This post actually has a point. I swear.

A few years back, I decided I wanted to get a Master’s and/or/maybe a PhD in English. Unfortunately, I was a Political Science major who entered college with AP English units and college English classes taken when I was in high school, so I only had to take one English class my entire time in college. As far as applying to grad school English programs, my college record was pretty much a zero. After reading the various admission requirements I’d imagine a committee looking at my application and seeing one English class on a transcript that was years old. Sigh.

And she wants an advanced degree in English why? On what basis are we to believe she can do this?

So I had the bright idea of getting a second BA in English from a University that 1) was REALLY close to where I live and 2) offered a 2nd BA program for people just like me. After which I would apply to grad programs.


I applied, got in and signed up for the British Literature survey. I was the oldest person in a class of freshmen. Oh, my, they were so young, these freshmen students, most of whom were there only to satisfy a graduation requirement. The professor, unbeknown to me at the time, happened to be the dean of graduate admissions for the English department. As a returning student, single parent, working full time plus writing (which I NEVER mentioned) who was paying for school on her own dime, I was a highly motivated student. This means I did the reading. Often twice.

Doing the reading turns out to be one of the secrets to getting an A in a class. I wish I’d known that when I was an undergrad the first time. My grades would have been way better. Doing the reading means when you take the written test you pretty much have a built in B without even trying. Put in just a little thought and an A is a piece of cake. Papers are more work, of course, but the reading makes them easier to write, and the motivated student tends to start the paper well in advance of the due date.

When I tutored at the University writing center later on, I was surprised by the number of students who’d come in at 4:00 for help on paper due at 6:00. And they had nothing done yet. And hadn’t done the reading, either.

I was also, as is the case with most writers, very very well read compared to the average student. (In fact, as it turned out, I had already read about 3/4ths of the graduate reading list, but I didn’t know that at the time. I only knew that the prof gave me these really odd smiles when I mentioned some book or other I’d read that seemed relevant to our discussions of British Lit.)

Anyway, it wasn’t long before my prof took me aside — with me thinking, Oh, no! What did I do wrong? to ask me what I was doing in the class. I wasn’t sure what she meant — was I that bad? I thought she was going to ask me to leave the class.

(Experts will no doubt recognize this as another form of writer’s neurosis, that is, a writer’s conviction that everything she she writes is utter crap.)

I explained to her why I was enrolled in the 2nd BA program and that my goal was to apply to grad programs when I actually had the stated prerequisites for admission. She very kindly told me that I was already at graduate student level (Yes, I began to glow!) and that I was really very good and she just looked so proud of me, that I thought, wow. She really means that!

At which point she told me about her position as Dean and advised me to just apply to the grad program despite my lack of objective qualifications. And she agreed when I asked her to write me a letter of recommendation. Heh. I TA’d for her for the second semester of the British Lit Survey.

Well, I suppose it’s no surprise that I was admitted to the Grad program, but conditionally, which meant that in addition to the regular requirements, I was supposed to take a lot of undergrad English classes to make up for my utter lack of undergraduate English courses. I felt a lot like a kid in a candy shop. I signed up for courses that seemed interesting to me. Essentially, I was supposed to do the undergrad work I lacked BEFORE I took the grad level courses. I took all the writing courses allowed, which wasn’t very many, but oh well. However, many of the undergrad courses lacked the challenge I was looking for.

Remember, all this was on my time in a life already pretty full and paid for out of my pocket. Highly motivated student, right? I was there to build up my ability to critically analyze and bring that to bear on my writing. Sometimes being the oldest student and, not infrequently, the only one who’d done the reading, was kind of irritating.

So, I approached one of my professors, who I happened to really like, and asked him if he thought it would be OK for me to sign up for one of his grad level courses. He said yes, and I pretty much never looked back.

This decision turned out well since I was now in classes with people who were equally motivated and passionate about the courses they were in. Like me, they were there to learn. Just about everybody did the reading. Some were older students. Professors took us through difficult material and required thorough reading and analysis. Papers were longer and included more difficult themes.

There was a certain professor who had a reputation for being not just tough but unkind to the point of maliciousness. I knew from casual conversations with various undergrads and even from former (graduated) students, that he seemed to be particularly vicious toward women. At the time, I already had a psycho boss (not kidding about that). Life is too short to spend with a destructive personality. I resolved never to take a class from this professor, and I didn’t, even when it would have been convenient to my schedule. Tough I can handle. Unkind, capricious and even malicious, I won’t tolerate. I have been there. I won’t ever do that again.

I also decided I would just save the boring undergrad stuff for last, which was also a good decision because eventually they waived that requirement for me. Not just because, but because I had proved I wasn’t lacking in the knowledge the requirements were supposed to provide.

I was not, suffice it to say, on the 2 year plan for completing my MA. Time, money and physical needs like sleeping and paying attention to my son, meant that I could only take one course a semester.

And yet, I graduated. I published two more books while I was in school. I learned a tremendous amount about myself, my writing and my abilities. Even though it was time and money out of my life, I don’t regret for a minute getting the degree.

My Points and Conclusions

  • Don’t underestimate what you can do.
  • Fear holds you back from failure and success, and you need to experience both.
  • Subject matter experts WANT to help you — in the appropriate forum. Example: Do not call your professors at home. Drop by office hours. Make an appointment.
  • Be prepared. Good things happen to prepared people.
  • Have a plan for success.
  • Criticism or disagreement is often discourse NOT a personal reflection on you. That discourse can help you work through difficult issues. For writers, this means paying attention to criticism: analyze it. Evaluate it. Be prepared to change your mind if the evidence is against you.
  • Do the reading. Create the foundation for your success. For writers, that means learning about writing. Do it. Study it. Learn it.
  • Hang out with other highly motivated smart people and talk about your passions. For writers, this means hang out with other writers.
  • Take risks. Remember, good things happen to students who’ve done the reading.
  • Believe in yourself. If you’ve done the reading, engaged in some critical discourse, and hung out with other smart people in your area of passion, you know more than you think.
  • Watch out for excuses. Especially when you come up with them before you’ve tried something. (See Planning For Success).
  • Do what you can and don’t stress if it’s taking you longer than someone else.
  • Protect yourself from assholes. Stay far far away from people who actively undermine your confidence.