Applicants for admission to the graduate program must meet the Admission Requirements of the Graduate College and the department offering the degree program (review the General Catalog for departmental requirements). See the Manual of Rules and Regulations of the Graduate College on the Graduate College website for additional information.
Application Deadline: January 1st (for all programs)
The following relates to American Studies admissions at Iowa but it may be helpful with other applications as well. The admissions process can be a somewhat mysterious one to applicants, and we hope that this discussion helps to demystify it. To help you keep track of the process, use this Graduate Admissions Checklist.
1. How to Choose the Institution(s) You Will Apply To
Our website gives you a good deal of the basic information you will want about our program and the University of Iowa. Two considerations you will want to be particularly attentive to as you decide whether to apply to Iowa or any institution: the structure of the degree program, and the faculty who teach in it. These are likely to be the most important considerations in deciding where you will direct your application(s).
The structure of Iowa’s Department of American studies emphasizes interdisciplinarity: a student’s major areas span disciplinary knowledge such as is gained in courses in history or literature or the like. Iowa’s graduate students formulate subject areas that reflect their particular intellectual interests and then take course work from two or more traditional departments as well as from American studies itself to develop expertise in those subject areas. Our guiding premise is that this multidisciplinary engagement with a broad but carefully defined subject will lead to a richer interdisciplinary understanding, that is, to an outcome that is greater than the sum of its disciplinary parts and that invites intellectual exchange across disciplinary boundaries. You will want to decide if this structure—quite different from disciplinary structures and even than many American studies programs—is appropriate to serve your needs.
A second and equally important consideration is the department’s faculty and those in the cooperating disciplinary departments. Do their interests overlap with yours? Do they offer courses in the subjects you want to study? Is there sufficient depth in the number of faculty who teach in the areas of your interest? In assessing this you will want to consider both the core faculty (those explicitly identified as members of the program) and the cooperating faculty.
More difficult to assess at long distance is the elan of the core faculty—their commitment to American studies as a way of understanding—and the degree to which cooperating faculty from the disciplines are eager to work with American studies graduate students. At Iowa the core faculty all have offices in the same building and interact with one another and with students on a daily basis. All of us consider American studies our intellectual home and not as an occasional retreat. Over the years our graduate students have developed a strong reputation for excellence among teachers in the disciplines and those teachers continue to welcome warmly our students into the classes and to serve on comprehensive examination and dissertation committees for them.
2. Preparing the Application
This can be a rather tedious and modestly expensive business, the latter not only including the admission fee but also ordering transcripts and the cost of the GRE exam. Our deadline is January 1, but it’s wise to begin assembling materials and arranging for the GRE exam, transcripts, and recommendations several months in advance of this. GRE scores take several weeks after an exam to reach us, many schools take several weeks to send transcripts, and referees can be slow in sending recommendations. We cannot act on your file until it is complete, and if it is not you compromise your chances for admission and for financial aid.
3. The GRE Exam
Our Graduate College requires only the GRE aptitude exam; the subject area exams are irrelevant for us. To arrange to take the exam probably the easiest route is to contact a college or university in your community to find out how to sign up. Or you may use the website of the Graduate Record Examinations to find out details. Official results should be sent directly to the University of Iowa Graduate Admissions.
You will need a transcript from each post-secondary school where you have studied.
Have the originals sent to the Graduate Admissions Office; upload unofficial transcripts as part of your application.
Choose your three referees thoughtfully. If you have written an honors or master’s thesis or carried out some other substantial piece of work for an instructor then he or she ought to write for you. In general, referees who have taught your seminars or discussion classes can be more specific about your work. The more detailed a recommendation is about the work you have accomplished, the more usefully it presents your case for admission. The least useful recommendations are usually those from a teacher who knows you only from a large lecture class, an employer, a member of the clergy, or a friend. These recommendations are usually mere verbal expressions of a grade received, the student’s general character, or overall aptitude. While these recommendations are acceptable, they are rarely as informative as those from former teachers who can comment on the nature and quality of your work, which is the best information about your potential as a graduate student. Referees will find it useful if, when you ask them to write for you, you supply them with a copy of writing you have done in their courses, for this can activate specific memories beyond the general impression you’ve left. Teachers who themselves have been carefully attentive to what you wrote (that is, who offered substantial commentary on it) are usually effective referees. It is helpful if a referee can make a comparative judgment about an applicant’s work ("one of the strongest three students in the class," "among the top 10% of students ever taught," or something similar), but this is obviously something that applicants can only suggest and we don’t require it.
American Studies does not have a form for recommendations. Referees should write on their professional letterhead and upload the letter to the link provided in the email they'll receive from the Office of Admissions (you will provide their name, email address, title, institution/company name, phone number and indicate your Buckley Amendment Waiver choice on your Admissions Profile in MyUI).
6. The Writing Sample
The writing sample is among the most important documents in your admissions dossier and you should choose it with care. In general you ought to select the piece of writing that you are most proud of, that you believe best represents your talents as a scholar and writer. It ought to be about ten to twenty pages, although we do not have an absolute requirement on length. If you have written a thesis, you may want to select a portion of it to send, with a brief headnote that locates the sample in the larger project. It’s desirable, although not obligatory, for the writing sample to be relevant to the advanced work in American Studies that you propose to do. It need not illustrate your research capabilities, i.e., your work with archival or primary materials, but if it does that can be a plus. Imaginative writing (poems or stories) as well as brief journalistic news stories, slides, or videotapes are not usually very revealing about your abilities as a potential American Studies student.
If your writing sample has your instructor’s comments on it, you may want to send this copy because these provide additional information about the nature of your prior training and the evaluation of your work by the instructor.
Upload the writing sample as part of your application.
7. The Statement of Purpose
This is the most challenging part of the application, because in it you need to condense into a few pages your prior training, your intellectual aspirations, and your reasons for applying to Iowa. These topics invite breezy abstractions but the most effective statements are those that more thoughtfully combine specificity with generalities. What has made American Studies attractive to you? A particular course, a book you’ve read, the conjunction of two or more courses, the advice of a mentor, the experience of a friend, the example of a teacher? What do you hope to accomplish in your graduate training? What are your intellectual passions, and how do you imagine they will be served by Iowa’s program? Why is an interdisciplinary program more appropriate to these needs than a disciplinary one?
A way to think of the statement of purpose is as the first expression of what will be an ongoing inquiry during all of your graduate training. Since we have few required courses we ask our students methodically to reassess their intellectual ambitions and goals. These reassessments take place in an advising session every semester and then formally in the first term of a student’s second year, when he or she meets with the entire faculty to finalize a plan of study, and again in the comprehensive examination. What you write in the application’s statement of purpose will therefore not be definitive-people are allowed to shift direction, and sometimes do, as new opportunities and interests come into view-but it gives you the opportunity to indicate what at this moment are your goals, your animating passions, and why you think these may be served by Iowa’s American Studies Department.
Upload the statement of purpose as part of your application.
8. Admissions Decisions
We begin reading dossiers as soon as they are complete in January and continue to meet until mid-March.
We first make decisions about admissibility and when that is complete about financial aid.
No single item in a dossier is privileged; we try very hard to look at the complete record. We don’t require applicants to have undergraduate majors in American Studies, or even course work in it, but we do look for prior training in American subjects that prepares them to undertake advanced work. Because we are concerned with American culture past and present, we look for some basic historical training. We also look for relevant non-academic experiences.
We also assess the "fit" of an applicant with Iowa’s strengths. Since Iowa is a large university with rich resources, we can well accommodate most applicant’s ambitions. But we take seriously our role in providing mentors, coursework, and resources in the areas in which a student wishes to study.
We admit only students with MA degrees directly to the PhD. We admit students with only a BA to the MA degree but with the expectation that their ultimate degree goal is the PhD. In their second year of study, MA students have an opportunity to reassess their plans and to transition smoothly upon completion of the MA to the PhD should that continue to be their goal. We expect that students who are successful MA students will qualify and be successful PhD students. But we also know that for many the first two years of graduate school are crucial in reformulating intellectual goals and career ambitions, and some MA students may elect in their second year not to pursue a PhD.
9. Financial Aid
We attempt to support all graduate students who are making adequate progress toward their degrees with fellowships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships. Once a student receives aid, that student is eligible to receive four additional years of aid (contingent on satisfactory progress toward the PhD). Teaching and research appointments are with a variety of American studies classes and professors – e.g., leading discussions in large lecture courses, grading papers and assisting a professor, and senior graduate students teach their own courses. Currently, all graduate students making adequate progress toward their degrees have financial aid. While this is almost always true, this situation can change.
We receive applications from across the U.S. and around the world. We ordinarily receive more good applications than we can offer admission to. Our goal is to admit both a talented and diverse graduate student community.
10. For Applicants Who Are Non-U.S.
We welcome applications from abroad and aim to admit some foreign students every year. We believe the program benefits from a diversified student population in terms of race, gender, and nationality. It is important that applicants who are not native English speakers ascertain that their test scores (GREs and/or TOEFL) have been sent by the January 1 deadline. These are important indicators of a student’s English fluency and ability to comprehend the language in demanding graduate seminars. We are unlikely to admit any foreign student without these in hand.
While admissions criteria are the same for all applicants, we face, with foreign applications, the challenge of evaluating materials from a wide range of colleges and universities around the world. We recognize that universities in different countries operate under different systems and guiding principles. Iowa’s faculty has tremendous collective knowledge and experience about a large number of schools worldwide from international meetings, foreign teaching, visiting lectures, travel, and conversations with faculty in many countries. But we cannot hope to know well every single university and college in the world. We therefore pay particular attention to the applicant’s writing sample, statement of purpose, relevant experiences, and preparation for interdisciplinary coursework in American studies. We recognize that the ability to get such preparation varies from country to country and, in many cases, that is the purpose of leaving one’s home country to study abroad. We do look for some background in American history and interest as well as preparation in more than one subject or disciplinary area about America. For example, while a student may have had more opportunity to study American literature at a previous university than other topics, we would look for interests and efforts that stretch beyond the study of one single discipline—in this case, literature.
We recommend that foreign applicants have some prior experience in the U.S. whenever possible and especially a year of study at a U.S. university or even a prior degree (an M.A.) from a U.S. university. We are primarily a Ph.D.-granting program, and if students need a few years of general preparation to undertake advanced coursework in American studies, we recommend applying first to M.A.-only American studies programs and then, upon successful completion of an M.A. degree, applying to Iowa’s Ph.D. program.
For applicants considering a move to another country and to a city a long way from their homes and families, Iowa City is a hospitable community to students from all cultures and nationalities. It is a very international community by virtue of the fact that the university attracts a diverse mixture of peoples. The university offers a number of supportive services to students from foreign countries—from helping students with visas to assisting groups of students from the same culture who wish to get together. Movies, lectures, celebrations, and other events on campus regularly reflect on non U.S. cultures and often make students from abroad feel at home while involving U.S. students in different cultures.
It is not possible for us to waive the university’s application fee for foreign students who cannot afford the fee.
11. How to Obtain Additional Information
All of us are on email (addresses below) and are glad to respond to specific questions about the program, about our own intellectual interests, and about the atmosphere for work in American Studies at Iowa. We will also respond to phone and mail inquiries. Most of the cooperating faculty in the disciplines also are on email and are likely to respond to particular questions about their courses or scholarly interests. Graduate students already in the program can also help you learn what it’s like to study at Iowa. Most of them have in the past been glad to discuss their experiences here. If you would like the email addresses of a few students, send a request to Laura Kastens, department secretary indicating what your interests are.
Department of American Studies