Frequently Asked Questions about Applying to the Doctoral Program in American Studies and Ethnicity

Please consult these questions before scheduling an appointment with the Director of Graduate Studies or with any members of the ASE faculty.

  • We look for candidates who show a strong interest in interdisciplinary work and whose research would fit into the priorities of the Department, which include but are not limited to race, cultural studies, and California. Applicants should have a clearly defined program of research in their personal statement and should demonstrate strong writing and research skills in their writing sample. Their work should be a good match not just with the Department’s priorities but also with some of its faculty members, who the student will identify in her or his application and personal statement. Applicants’ grades should demonstrate high ability in relevant subjects, and their letters of recommendation should be specific and strong. ASE places lesser weight on grades and very little weight on GRE scores.

    An applicant’s personal statement will be stronger if the applicant is detailed and specific about the kind of research the applicant has done in the past and the kind of research the applicant intends to carry out as a student in ASE. (For example, an applicant who states that she is interested in working on race will not be as interesting as an applicant who proposes to study the effects of Reagan-era economic and social policies upon women of color.) Applicants should clearly identify the relevant faculty in ASE who they believe will be potential mentors; these faculty will likely be asked by the admissions committee to review the applicant’s file and to provide an opinion of the applicant’s qualifications. ASE will not admit applicants whose work will not be supported by ASE faculty.

    Applicants should submit writing samples that demonstrate that they are capable of doing graduate-level research work, e.g., a research-intensive undergraduate paper, an honors thesis, a master’s thesis, or a graduate seminar paper. The writing sample should demonstrate that the applicant understands how to carry out research and cite sources, knows the rules of grammar and syntax, and has some knowledge of the theory or background of the applicant’s discipline. Writing samples should be the best of the applicant’s work, and do not necessarily need to indicate the kind of research the applicant will do once in ASE. ASE understands that the kind of research the applicant has done in the past may not be the kind of research the applicant intends in the future.

    The personal statement and writing sample are the two things besides the GRE over which the applicant has absolute control. ASE recommends that both the statement and sample be revised and polished as many times as possible.

    Some applicants are concerned that their grades do not reflect their intellectual abilities. ASE pays attention to grades but does not rule out applicants because of relatively low GPAs. But applicants’ grades in subjects relative to American studies and to their own undergraduate or graduate disciplines should indicate good performance.

    As for letters of recommendation, applicants should contact individuals who can comment in detail on the applicant’s academic performance and potential. The more specific the letter is, the better, which means that the letter writer should know the applicant fairly well (at least as a student).

  • GRE scores are a source of concern for some applicants. We do not have a specific cut-off score and as a general rule, we do not exclude anyone based solely on their GRE score. Instead, we view the GRE as one of several indicators. If you have a high GRE score, that will definitely help improve your chances of gaining acceptance. If you have an otherwise stellar application and a relatively low GRE, it will not weigh too much against you. But if you have a low GPA, low GREs, and an unfocused statement of purpose, it’s not looking good. As you can see, there is no single rule — we look at the overall package — which makes it really important that all materials be submitted in a timely fashion.

  • All students are admitted with a five-year package of funding, which generally includes three years covered by fellowship and two years supported by teaching. Tuition, fees, and health insurance are covered for all years. ASE controls some fellowships and awards them at its own discretion. The College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of the University control other fellowships, which are generally more lucrative. The amount of funding varies by year. We strongly encourage students who are eligible to apply for national fellowships such as the Ford or the Javits as they apply for admission. ASE currently has the highest number of Ford Fellows (14) in one program in the country.

    Continuing students can also compete for a variety of funding and grant opportunities in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of the University. These include year-long fellowships as well as smaller grants to support summer research or travel. Several ASE students also hold externally-granted fellowships such as AAUW, Fulbright, Haynes Foundation, NSF, Mellon/ACLS, Mellon, SSHRC and Truman.

  • Generally, four faculty members in ASE serve on the admissions committee. They make all the final decision on admissions decisions. Other ASE faculty members are invited by the committee to review select applicants who have indicated that they wish to work with these faculty members, or who the committee thinks will probably work with these faculty members. The admissions committee makes its decision based on its reading of the files, its consideration of external faculty opinions and rankings, and its vision of the entering class. ASE has always been concerned with achieving diversity in the entering class. Ethnicity, race, gender, class, sexuality, disciplinary orientation and intellectual interest are all diversity criteria.

  • Applicant pools have ranged from 70 to 160. In general, more applicants have been applying with each passing year. ASE has admitted about 6 to 9 students every year, depending on funding, with a wait list of about 3.

  • ASE has a firm deadline of December 1. All materials including the letters of recommendation must be received by this deadline.  Applicants will be notified of admissions decisions by no later than April 15.

  • ASE regularly places its graduate students in research one institutions nationwide. Over the years our graduates have been hired by Yale, Arizona State, University of Oregon, University of Nevada, Reno, Trinity College, Central Michigan University, UC Riverside, Pitzer College, UNLV., Michigan State and other comparable institutions.

  • Although contacting individual ASE faculty is not necessary, candidates for admission should review the list of ASE faculty to identify which faculty may work with the candidate in the future. If candidates wish to contact faculty to discuss the possibility of working together, they should do so.

  • Unfortunately, due to the number of applications we receive, we cannot discuss individual reasons for denial. However, we do encourage serious applicants to try again, and in fact, we have several students in the program who were admitted the second time around. In some cases, the applicant may need to define areas of weakness and work to address them. This may mean taking additional coursework or perhaps even pursuing a Master’s degree at another institution in order to strengthen one’s application. Students interested in exploring such options should make an appointment with the Director of Graduate Studies.

ASE Qualifying Examinations: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  • The Qualifying Exam (QE) is a two-part test which the university requires of all Ph.D. students. Passing the QE is necessary in order to proceed with the dissertation. The first part of the test is written and consists of four fields. Students must answer one question addressing each field over a one-week period. Students are given a choice of questions in each field. Each response should be approximately 10 pages in length (exclusive of bibliography, etc.). The second part of the QE is an oral discussion of the written material. The oral offers the student an opportunity to elaborate on the written material and offer any corrections. The student is evaluated on both the written and the oral components.

  • At least five USC faculty who are all tenure-track. At least three members must identify as ASE faculty and at least one must not. In reality, all committee members may be either core of affiliate, but faculty must be aware how they are being counted (e.g., as an “inside” ASE faculty, or as an “outside” psychology faculty) and be consistent in such an identification. It is imperative that when you fill out both the Graduate School’s and ASE’s paperwork (see below) that each faculty member indicate the appropriate affiliation. If you chose an affiliate faculty member to serve as your “outside” person on the Qualifying Exam, and you wish to keep them on the dissertation committee, their role as “outside” faculty member must be maintained. If you are in doubt as to the status of a particular faculty member, ASE has a list that is updated annually and serves as the Graduate School’s basis for affiliation. You can have more than five committee members, including faculty from other campuses, if you can show that they have a particular expertise that USC lacks — such a person, however, does not take the place of your USC “outside” committee member.

  • Students must obtain from and submit to the Graduate School the Request to Take the Qualifying Examination Form at least 30 days prior to the QE. We suggest students complete the paperwork in January for a spring QE. In addition, ASE requires that you submit to the director of graduate studies: 1) the QE Agreement Form, 2) a copy of the ASE Course Requirements and Advisement Form, and 3) the Language Requirement Form.

  • You should work closely with your committee in terms of developing the four fields and their respective reading lists. Your advisor should guide you through this process, but it is ultimately your responsibility to meet with each committee member and have them sign-off the ASE QE Agreement Form. Some students will find themselves writing their own questions, whereas others will simply be given questions by their committee or chair. It is important that you determine early on how your advisor will proceed. Remember, to a certain degree this can be a negotiated process.

  • The committee chair writes the actual exam. S/he solicits questions from all committee members and develops an exam that ensures that: 1) all questions can reasonably be answered in 10 pages; 2) the questions reflect the agreed-upon bibliographies; and 3) that the student has some choice of questions in each field.

  • At the pre-qualifying meeting (PQM), the committee will offer guidance as to when you should plan on taking the Qualifying Exams. For most students this will be towards the end of their third year. For some, it will be a bit later, and for some a bit earlier. In any event, the Qualifying Exam must be taken by the beginning of the fourth year.

  • Yes, you can change both the composition of the committee and the fields after the PQM, but not after you file the Qualifying Exam Agreement Form. If you wish to change the committee after you have filed the Request to Take the Qualifying Examination Form, then you must fill out the paperwork again. All such changes should be worked out closely with and approved by your advisor.

  • In order to take the QE you must have completed or be in the process of completing 56 units with a GPA of at least 3.0. You can take the QE in March, for example, if you will have completed 56 units at the end of the spring semester.

  • In order to take the QE you must have completed ALL programmatic requirements. This includes 1) the methodology requirement, 2) the language requirement, 3) the disciplinary concentration, 4) the required core courses, 5) the research seminar, and 6) any other requirements.

  • The student is. The student should chose, in consultation with her/his advisor, a one-week period when they would like to take the exam (given the general guidelines established by the committee). The oral portion of the examination must take place within 60 days after the start of the written. It is the students’ job to arrange a two-hour block of time and a place for all committee members to convene for the oral.

  • First, inquire if your committee member(s) will be available to participate in the QE when they are on leave. If they are in town, many will. In some cases out-of-town faculty will return to campus for a few days, and you can schedule the oral around their availability. Remember: you only need all your committee members for the oral. Committee members can be sent either hard or electronic copies of your examination. If a committee member is unable to participate, you can try adjusting your exam dates, but if that will not work, then you may need to consider an alternative committee member. It’s OK if someone you work closely with cannot sit on your Quals — they can still sit on the dissertation committee.

  • Yes. However, it may be very difficult to schedule an oral during the summer as some faculty take their vacations very seriously and others will be out of town. In general, it is not a good idea to assume a summer exam will work without checking with all committee members well in advance.

  • The committee chair must prepare the exam and typically gives it to the ASE staff, who then give it to the student at the agreed-upon date and time. Another option is for the committee chair to e-mail the exam to the student. In either case, there must be a clear record of the day and time the exam was given and when it was collected. When the student has completed the exam, s/he must bring a hard copy to the ASE staff, who will then make the necessary copies and distribute it, along with the exam questions, to the committee.

  • Anywhere you wish.

  • The only person the student is allowed to consult with regarding the exam is the committee chair, who should be available for clarifications.

  • At the oral, the committee chair will inform you whether you passed or not. You can only pass or fail the exam.

  • If the committee approves, students can retake the exam. However, they must wait six months.

  • If you will have completed 56 units prior to the QE, register for GRS 800. If you have not yet completed 56 units and are in the process of completing them the semester of your QE, register for however many units you need to bring you up to 56 (through either course work or DR). In order to enroll in GRS 800 students must contact the Graduate School to obtain D-clearance. Students who register for GRS 800 receive 0 units of credit, but are charged for 1 unit, which maintains their full-time status.

  • Consult the USC Catalogue and/or call the Graduate School.

Contact Us

Department of American Studies & Ethnicity

Located in Kaprielian Hall on the University Park campus, ASE faculty, graduate students, and staff are available to assist you with information and resources about our academic programs and research specialties.


University of Southern California

3620 South Vermont Avenue

Kaprielian Hall 462

Los Angeles, California 90089-2534