Guidelines for Prospective Applicants

The Department of English and Comparative Literature 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.

Graduate Studies Coordinator for the English and Comparative Literature Department:
Tania Pabon-Acosta 602 Philosophy Hall
(212) 854-3215

For further information on applications/admissions: GSAS Admissions

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 stipend. 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, on average, fewer than 3% of applicants, all aspects of the application need to be strong. We have no fixed cut-off on grades, but given our numbers, admitted applicants typically 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.

GRE requirements have been suspended for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. At present, neither the GRE general test or subject test are required for admission to our PhD program. 

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 those of our faculty.


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 should be aware that the subfields are 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 also are used by the committee to attempt to achieve a 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 a process of experimentation, and we expect that some students will change their areas of interest over the course of their graduate experience.


If you are planning to study 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  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," 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 apply as a sequential applicant, not a Free-Standing M.A. applicant, if you are intending to pursue 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.

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 15-20 students enter the program each year from a pool of more than 200 applicants. The average GPA of accepted U.S.-trained M.A. applicants was 3.8. The average verbal GRE of U.S.-trained students is in the 95th percentile.

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. The writing sample should be approximately 15 pages in length, and should demonstrate scholarly work in an area relevant to  expressed interests. Letters from employers are not usually very useful to the admissions committee. Letters from former instructors are important, 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 serve a variety of students: those who have been out of school for an extended period and want new training and 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 of course, there may be many other individual reasons. 

Students who apply to the sequential M.A./M.Phil./Ph.D. program may also apply concurrently for Free-Standing M.A. admission, in the event they are not admitted to the sequential doctoral program. Applicants may not request review by a second program after submitting the application.  Students also must 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 also may apply to Columbia's Ph.D. program; those who do will be assessed on the same basis as other sequential applicants currently pursuing M.A.s elsewhere. Pursuing 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. 

Deferred admission is not available. Applicants who do not accept their place in the Fall semester cohort must reapply.

Letters of recommendation should be submitted through the same application portal, SLATE. Applicants may have letters sent to GSAS from other programs such as Interfolio but 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.