Guidelines for Prospective Applicants

DEADLINES for applications
M.A./Ph.D program: December 15, 2016
Free-Standing M.A. Program February 17, 2017

Graduate Coordinator for the English Department:
Virginia Kay
602 Philosophy Hall
(212) 854-6475

For further information on applications/admissions: GSAS Admissions

Below you will find information about:

The Department has a large program by contemporary standards, which allows us to offer a wide range of courses and to admit a great variety of students. We admit students from all over the country and from all over the world, and our successful applicants have no single profile or set of interests. Broadly speaking, our department has for many years studied literary expression within cultural and social context, and has always been hospitable to comparative and interdisciplinary work.

The following guidelines are intended to assist prospective applicants in assessing whether to apply to Columbia and what to emphasize in preparing for graduate study at Columbia.


The department typically receives around 700 applications per year for about 16 places in our sequential program. All admitted students are fully funded (with tuition, fees, and a living stipend, $30,770 (including a grant to support research over the summer break) for students entering in the fall of 2016. Funding is for 6 years for students who do the full program, or 5 years for students who have received an M.A. in literature elsewhere and who enter directly into the M.Phil. program. International students and U.S. citizens receive the same funding.

As we admit fewer than 5% of applicants, all aspects of the application need to be strong. We have no fixed cut-off on grades, but given our numbers, applicants are unlikely to be admitted unless they have an undergraduate GPA of 3.7 or higher (in the U.S. system based on a 4.0 scale), or its equivalent. Our admissions committee is well aware that different countries' grading systems vary widely from the U.S. system, so this remark about grade point averages applies only to students who have done their undergraduate work in the U.S.

Similarly, we have no fixed minimum GRE score, but successful applicants trained in the U.S. will almost always have a GRE verbal score in the 95th percentile or better. International applicants must have a minimum TOEFL score of 600 on the paper test, or 100 on the internet test.

Our department does not require the GRE Subject Test in English literature.

More important than test scores are the other aspects of the application: the Statement of Academic Purpose, writing sample, overall undergraduate record (and prior graduate record, if any), and letters of recommendation. In both the Statement of Academic Purpose and the writing sample, our committee looks for a sense of a personal voice and direction, an awareness of relevant scholarly debate, and a good match between the applicant's interests and our faculty resources.

A note to applicants on "Subfield" category designations:  The online application system for Columbia University will ask you to select from a short list two Subfields of literary study that best reflect your academic interests -- e.g., 19th Century British, Renaissance, Postcolonial.  In selecting your Subfield, you might want to be aware that the Subfields are primarily used by the admissions committee to distribute applications for evaluation to the most appropriate specialist readers on the faculty. In that regard, your application is likely to be read in relation to other applicants who have similar Subfield interests.  The Subfield designations are also used by the committee to attempt to achieve some kind of balanced representation of interests among incoming classes of graduate students.  You should select the Subfields that most closely reflect your current and expected area(s) of academic specialty, but you are not necessarily making a long-term commitment to those areas. Graduate education should be, at least in part, a process of experimentation, and we expect that some students will change their areas of interest over the course of their graduate experience.

We do not require applicants to have majored in English, but if not, your statement should show why our program is a logical next step for you, and your writing sample should show relevant literary or cultural analysis. If you have majored in English, your statement should show what beyond a general love of literature is bringing you to graduate school.

Many successful applicants come to graduate school direct from college; many others have taken a couple of years off, or have gone into other areas such as journalism, the theater, or law for a more extended period of time. If you have been out of school for more than five years, it could be advantageous to take a couple of courses as a special student before applying, in order to get a direct sense of the current state of the discipline and to have a more up-to-date writing sample and letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation from employers are not usually useful to the admissions committee, except when they can talk directly about your developing scholarly skills and experience.

As our students ordinarily teach undergraduate writing in the middle years of their time in our program, it is necessary for foreign applicants to have near-native fluency, and we look for clarity of expression in all applicants.

The Statement of Academic Purpose should be approximately 1,000 words, or four pages, double-spaced. Your writing sample should be 15-20 pages in length, and should demonstrate your scholarly work in an area relevant to your expressed interests. Longer samples can be submitted, though if so, you should be aware that they may not be read beyond the first 15 pages, and it would be a good idea to direct the reader to a particular section if the opening section doesn't fully show your skills.

Successful applicants will usually have achieved a good reading ability in at least one language beyond English. We accept in our program any languages that students can show will be relevant for their scholarly work: examples are Continental languages in which much theoretical and scholarly discussion is carried on (French, German, Spanish), classical languages that English-language writers often cite (Greek, Hebrew, Latin), the other literary languages of the British Isles (Irish, Welsh), and languages of major colonial and post-colonial populations closely engaged with England or the U.S. (Arabic, Hindi, Vietnamese, Zulu). Any language may be offered, so long as it bears a clear relevance to the candidate's prospective work.

Applicants should e-mail the department's Graduate Coordinator or Director of Graduate Studies with any questions not clarified by our website materials. Our full program description is found on the department website; we have no further information in hard copy.

When we send out offers of admission in early or mid-March, we arrange a day on campus for admitted students in late March or early April; this will be the time to meet faculty and current graduate students and get a direct feeling for life in New York and at Columbia.

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If you are planning to go on in Comparative Literature, you should list "Comparative Literature" as your subfield on the first page of the application, perhaps as one of a pair of subfields, such as "Comp.Lit./Renaissance" or "Comp.Lit./Postcolonial." This specification will help ensure that your application is read by faculty in your areas of central interest. Please see the home page of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society for further information on the Comparative Literature program. Note in particular that students at Columbia get an M.A. in a national literature before going on to the M.Phil./Ph.D. in Comparative Literature; despite the name of "The Department of English and Comparative Literature (ENCL)," this department is the logical first step only if you expect to do a share of your work on English-language materials; if not, another language/literature department will be the more logical place for you to apply. You should still apply as a sequential applicant, not a Free-Standing M.A. applicant, if you are intending to go on to the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.

While the formal program in Comparative Literature is located in ICLS, our department has a long and continuing engagement with comparative studies building on a base of English-language literature. Students with comparatist interests often decide only at the end of their first or even second year whether to proceed under the guidance of ICLS or of ENCL, so your application doesn't bind you to one route or preclude the other.

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Our department has a single M.A. program. There is no separate track or set of courses for Free-Standing M.A. students. No fellowship funding is available for Free-Standing M.A. students. Typically about 13 students enter the program each year. For fall of 2012, the department received 200 Free-Standing M.A. applications and accepted15%. The average GPA of accepted U.S.-trained M.A. applicants was 3.8; only a very few had a GPA of 3.5 or lower, and then only when other aspects of the record stood out. The average verbal GRE of U.S.-trained students was in the 95th percentile.

As with sequential applicants, the GRE Subject Test in English Literature is not required, and test scores matter less than the overall record, the Statement of Academic Purpose and writing sample, and letters of recommendation. The Statement of Academic Purpose should be approximately 1,000 words, or four pages, double-spaced. Your writing sample should be 15-20 pages in length, and should demonstrate your scholarly work in an area relevant to your expressed interests. Letters from employers are not usually very useful to the admissions committee; if you aren't able to get substantive letters from former instructors, it may be better to take a couple of courses as a special student before applying to graduate programs, so as to develop current recommendations and a fresh writing sample.

The Free-Standing M.A. option serves a variety of students: those who have been out of school for an extended period, and want new training and a direct exposure to the current state of the discipline before applying to Ph.D. programs; those who have majored in another subject and who want to strengthen their literary training; those who are pursuing careers in publishing, high school teaching, library science, or other areas for which advanced work in literary analysis and writing will be useful. These are some common reasons, but many other individual circumstances can come into play.

Students who apply to the sequential M.A./M.Phil./Ph.D. program may also apply concurrently for Free-Standing M.A. admission, in case they are not admitted to the sequential doctoral program. Applicants may not request review by a second program after submitting the application.  Students must also submit a second Statement of Academic Purpose that explains their specific interest in the Free-Standing M.A. program.  Review by the second-choice program is contingent upon the program's application deadline and available slots.

Every year, several of our Free-Standing M.A. students apply successfully to Ph.D. programs elsewhere. Our Free-Standing M.A. students may also apply to Columbia's Ph.D. program; those who do will be assessed on the same basis as any sequential applicants currently doing M.A.s elsewhere. Doing the Free-Standing M.A. at Columbia neither gives an inside edge nor counts against an applicant. Over the past several years, we have admitted on average about one Free-Standing M.A. student to our M.Phil./Ph.D. program per year, though some years none, given the intense competition for places in our sequential program. Students intending to stay at Columbia for the Ph.D. (either in English or in Comparative Literature) should apply as sequential students rather than as Free-Standing M.A. students.

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Deferred admission is not available. Applicants who do not accept their Fall place must reapply.

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Letters of recommendation should be submitted through The Columbia GSAS system Slate. Applicants may have letters sent to GSAS from other programs such as Interfolio but they should be aware that these letters are often very general and may not address issues directly relating to the degree programs at Columbia, and may therefore be less persuasive to the Admissions Committee.

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