some stress in December.  The bulk of application requirements had a wide range:


  • A fiction sample ranging from 15-20 pages, 20-25 pages, 20-30 pages, up to 50 or more pages, requiring typically just one but sometimes up to three copies.  While the websites seemed strict about their page length requirements, one school was much less strict over the phone.  Had I needed much leeway on this, I would’ve checked individually with each school, but the norm seems that these limits are more general than specific.  Schools seem to want small samples rather than having to sort through novels—or vice-versa.

  • Three letters of recommendation, sometimes with questions specific to each school or with specific focuses, sometimes requiring a waiver or specific form, sometimes sent directly from the university or from the professor or sometimes sent included in the application packet, always sealed with a signature over the envelope flap.  Other than one school that required these letters only for the assistantship position, three letters was the standard everywhere. 

  • While this wasn’t required…if, in preparation for letters of recommendation, I’d custom-made each professor his or her own letter-sealing stamp and included sealing wax, I’m sure I’d have scored huge bonus points. 

  • A statement of intent ranging from 400-1000 words, with 500 words being the standard.  Some schools had specific questions to address in these statements.

  • A separate statement of teaching intent with similar length requirements. 

  • $35-$100 application fees; private schools tended to be at the high end of that.

  • An online application or paper application form, sometimes with the option of a discounted application fee if choosing to submit online.  Some schools had separate application forms directed just to the writing department or separate application forms for the assistantship position. 

  • A 10-15 page sample of critical writing. 

  • G.R.E. scores.

  • Official transcripts: sometimes sent directly from the school, sometimes sent within the main application packet. 

  • A Résumé/Curriculum Vitae (C.V.).

  • Financial Aid forms.

  • One school also requested a 1000 word response to a piece of contemporary fiction. 


Each school had some variety of these items, and, though I’d made a thorough list, I constantly second-guessed myself and referred to the website to be sure.  Everything seems to have gone smoothly.  


At the point when I mostly realized how much work I had to do (I say mostly because I didn’t fully realize the workload until everything was sent and completely ready and one school misplaced something, renewing my stress until I sorted that out and everything was actually done), the first deadlines were closer than I wanted them to be.  There was a lot to do in less time.  Some schools set December 15th as their deadline, while some waited until January first, some until mid-January, some February first or mid-February, and one had no official deadline (I mailed that one along with the mid-February applications). 


I’d been preparing for the G.R.E. sporadically throughout the summer by studying vocabulary notecards, and I needed to sort that out.  I scheduled the test for about a month before the scores were due anywhere, and this was sufficient.  Test dates seemed to fill up within a two week period, so I planned the test in advance, ensuring I wouldn’t have a timing conflict with my job.  I found two main strategies for G.R.E. preparation: expand my vocabulary as much as possible and train myself with test-taking strategies/tricks through repetition and practice.  It turns out I’d started studying plenty soon enough and had good strategies for preparation, but I had little focus.  I should’ve been studying vocab for a half hour to an hour each day or at least with enough consistency that I wouldn’t escape that mindset of keeping a large vocabulary in mind, and I should’ve been more focused in training myself to take the test.  If I’d spent the two weeks prior to the test practicing and training myself to take the test, my score would’ve been much more impressive and the test itself would’ve been less stressful.  Instead, I studied a bit and scored fairly average, which was fine.  I’d heard that the scores meant very little and that influenced my approach.  I was under-prepared, and the test was in intense rush of adrenaline and anxiety, but then it was over.  There are two things I wish I’d known about the process after the test: included in the (hefty) test-taking fee is the ability to send scores to four schools.  I hadn’t realized I’d have to choose this so soon, so I accidentally sent my scores to one school that didn’t need them.  This meant I later wasted $15 sending the scores to another school that did need them.  I also discovered through experience that it’s a huge faux pas to post your G.R.E. scores in your Facebook status, even (or especially?) if you’re only boasting how average they are.  Oops!


I’m typically happy when something kicks my ass and I proceed to recover from the beatdown, but nothing good came of the G.R.E. other than being done with it.  It was a complete waste of time, asking me to prepare for the G.R.E. in order to show that I’m able to take the G.R.E., measuring only how well I took the G.R.E.  It returned me to my high school attitude: back then, if I didn’t want to do something, I did only well enough to get by.  I’m very glad the G.R.E. is finished, hopefully forever out of my life. 


The G.R.E. was only one aside to my application preparation.  I was additionally doing many things at once: improving my writing sample, starting my letters of intent, preparing for the 1000 words on contemporary fiction, looking into the process of submitting official transcripts, going over my pieces of critical writing, and preparing to have letters of recommendation written.  The three professors I asked to write these letters were Ander Monson and Chris Haven, two writing professors who knew my writing, the latter of whom knew its development over a few years; I also asked Maria Cimitile, a philosophy professor whom I’ve studied with in three classes.  Preparing for them was my most pressing concern, as their workload would increase the longer I waited.  I didn’t want to rush or hassle them, so I had everything ready about a month before it needed to be in schools’ hands.  This didn’t seem to be enough: I would’ve liked to be prepared about a week earlier, which would’ve been about a month before things needed to be sent or back in my hands.  I felt like I was rushing them a little bit.  In my packets for them, I included:


  • pre-addressed and pre-stamped envelopes (other than those letters which the department would mail: for those, I only pre-addressed departmental envelopes),

  • official forms waiving my right to later peruse the letters,

  • my statement of intent,

  • my résumé,

  • my teaching statement of intent,

  • my writing sample,

  • some other things they’d requested individually,

  • and a thorough (three page long) checklist of exactly what they had to do for each school. 


While I felt like I rushed them a bit, I reduced the hassling as much as possible by easing the bureaucracy with the thorough list and taking care of any legwork.  Other than discovering one required form a bit late—which created some extra legwork for me—that process went smoothly.  All three professors were helpful and understanding. 


My statement of intent went through a few different drafts, with each improved draft growing more specific to my writing, education, and professional intentions.  I struggled to begin anything because I felt awkward about having to reduce my intentions and ambitions to two pages of text and using that to sell myself, as I’d much prefer my work and my actions to speak for me instead, but developing it gave me some focus on what I’ve been doing and want to do as a writer.  I began with something cheesy discussing how I want to be a rock star with text instead of music, and that was enough to move me past that (so it could be erased from existence) and into discussions of my influences, things I’d like to work on, how my education has affected me, and other reflections of my past/assurances of my promising future.  After a couple drafts and some outside criticism, I further developed the general piece into specific pieces based on what I knew of each university: basically, how I would fit well with each school’s program and professors. 


Gathering everything together prior to mailing was about what I expected: by then, I’d been through a lot of work and hassles, so I expected more trouble and bureaucracy.  I discovered new contradictions and strange mailing instructions, meaning even this process which should’ve been simple and quick stretched itself out.  I tried planning things around an endpoint when I could exhale extravagantly, but even then I had to rush, two hours late, to work. 



While I’d rather not go through this process again, if I had to start over, I would certainly be better prepared.  I would start by stepping back from and going over the process just before the summer prior to the application’s due dates: this would give me a chance to discuss my intentions and options with professors and to set milestones to keep myself on track.  I would immediately concern myself with the writing sample, but also set an early date to decide on where I would apply.  I would decide early on whether I cared about a good G.R.E. score or not (probably not) and begin studying vocab as early as I needed to, then focus on test strategies two to four weeks before the test. 


If I did all these things, though, I would be responsible to a superhuman degree, and I would miss the satisfaction of procrastinating until “the last minute” (translation: the last few months) and doing just fine. 


My only regret or misstep regards the writing sample, but even that was only a kind of “growing pain,” to put it in a clichéd and self-patronizing term.  Considering that by the time I’d needed it ready, I’d been out of school and free to do what I wanted for a full year, so it was stressful and somewhat embarrassing to be constantly improving it up through the (literal) last minute.  So it goes.  That stress focused me on my writing, preparing me to keep that focus up to and through graduate school. 




After submitting all applications, I waited about two months before hearing anything.  I was nervous about this process, but settled contentedly into either option: school or not.  I considered other exciting plans for myself for the next year (teaching English abroad somewhere?) and perhaps became too attached to this “plan B” while I waited.  Eventually, though, the letters came in.  I was eventually accepted to Eastern Michigan University with no word on funding, Central Michigan University and Northern Michigan University with a potential for funding if other students they accepted fell through, and put on the waiting list at Southern Illinois University. 


This meant more waiting.  I grew more attached to my “plan B,” and, despite friendly efforts from most schools (particularly N.M.U.), mostly gave up thinking about it.  I would go somewhere if my waiting list options came through; otherwise I would work in and explore another area of the world and try for grad school again next year.  Certainly I’ve learned enough on my own to do well improving my own writing myself. 



Eventually, though, Southern Illinois University contacted me requesting I call, and that phone call confirmed that they wanted me studying and teaching there in the fall of 2008.  I wasn’t entirely sure about it, considering that it’s over seven hours away from Grand Rapids, but they wanted the contract signed and returned to them soon, so I had little chance to think it over. 


I didn’t really need much time to think it over, though.  While I’ve had little interaction with the school since then (I’m still waiting for the contract to become official), I have no regrets about this: I’m excited to work with them at SIU.  I’ll be taking classes towards my M.F.A. and teaching two classes of freshman composition for a stipend that should support me completely.  I’m entirely nervous about it and sure it will kick my ass (in a good way—not like the G.R.E.); it’s a great opportunity for me.  I’ll be spending three years focused intensely on my writing and on teaching, which is exactly what I want.


Published May 30th, 2008 by Charlie Lemmink.  If you have any questions clarifying my process or otherwise, my email address is charles_lemmink (at) hotmail.com.  Please contact me if I can help. 

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