Applying to Graduate Schools in Classics

Preliminary Considerations

1) Do I really want to go to grad school?

YES if you:

  • love Latin and Greek
  • like working with people and can see yourself as a teacher
  • enjoy writing papers and doing research have done well as an undergraduate
  • are self-motivated and goal-oriented

NO if you:

  • are thinking about grad school simply because don’t know what else to do
  • have been struggling with Latin or Greek as an undergraduate
  • don’t like to study for long hours or write papers
  • have difficulty meeting deadlines
  • are uncomfortable with public speaking
  • don’t like to work with people and can’t see yourself as a teacher
  • are unwilling to relocate (often repeatedly) in order to pursue your career
  • require complete financial security*

*This last point needs to be taken carefully into consideration. Admission to a graduate program doesn’t always lead to an advanced degree, and an advanced degree in classics is no guarantee of a job. To begin with, there are a limited number of classics positions in the US, and while US schools regularly hire foreign faculty, few Americans are hired by foreign institutions (this includes Canada). Further, luck plays a large role in most careers, which is another way of saying that even with hard work a classicist may fail to complete a degree, or fail to find a job after completing a degree, for reasons that are completely beyond his or her control. Lastly, unlike English or modern foreign languages, a classics degree is not considered qualification for teaching in community colleges.

For these reasons, it is important to have a “plan B,” some sort of idea what you will do if you are unable to complete a graduate degree or are unable to find a job in classics after completing graduate study.

2) What do I want to study?

First of all, consider what type of career you want. Those who wish to teach elementary and/or secondary school Latin, for example, will want to pursue a master’s in teaching (often referred to as MAT programs). Those who wish to become professors will need a doctorate degree (PhD). The non-teaching master’s is usually pursued as a step either toward the doctorate or, less commonly, toward a career outside academia. Different programs offer different combinations of these three degrees, so it is important to match your applications with suitable programs.
As for the work itself, tastes and desires change in graduate school, but it is important to have some idea what aspect of classics you want to study. Do you prefer Latin or Greek? Poetry or Prose? Philology, History, Archaeology, Philosophy, Art History or Literary Criticism? Epigraphy, Numismatics or Papyrology? Bronze Age or Iron Age Greece? Republican or Imperial Rome? etc.

3) Where should I apply?

Most students apply to half a dozen or so programs. The decision about where to apply should in the first place be based on what you want to study. This means researching classics departments to find out who’s working on what. A list of classics departments can be accessed at the following link: http://www.tlg.uci.edu/index/departments.html.
A brief overview of Classics graduate programs can be accessed at this link:
Classics MA/MAT/PhD programs

The reputation of individual departments should be assessed in terms of the number, variety and accomplishments of the faculty, course offerings, opportunities for teaching and travel, and percentages of graduates who find employment. Most students apply to a range of schools, including prestitgious universities where they may have little chance of funding as well as lower profile universities that serve as “safety schools.” A well known classics department with a distinguished faculty is usually to be preferred, although smaller programs may offer more teaching opportunities, and may work harder to find jobs for their graduates.
Some consideration should also be given to the university as a whole. If, for example, you think you want to study Plato, make sure to apply to places that have a strong philosophy department. Also be sure to check the overall graduate program: do grad students pay tuition or get waivers? do they have to pay income tax? are there health benefits? what kinds of opportunities for partners and spouses? etc.
Most prospective graduate students will want to pay close attention to funding opportunities. These will include teaching assistantships (more common at large public universities) and fellowships (usually limited and competitive at public universities). Some programs fund all the students they accept, others only a portion. Generally speaking, admission without funding means that a program is unwilling to take a financial risk on your future.

4) When should I start thinking about applying?

As early as possible. The more successful applicants to classics graduate programs will be those who start the languages early (first or second year) and who have established working relationships with a number of faculty members at their undergraduate institutions.
Because it takes a good deal of time to fill out all the forms and to assemble all the materials, students should begin compiling a list of programs to which they wish to apply early in the spring semester of the year BEFORE they hope to enter graduate school. For example, if you’re hoping to begin in the fall of 2010, figure out which programs you’ll be applying to and begin assembling the materials in the spring of 2009.

The Application Process

The application process for admission to graduate schools varies, but most institutions require some version of the following:

1) Statement of Purpose (also referred to as a Personal Statement)

Usually 1-2 pages explaining why you want to study classics at a particular program (SPELL- AND GRAMMAR-CHECKED). This is NOT an empty exercise; the Statement of Purpose usually represents your first impression. Keep story-telling to a minimum; it’s fine to spend a sentence or two on your inspirational trip to Rome, but the focus should be on your accomplishments and goals, and why you and the program to which you’re applying would be a good fit. Be sure to get as much feedback as possible from faculty members in crafting the statement. Some applicants will include a separate CV (“curriculum vitae”, an overview of one’s professional life) that lists achievements such as scholarships; if no CV is to be included with the application, such achievements should be mentioned in the Statement of Purpose.

2) Letters of Recommendation from faculty members (usually 3, though it doesn’t hurt to have 4). Apart from experience with the languages, these letters will probably carry the most weight with admissions committees.
It is therefore important to establish connections as early as possible with a number of faculty members (graduate students should usually be avoided as recommenders). Usually this means taking smaller courses that allow for a lot of interaction between students and teachers, such as upper-level languages and courses that have a significant writing component. Getting to know faculty members in office hours is also a good idea.
It is important to contact your recommenders well in advance, and to have others to go to if someone seems reluctant to write for you. Once a recommender has accepted, give him or her at least a month before the letter is due. Also be sure to check back (politely) a week or so before the deadline to make sure your recommenders haven’t forgotten.
Always provide recommenders with detailed information about when and where the letters are to go out, and with stamped, pre-addressed envelopes for letters that need to be sent through the regular mail. Be sure to indicate that you are waiving access to letters written on your behalf (that is, that you will not see what your recommenders write about you). There is usually a box to check and/or a place to sign on the application form in order to waive access.

3) Transcripts

Official transcripts are nearly always required from all schools attended after high school. Although more and more of these are available electronically, the process can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive (one reason for engaging a credentials service; see below)

4) GRE (Graduate Record Examination)

The general GRE is required by many institutions (there is no classics subject test). Most students take the exam early in the fall of their last year before entering graduate school. Some programs use GRE scores as an initial selection criterion, and it is in any case important to have a decent verbal score (a high quantitative score is thought by some to correlate with linguistic ability). Very roughly speaking, any score below 500 on the verbal may be prohibitive, while scores above 700 are usually required for the more exclusive programs.

5) Writing Sample

Not all departments require a writing sample, but enough do that it is important to have a polished piece of scholarly writing prepared well in advance of the application process. Usually the sample will be a reworked paper for a class, or an early version of the senior thesis or some other research project.
Samples should be relatively brief (5-10 pages, 12-point font double-spaced, roughly 3-4000 words), and formatted like a professional article (footnotes, bibliography, SPELL- AND GRAMMAR-CHECKED). The sample should demonstrate familiarity with at least one ancient language and with secondary sources. Like the personal statement, the writing sample should be reviewed by at least one faculty member prior to being sent out.

6. Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV)

1-page summary of one’s professional life, including:

  • contact info
  • colleges attended & degrees (to be) received
  • academic honors
  • service related to classics

In order to make a good first impression, follow each program’s instructions to the letter and send all materials in a little ahead of time. Again, it is important to plan in advance: many programs offer on-line applications, but some do not.
An efficient way to handle most of these application materials is to sign up for a CREDENTIALS SERVICE, which will for a reasonable fee (usually less than $50 a year) keep electronic copies (of the personal statement, writing sample, letters of recommendation etc.) and send them where you’d like. This can be more efficient than sending hard copies of everything to each program. The services can be found online by searching for “credentials services academic.”

Things to Keep in Mind

1) GPA: a 3.5 cumulative grade point average is the lowest that many schools will accept, or at least consider for funding. Most important are your grades in Latin and Greek, which should be over the 3.5 minimum, especially in the last two years of study.

2) Languages: achievement in Latin and Greek (at the COLLEGE level) will probably carry the most weight with a classics admissions committee. Most students will be stronger in one language than the other (usually Latin), but it’s important to demonstrate that progress has and is being made in the other (usually Greek). The more you read in the original Latin and Greek, the better off you’ll be; some applications even ask for a list of such readings. The bare minimum level of preparation in Latin and Greek is THREE YEARS of one language and TWO YEARS of the other. This means SIX SEMESTERS of one language and at least 4 of the other.  For anything less than this, the best route is a post-baccalaureate program to bring the languages up to a competitive level.
For those who have come to classics relatively late, it will be important to take advantage of intensive summer language programs (here at UF students can acquire a full year of Latin or Greek in a single summer) and to load up on language courses during the academic year. If a semester happens to have few relevant course offerings, students should pursue independent study with faculty members.
Modern languages are less important than Latin and Greek, but since you’ll need to acquire reading knowledge of at least a couple (usually German, French and Italian) in order to get a PhD in classics, any experience as an undergraduate will be looked on favorably.

3) Extracurricular activities: provided that grades are high and languages well in hand, application committees will be impressed by recognition received for academic achievement outside the classroom. It is therefore recommended to apply for scholarships and awards, to pursue opportunities to attend conferences and to study abroad, and/or to participate in the classics honors society Eta Sigma Phi.
Here are some links to such opportunities here at UF:

4) Fees: Almost all programs charge fees, ranging from around $25-$75, for each application. Since this can add up quickly, it’s best to target your applications.

Internet Resources
The following sites offer useful information about applying to graduate school: