The Grad School Application: A Many-Headed Beast


The author confronts the Admissions monster.

These past few weeks have been pretty busy for me. Not only have we been loaded with new projects here at CambridgeEditors but on the side I’ve been scrambling to pull together everything I need to finish for my grad school applications.

Since early in the springtime I have devoted the majority of my free time to pursuing the dream of enrolling in a graduate program in literature, perhaps even one with some prestige. Only now, with the first wave of application deadlines looming in the very near future, have I come to realize the significance of all my efforts.

In October I took the GRE Subject Test in Literature, which basically tests one’s knowledge the entire canon of English literature and then some. So, if you saw me anytime between April and the beginning of October, chances are I was nose-deep in the Norton Anthology of English Literature or Bulfinch’s Mythology, my eyes bleared by footnotes, my shoulders hunched from hours spent reading with poor posture on buses, trains, planes, subways, floors, mountaintops; in bedrooms, taxicabs, police stations, dance halls, cornfields, cubicles, coffee shops, graveyards, and maybe even for a few minutes a Corn Palace in South Dakota.

And if I was not reading, I was worrying. For me, ninety percent of writing involves some form of worrying. I lump activities such as procrastination, drinking coffee compulsively, doing pushups until my paper writes itself, giving up altogether after 25 or so pushups, and cruising Facebook to see what my high school friend’s parent’s cousin’s dog’s veterinarian is up to these days. The only thing that does not lie safely under the umbrella of worrying is actually writing. To get out and write, it sometimes feels to me as if I’m taking a leap of faith into the great unknown, like Indiana Jones crossing the invisible bridge in the Last Crusade (the last film in the series that matters, by the way). But when I cross that frame into the world of the writer, all the cylinders seem to start firing at once.

Aside from stellar GRE test scores (which costs you $300 and countless hours of your life that you will never, ever get back), grad schools want to know how well you write. This meant I needed to produce 15 or so pages of quality scholarly writing. Although I’m applying to Literature programs, I specialized in Creative Writing as an undergrad at UMass Amherst. I spent my senior year writing a 65-page thesis comprised of poetry and short fiction that I’m still somewhat proud of, but obviously none of that writing can be used for my academic writing sample. Upon scouring the archives of my dusty, fingerprinty old laptop I came across a paper on The Canterbury Tales that I had written as a junior while studying abroad, quite fittingly, in England. Pressed for time, this would have to do.

The original paper was about 10 pages long, and the writing was not as prodigious as I remembered. The first action I took was to throw out more than half of what I had written, and basically reformulate my argument around the salvageable material. This proved incredibly difficult, as it amounted to finishing the sentences of my 20-year-old self, who, and I am not ashamed to admit it, was far more naive and far less articulate than I am now. But as I had no choice, I hacked away sentence by sentence, sometimes even word by word. One day I would add a hundred words; the next, several pages; and so on until my paper grew to a sprawling 13-page monstrosity (or so it seemed to me after having wrangled with it for hours and hours and hours or end). As they say in the biz, that’s close enough for punk rock.

I learned that it always pays to make a solid outline before undertaking any serious writing project. If you make a good enough outline, you shouldn’t have to deviate much from your plans, which makes the whole process run a thousand times more smoothly.

I also learned that your first draft, whether it’s a paper or a story or a song or an invention or a last will and testament. should never be your finished product, except in rare cases (Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago comes to mind). The important thing is to take that draft, fix it up where fixing is needed, and get it finished.

Not all of my application materials are perfect yet, but there’s not enough time or resources in the history of time and resources for me to make them perfect. Finished doesn’t mean perfect. That’s why they’re two separate words. All I can do is get everything as good as can be before the final product goes out to the admissions committees. Then I can put the stress and worries of the past several months behind me and hope like it’s the first time I learned how to hope that one of these stuffy old universities invites me in.

In a few months I’ll know one way or the other.

-Sean Nolan


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Filed under Audience, Editing Your Own Work, Sean Nolan

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