Guidelines for Admission

Please be Advised: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of English will be admitting significantly fewer students than in previous years. While we are unable to provide a specific number of anticipated acceptances at this time, we believe it is important to share this recent news with potential applicants. Should you decide to apply to our program, we very much look forward to reviewing your application.

Application for admission to the Harvard English Graduate Program is completed through the Graduate School of Arts and SciencesThe application deadline for 2022-2023 admission is January 5th, 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time. For a full list of application requirements and instructions for the application process, please see the GSAS Application Instructions and GSAS Admissions Requirements.

The following is a set of general guidelines for the English Department’s admissions process. It should be noted that while several areas are emphasized here, the Admissions Committee carefully examines the overall profile of each applicant, taking these and other aspects of the application into consideration:

Writing Samples

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, and 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 candidates’ overall GPA is important, it is more important to have an average of no lower than A- in literature courses (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. 

Unfortunately, Interfolio does not work well with Harvard’s online application system. We ask that your recommenders upload their letters directly to the online application, with upload tool provided.

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 focus on giving 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 English department 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. For more details, please see the “Language Requirements” section of the Program Description.


The GRE General and Subject Tests are not required as part of the English PhD application process. Students wishing to send in scores may do so, but they will not be factored into the admissions decision.


The Harvard English Department is committed to admitting and supporting a diverse community of graduate students. The Department encourages applications from students from all undergraduate institutions and backgrounds, including students of color and underrepresented minorities, queer and transgender students, first-generation students, foreign nationals, and veterans. The Department also encourages applications from students across a range of sub-fields, critical perspectives, and methodological orientations. You can browse current student research interests by going to “Graduate Students” under the “People” tab at the top of this page and sorting by field. For more information about issues of diversity at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, please review the resources and informations below:

Diversity at GSAS

Perspectives: Resources for Minority Applicants 

Smooth Transitions: Organizations and Resources

W.E.B. Du Bois Graduate Society

Sheila Thomas, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Minority Affairs: or (617) 495-5315
English Department Volunteer Diversity Contacts for Prospective Students:
Sezen Unluonen,

Graduate Admissions FAQ

How many people apply to the program, and how many are admitted?

The PhD program in English at Harvard is extremely competitive. We receive an average of 300-350 applications per year, and we admit approximately 10-15 students (acceptance rate of about 4-5%).

Does the Department of English offer an MA or MFA?

No; the Department of English only offers a PhD in English Literature. Students already in the doctoral program who have met certain curricular requirements are able to apply for a non-terminal AM degree, but no terminal Master's program exists. We do not offer a graduate program in creative writing.

Does the Department of English offer a degree in TEFL/TESOL/TESL

No, the Department of English does not offer these programs. Our graduate program leads to a PhD in English Literature.

Are international applicants encouraged?

The department welcomes international applicants, including non-native English speakers who have a strong command of the English language. Per GSAS:

"Adequate command of spoken and written English is essential to success in graduate study at Harvard. Applicants who are non-native English speakers can demonstrate English proficiency in one of three ways:

A master’s degree or other graduate degree is not accepted as proof of English proficiency.

*Special note for applicants with an undergraduate degree from a US institution where English was not the primary language of instruction: if a portion of your program was conducted in English, you may petition for a waiver of the TOEFL/IELTS requirement. Contact for details.

**Some degree programs may require a higher score on either the TOEFL or IELTS. Visit your degree program page of interest for more information."

Many international students inquire about non-degree granting program. Information for Special Student, Visiting Fellow, and other programs can be found here.

Can accepted students enroll on a part-time basis?

No, our graduate program is full-time, and requires residency at Harvard. The majority of our students take five or six years to obtain their PhD. If you are interested in taking graduate courses part-time, online, and/or at night, you may want to look into the offerings of the Harvard Extension School.

Can accepted students pursue a secondary field of study?

Yes. For a list of fields and more information, please visit the secondary field of study page on the GSAS website. Students who choose to pursue courses for a secondary field remain under GSAS time limits and must meet all milestones and deadlines in the English PhD program.

Does the department offer financial aid?

Admissions decisions are made without knowing the financial need of the applicants, so that financial status (including availability of supplemental funding) plays no role in the assessment of one's suitability for admission. All students (including international students) who are admitted to the PhD program receive full and equal funding, through tuition waivers and modest living stipends. Teaching fellowships are made available to graduate students starting in their third year. You may want to review the "Tuition and Fees" section of GSAS's website for details about other fees and the approximate cost of living in Cambridge.

Can you provide a list of required documents for application?

Two writing samples (one primary and one secondary) 15-pages in length each, double-spaced (bibliographies do not count toward the page limit).

A Statement of Purpose of 1000 words, which gives a clear sense of your strengths and interests and which details what you wish to pursue in a doctoral program.

Transcripts from each college/university attended. The Graduate School requires that you upload your transcript(s) with your online application. Please do not send paper transcripts.

- Three recommendations from faculty members who can speak to your academic capabilities. All recommendations should be uploaded via the GSAS online application system. Please do not send paper recommendations. We do not recommend the use of Interfolio.

- A minimum score of 80 on the TOEFL iBT (internet-based test) is required for all non-native English speakers who have not received a degree from a university or college in which English is the language of instruction.

What if I am missing any of the required components?

An incomplete application will still be reviewed in its entirety, but it will not be seen as competitive as applications considered "complete."

What if I did not major in English as an undergraduate?

Students admitted to our program have not always been English majors as undergraduates; however, applicants must have both the requisite critical skills and a foundation in English literature for graduate work. This is generally demonstrated by substantial undergraduate coursework and recommendations from faculty in the field. Applicants from other disciplines will sometimes pursue a Master’s degree (or other graduate coursework) in English Literature first – before applying to the PhD program – to obtain a stronger background in the subject.

What if I already have a Master's Degree in English?

If you already have an MA, a maximum of four graduate-level courses may be transferred from the other institution, at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies. Transferred courses will count as 100-level courses toward your PhD requirements. Please note that an MA is not required for admission to the PhD Program – and indeed, the majority of our applicants do not have one.

Is proficiency in languages other than English required?

There are no specific language prerequisites for admission, but a solid background in languages other than English, particularly those that would be useful for scholarly research, will strengthen your application. Demonstrated reading knowledge of two languages (usually Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian) is required by the beginning of the third year in the program. You can view examples of past language exams on our Resources for Grad Students page.

Can I meet with a professor?

Appointments to meet with faculty members must be made by contacting them directly. You can find their contact info on the faculty page.

Where should I mail supplemental application materials?

The entire application system is conducted online. Please do not send any paper materials to the English Department. GSAS admissions also no longer accepts paper materials. 

I'm having a technical problem with the GSAS online application.

The Department of English is not able to troubleshoot or provide help for technical issues with the online application tool. Please click the “Technical Support” link on the application login screen to notify tech support.

When will I hear back about application decisions?

GSAS Admissions sends out letters containing application decisions in early- to mid-March. Please note that the English Department is not able to answer questions about a candidate’s application status over the phone or via email.

Can I study as a visiting fellow at Harvard?

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences offers the option of enrolling as a Special Student or Visiting Fellow. See here for more details. Please note that the Department of English does not play a role in the administration of this program.

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