Recommendations for Undergraduates Who are Preparing for Graduate School

By Craig Zabel, Head, Department of Art History

The following is advice for undergraduates who are considering future graduate study in art history and would like to enhance their prospects for admission at major universities:

  1. Be serious as a student: Earning good grades and cultivating a strong G.P.A. (at least 3.0, if not above 3.5) is essential for those who aspire to graduate school.

  2. 21 credits of art history: Certainly majoring in art history is good preparation for graduate school in the field. Majors in other fields often can apply for grad school in art history if they have at least 21 credits in art history (equivalent of Penn State’s Art History Minor).

  3. Consider Minors: If you are an Art History Major, consider minoring (or double-majoring) in a related field. The following Penn State minors can be very beneficial, depending on your interests: African American Studies, American Studies, Anthropology, Architectural History, Architecture Studies, Asian Studies, Chinese, Classics & Mediterranean Studies, English, French & Francophone Studies, Geography, German, Greek, Hebrew, History, International Arts, International Studies, Italian, Japanese, Jewish Studies, Latin American Studies, Latin, Latina & Latino Studies, Middle East Studies, Music, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Russian Area Studies, Russian, Sexuality and Gender Studies, Spanish, Theatre, Women’s Studies, and World Literature.

  4. Take studio art: For majors in art history, consider taking your 6 credits of General Education in the Arts (GA) by actually doing art—take your GAs in ART and/or PHOTO. Art historians often learn fundamental artistic principles by actually learning to draw, paint, throw a pot, etc.

  5. Develop a strong facility in one or more foreign languages: M.A. programs usually require reading skills in one foreign language. Ph.D. programs typically require reading skills in two languages. For a Western field, the languages are usually German and one Romance language: French, Italian, or Spanish. Developing speaking skills for the field you would like to concentrate in is especially helpful, such as French for French Impressionism. Studying languages is much easier to do as an undergraduate, rather than waiting until graduate school, when you will have little time to do remedial study in language.

  6. Take ART H 350W “Undergraduate Seminar in the History of Art,” during your junior year: This course on research methods in art history is critical preparation for graduate school and is required for all majors. Since it is a “writing” course students often develop their most mature research paper as an undergraduate. Graduate school applications usually require a “writing sample.” By taking this course in your junior year, you can use your 350W paper for your writing sample when you apply for grad school in the fall of your senior year.

  7. Consider taking ART H 551, “Historiography of Art History” during your senior year: This course will introduce you to a selection of the most important writers, thinkers, and critics in the history of art, as well as the intellectual and philosophical contexts of the profession. This is essential knowledge for new graduate students. Note: This is a graduate-level seminar taught every fall semester. Seniors may take a 500-level course if they have a G.P.A. above 3.5 (with the consent of the instructor), a G.P.A. between 3.00 and 3.49 (with the consent of the instructor, your academic advisor, and Graduate Enrollment Services), or is a Schreyer Scholar.

  8. Present a Paper at a Conference: Every year there are a number of undergraduate research conferences where you can present a twenty-minute research paper that may have grown out of a term paper for one of your classes. Work closely with a professor as you refine the paper and ask the Department Head if they can assist with the expenses to attend the conference.

  9. Have a study abroad experience: Nothing can replace seeing art and architecture first hand. This is also a great way to study languages. Living in a different culture is often a life changing experience that can help clarify your goals for the future.

  10. Internships: Interning in a museum or gallery, participating in an archaeological dig, volunteering or working at a historic site, etc., can provide invaluable experiences that can also help you decide your career direction. You can also foster relationships that can lead to letters of recommendation.

  11. Visit museums: Penn State is a half-day drive to many of the great art museums in the United States. Take every chance you have to familiarize yourself with permanent collections and see important temporary exhibitions. Every semester the department hosts at least one Saturday bus trip to a major city and museum.

  12. Read: Reading is critical to preparing the mind of an art historian. Along with reading art history books, an aspiring art historian should also be a regular reader of newspapers, journals, history, philosophy, and literature.

  13. Talk to your professors (and your advisor): Make it a regular habit to visit the offices of those professors whom you admire. Along with talking about curent term papers, also talk to them about graduate school and the profession. Get a variety of viewpoints about how to prepare for grad schools and which are the best universities for you to apply to, considering your interests and background. To apply to graduate school, one typically needs three letters of reference. Professors can write much stronger letters for those students that they know well and over a period of time.

  14. Graduate Record Examination: Take the GRE before or by the fall of your senior year. Become very familiar with the format of the exam before you take it. Talk to your advisor(s) once you receive the results of the exam.

  15. Research graduate schools: The Internet provides immediate access to the application requirements, curriculum, resources, and faculty of any graduate program. Apply to universities whose faculty match your interests. Read the publications of the faculty member with whom you would like to work. Talk to her or him on the phone. If you can, visit universities that you are particularly interested in and make appointments in advance to meet the faculty that interest you the most. Ask to meet with one of their graduate students. (Write a thank you note.)

  16. Statement of purpose: This is one of the most important parts of any application to graduate school. Have your advisor (and other professors) critique an early draft. A statement of purpose should be a concise statement of your preparation for graduate study in art history, your reasons for attending graduate school, and your professional goals. Appropriate topics for this statement include: Why are you interested in graduate study in art history? What are your specific areas of interest in art history and why? What is your background in the study of the history of art, including course work, study abroad, travel, internships, assistantships, etc.? Have you had any employment or done volunteer work in museums, galleries, historic sites, archaeological sites, etc.? Discuss your background and any future plans of study in foreign languages. Have you presented any public lectures or do you have any publications in art history? Do you have any teaching experience? What relevant awards, honors, and scholarships have you received? If you are applying for the M.A. program, do you plan to continue on for a Ph.D.? If you are applying for the Ph.D. program, in what field of art history do you intend on writing a dissertation, or do you already have a specific topic in mind? What are your ultimate career goals? Why is the graduate program in art history at the university to which you are applying of particular interest to you?

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