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Applying Myself
November 2002

There are dozens of books devoted to the subject. I have a stack of at least 50 printouts from assorted websites professing to help with the process. Holy shit. Graduate school applications. Even more, the personal statement.


Yes, it seems like I've done this process at least a dozen times, but really it's only been three: for my Master's and for my summer Kiddie Lit MA Program, and also back in '99 for PhD programs when I got accepted to a couple places but couldn't enroll because we moved back to LA. You'd think that having some experience with this would mean I wouldn't be hunched over my desk 3 months before the deadline composing yet another Deeply Inspired Possible Outline for a Personal Statement. Please. I've written critical essays, short stories, a couple novels, and even attempted some miserable poetry of my own. I've written syllabi, letters, proposals, and press releases. And I've written Blathers and Rants, of course. Nothing causes me the kind of insecurity and self-doubt in everything from my ability to compose a grammatically correct sentence to my Abilities, period, than application essays.

I've already been at work for well over six months on this project, researching programs and faculty I want to work with, making scads of notes, reading everything written on the application process that exists in the known universe… and sometimes I still feel like Applying is some deep, centuries-old mystery that I'm no closer to solving than when I was a stupid high school student who didn't even know what "humanities" meant!

For pity's sake, answer me one question: WHAT WORKS?!

Even all of the Get Into The Ultimate Grad Program Of Your Choice and Write the Ultimately Ultimate Admissions Essay, No, Really! books and sites are little more than a collection of advice that should be common sense to ANYONE applying to work academically at the graduate level: research the schools you're applying to, proofread and spell-check and revise and don't write your essay the night before it's due, don't send in dog-eared pages with coffee stains, remember that grad school is a commitment, give your essay a theme or thesis- Really? People older than 8th grade need to be told this?

To make matters worse, much of the advice is seemingly contradictory: Use the essay to explain any discrepancies in grades/test scores. No! Wait! Don't mention that stuff at all because if you're a strong enough applicant, it won't matter, and can even sound to apologetic, so just skip the big explanations! Be sure to mention who you want to work with… but don't expect that to always work, because you never know who's leaving or retiring or taking a leave-of-absence to work on a book, so if you mention someone who's leaving/just left, you could screw the whole essay up. Remember to be strong and forceful about your assets. Just a second… don't be arrogant!

Good grief.

Each attempt at my SoP feels more stilted and contrived than the last. And I feel triply pressured because, while my grades and GRE scores are good, they certainly aren't (IMO) in Academic Superstar territory (Goddess Caroline differs, but what does she know? She's ONLY an ABD Victorianist in a top grad program herself… *eye roll* She also expects me to chill out. Ha. As if. ). If I get in, it's going to have to be on the strength of my writing: my critical submissions, and, of course, my fucking gawddamned holy shit personal statement.

So what do I tell them? What would impress them?

Dear Admissions Committee:

I am extremely qualified for graduate work in English. I seriously love hunching over books in a library study carrel. No, you don't understand… I actually think it's fun to spend weeks at a time combing through three different libraries' entire collections of Alcott books and journal articles to clarify a quotation or original theoretical approach. Heck, I've been to every major university library in greater Los Angeles to do research. I posses a number of a successful graduate scholar's necessary attributes: I work well under pressure. I speed-read. I belong to the MLA and a beloved copy of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. I also have a semi-unhealthy dependence on caffeine, a prescription for anti-depressants, and a backpack able to withstand well over one hundred pounds of books, papers and folders. Why, while in the throes of research, I regularly spend more money on photocopies than on food! I can analyze the significance of appliances I cannot operate and I have accepted guilt as an inherent feature of relaxation-

Gah. I can't use Internet Humor in a serious application. So I guess that lets out this oh-so-witty wittiness:

I read Wittgenstein, Benjamin and Lacan in their original Pig Latin for fun. I can balance a spoon on the end of my nose and tie cherry stems into knots with my teeth. I channel the spirit of Andy Gibb. In my spare time, I compose light comic operettas about the lives of Hadley Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald and Frieda Lawrence…. But I have not yet gone to grad school.

Folks, I'm prepared for grad study! Check this out: I've done conferences! I've taught! I have a c.v.! I've even published critical work! How many other PhD applicants can say that?!

Um. Well, lots, actually. Huh. Sheesh.

Good thing I have an eight-page document of nothing but Personal Statement Development Questions, gleaned from every gawddamned book and website on the market…. Let's hunker down….


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