The Graduate Program in English aims to provide PhD candidates with a broad knowledge of the field of English, including critical and cultural theory. Additional important skills include facility with the tools of scholarship—ancient and modern foreign languages, bibliographic procedures, and textual and editorial methods. The program also emphasizes the ability to write well, to do solid and innovative scholarly and critical work in a specialized field or fields, to teach effectively, and to make articulate presentations at conferences, seminars, and symposia.
The program takes from four to seven years to complete, with the majority of students finishing in five or six years.
The admissions committee carefully examines the overall profile of each applicant, taking all aspects of the application into consideration. The English Department FAQs for graduate admissions provide answers to many initial questions and The GSAS Student Handbook details program requirements.
The writing samples (one primary and one secondary) are highly significant parts of the application. Candidates should submit two double-spaced, 15-page papers of no more than 5,000 words each, in 12-point type with 1-inch margins. The writing samples must be examples of critical writing (rather than creative writing) on subjects directly related to English. Applicants should not send longer papers with instructions to read an excerpt or excerpts, but should edit the samples themselves so that they submit only fifteen pages for each paper. Candidates who know the field in which they expect to specialize should, when possible, submit a primary writing sample related to that field.
While a candidate's overall GPA is important, it is more important to have an average of no lower than A- in literature (and related) courses. In addition, while we encourage applications from candidates in programs other than English, they must have both the requisite critical skills and a foundation in English literature for graduate work in English. Most of our successful candidates have some knowledge of all the major fields of English literary study and advanced knowledge of the field in which they intend to study.
Three Letters of Recommendation
It is important to have strong letters of recommendation from professors who are familiar with candidates’ academic work. Applicants who have been out of school for several years should try to reestablish contact with former professors. Additional letters from employers may also be included. Recommenders should comment not only on the applicant’s academic readiness for our PhD program but also on the applicant’s future potential as teachers and scholars.
GSAS regrets that applicants cannot use Interfolio or other recommendation dossier services; recommenders must use the GSAS online recommendation system to submit letters of recommendation.
Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
High scores in the verbal (at least 166, or 700 in the old scoring system) and subject tests (at least 650 in English Literature) are positive additions to the application, but are by no means the most important aspect of one’s candidacy. The quantitative and analytical scores carry less weight than the verbal and subject scores. Applicants should be sure to find out the schedule of GRE testing in time to have scores sent to Harvard by the end of December. Scores received after the beginning of January may be too late to be considered. The subject test in English Literature is a paper-based test, only administered three times per year (April, October, and November), so please plan your applications accordingly. The Apply page provides additional information about GRE requirements.
Statement of Purpose
The Statement of Purpose is not a personal statement and should not be heavily weighted down with autobiographical anecdotes. It should be no longer than 1,000 words. It should give the admissions committee a clear sense of applicants’ individual interests and strengths. Applicants need not indicate a precise field of specialization, if they do not know, but it is helpful to know something about a candidate’s professional aspirations and sense of their own skills, as well as how the Harvard Department of English might help in attaining their goals. Those who already have a research topic in mind should outline it in detail, giving a sense of how they plan their progress through the program. Those who do not should at least attempt to define the questions and interests they foresee driving their work over the next few years.
While there are no specific prerequisites for admission, a strong language background helps to strengthen the application, and students who lack it should be aware that they will need to address these gaps during their first two years of graduate study. More information is available from the Department of English.