How to Apply to Publishing School at Portland State University

Many of you may know that Ooligan Press is a teaching press staffed by students pursuing master’s degrees in the Department of English at Portland State University. Students lead the way in every step of the publishing process with guidance provided by expert faculty. Are you or someone you know interested in joining our program? As the second-year Book Publishing program graduate assistants for the 2017–2018 academic year, part of the work we do for the program includes outreach to potential applicants. We love this program and think it’s really special, but we also know the admissions process can be a bit daunting.
With the Fall 2018 application deadline approaching on April 1, we thought it would be helpful to discuss the application materials in detail. All applications are reviewed by a committee, and we asked committee members to provide us with best practices that prospective students can employ when preparing their application materials. In addition, because we each took different paths to graduate school—Elizabeth entered the program directly after earning her undergraduate degree, and Lisa spent a few years in the “real world” before finding a passion for publishing—we’ve included our individual approaches to the application process. Excluding academic transcripts, the application has three major components, which are discussed below.
Personal Introduction
Application committee’s recommendation: Write a personal introduction that speaks directly to what you want to accomplish with a degree in book publishing. Are you interested in editing, digital, children’s books, sci-fi? There is no one way to write this personal introduction—publishing is made up of people with varied interests and skills—but target it to our program and what draws you to PSU.
Elizabeth: I was fortunate enough to have some supportive undergraduate professors guide me while I was writing my personal introduction. Their two main pieces of advice were to avoid an anecdote about loving to read and to stay very focused on this program. I spent a ton of time on the Book Publishing program’s website so that I would know as much as possible before writing. When it came time to write, I mentioned specific classes and faculty to help illustrate my goals. If you’re still in school or in contact with past professors, I highly recommend that you have them review your introduction; they’ll help you gauge how effective it is.
Lisa: I was anxious about the personal introduction—so anxious that I bought two advice books about writing graduate admissions essays. They ended up being only marginally helpful, though, because publishing occupies such a unique and relatively small space in the field of graduate studies. The best thing I did was look at description on the Book Publishing program’s website and break the personal introduction prompt into the following three questions:

  1. How do my experiences make me a strong candidate?
  2. Why am I interested in this specific program?
  3. What are my goals after I achieve this degree?

Aptly enough, I wrote most of my personal introduction during a brainstorming session on the flight back from my trip to Portland to check out the PSU campus. It was a fun, inspirational visit, and the words flowed easily. When the time came to write the formal essay, I had a wealth of notes to choose from to create a cohesive statement for the application committee.
Writing Sample
Application committee’s recommendation: Writing samples are diverse in content, which is completely expected given the broad range of applicant experiences. Some applicants include academic writing because they apply while still at their undergrad institution. Some include creative writing. Some applicants include professional examples, like editing samples or marketing writing, because they are coming back to school after several (or many) years in industry. And some people don’t include “writing” at all—designers and web developers submit samples of this type of work all the time. You can include many different kinds of work or choose to submit writing from one field. The main thing is to show your best work in an academic, professional, or creative sense so that the committee can see what kind of work we can expect from you during your time in the program.
Elizabeth: The writing samples definitely stressed me out the most with this application. I was concerned that I needed samples that reflected the publishing industry, but I had limited internship experiences. I ended up using two works of writing from my undergraduate classes. I paired a critical theory paper with a short creative nonfiction piece. I was applying for the program as an aspiring editor and hoped to show a grasp of writing style and analytical ability.
Lisa: I was out of school for a few years before I applied to the program, and I didn’t have anything from my time as an undergraduate that was relevant to include as a writing sample. Instead, I drew from my work as an editor of human resources manuals and a communications specialist. My submission was diverse in nature; in addition to editing and professional writing samples, I included poster designs and an email marketing campaign. I had also recently completed a writing course at Story Studio Chicago, so I rounded out my submission with two fiction samples that came out of my work in that class.
Letters of Recommendation
Application committee’s recommendation: Letters of recommendation can be from a wide variety of sources. Professors, bosses, colleagues, editors, or mentors, just to name a few. Show the committee that you have people in your corner that can speak to your initiative, quality of work, thought process, integrity, or community involvement. These letters support the other pieces of your application, so ask people who can speak to the qualities you highlight.
Elizabeth: As an undergraduate student, it wasn’t a stretch for me to ask three of my professors for letters of recommendation. However, professors are busy people and get many requests for letters during registration periods, so you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for them to help you. I prepared a set of notes for each of the professors I approached. I included information about the program, my goals, and a few relevant things I had done as an undergraduate student. Additionally, I made my request three full weeks before the application was due to give them ample time (professors procrastinate too).
Lisa: It didn’t seem appropriate to reach out to my undergraduate teachers (I studied theater performance, for one!), so I instead focused on my professional contacts. My boss and two of my coworkers were kind enough to write me recommendations. A forewarning: if you’re asking people to craft a letter who aren’t used to writing this type of recommendation, give them a thorough breakdown of what is expected in this sort of letter and as much advance notice to write it as possible.
 
We hope this was helpful for those of you considering applying to our program. Anyone with aspirations within the publishing field is encouraged to apply—the work we do here provides a hands-on experience that is not replicated in any other graduate program.
Portland State University’s graduate program in Book Publishing allows prospective students to begin courses during the Fall, Winter, or Spring terms. Applications for the Fall 2018 term are due April 1. For more information, please visit our website.