1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Distinguished Majors in English


In the spring, the Distinguished Majors Program accepts applications from outstanding English majors who will be in their last year of course work when September arrives. If your GPA in the English major is at least 3.6 and your cumulative GPA is at least 3.4, you are eligible to apply for admission. The program gives you the opportunity to devote a year (two three-hour courses, ENGL 4998 and 4999) to advanced literary research and writing under the individual supervision of a member of the English faculty. In addition to working independently under the supervision of your thesis advisor, you will also (as a component of ENGL 4999), complete an honors seminar devoted specifically to guiding you through the research and early writing processes involved in producing a thesis.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, a thesis project is not simply a research paper writ large. The mandatory fall seminar, ENGL 4998, seeks to demystify; it gives you the tools and time to respond to your adviser's recommendations as you work to produce, in the company of your peers, a workable draft of your project. 50% of your grade for ENGL 4998 is based on the written and verbal work you undertake in the seminar toward that goal. The other 50% of your grade for ENGL 4999 will be determined by your individual adviser on the merits of your workable thesis draft as it exists at semester's end. You will then complete ENGL 4999 during the spring semester by working independently toward the final draft of your thesis; your grade for this course will be determined solely by your advisor. In order to qualify for honors at graduation, you must maintain the required GPA both overall and in the major, complete two 400-level seminars (not including the year-long ENGL 4998-4999 sequence), and complete the honors essay with excellence. (Please note that neither of the two 4000-level seminars may be an ENWR creative writing course.)

Do you have an idea for a project that you would like to pursue at serious length? The program gives you the chance to research and develop an argument that will result in a scholarly essay of 40-50 pages, due in mid-April. Choosing to write the thesis isn't for every excellent student; it means less breadth of course work, a lot of grinding away on one's own, and an enormous amount of time, tears, and sweat just when you may prefer to finish your university education by expanding into other fields. But each year a few decide to focus their attention and accomplishments by writing a thesis. The project seems especially suited to those who feel a desire to research and write at a more sustained pace than is allowed by seminars and to those who wonder whether graduate work in literature might be right for them.

The finished thesis will be read by the student’s faculty director, by a second reader from the English faculty, and, in some cases, by the Director of the Distinguished Majors Program. Performance in the program is then evaluated by members of an ad hoc Undergraduate Honors Committee, which will consider the quality of the thesis as assessed by its readers; the student’s work in the major, especially in the two 400-level seminars in addition to ENGL 4998; and the student’s overall academic record. If in the view of the committee the student has achieved honors, it will recommend the designation of Distinction, High Distinction, or Highest Distinction.

The Application Process

The application consists of four parts: the cover form, your proposal, a research plan, and evaluation forms filled out by two faculty members who know your work.  One of these faculty evaluators should be the person who has agreed to supervise your work in the program.  You should begin by sketching out some ideas for a project.  Take these to a potential supervisor and solicit her or his responses and advice on constructing a proposal and plan for research.  (For advice on which faculty members to approach, you may consult the Program Director.)  When you have hammered out a strong proposal, fill out the cover form, and take copies of your application together with evaluation forms to your potential supervisor and another professor who knows you well. They should return the confidential evaluation forms to the Program Director's mailbox; you should submit the cover form, the proposal, and the research plan to the Program Director's mailbox by the application deadline.  Admissions decisions will be communicated to you by the Program Director within two weeks after the deadline.

The cover and evaluation forms can be accessed via the link below or you can get paper copies in Bryan 236.  Your proposal and research plan should be attached to the cover form when you submit your application.  The proposal normally consists of about 600 words.  It should include the title of the project, an explanation of the topic and its importance, the question to be pursued, and the methods you will use in your research and reasoning.  The research plan normally consists of a substantial reading list that makes clear the seriousness, breadth, and variety of your planned course of study.  Both the proposal and the research plan require a fair amount of work to compose; start early.  Think deeply.

Applications are due by March 21, 2011 to:

Professor Lisa Woolfork, Program Director
Mailbox in Bryan 229

Contact her with questions at lw5y@virginia.edu or in her office, Bryan 102B. We strongly recommend that you touch base with the Program Director before you draft your application; she can, for example, suggest suitable faculty members you might ask to direct your project.

Distinguished Majors Program requirements for students who are also enrolled in the Area Program for Poetry Writing.

Students who are participating in the Area Program for Poetry Writing may also apply for admission to the Distinguished Majors Program if they meet its GPA requirements. Their application should be submitted at the appropriate time to the Director of the Distinguished Majors Program (see above).

Poetry Writing students admitted to the program do not enroll in the year long ENGL 4999 course but instead take the course sequence ENPW 4910/4920. In applying for the program they should (a) offer a brief account of the creative project they will carry out over the two semesters and (b) outline the nature of a “reflective” or “annotative” essay that will be appended to the creative project. This might, for example, take the form of a thoughtful introduction to the student’s poems or a series of brief meditations on the student’s literary influences. (The above options do not represent the only possibilities: the applicant should talk over possible formats for this portion of the thesis with the faculty member who will direct their project before completing his or her application.)

Poetry Writing Students must, like other Distinguished Majors, complete two 4000 level seminars that are not exclusively creative writing courses (you may count either ENPW 4810 or ENPW 4820 for this purpose but your other 4000 level course should be a seminar that is not either an ENPW course or an ENWR course). The thesis must be completed by the same mid-April deadline as that observed by other Distinguished Majors. It will be assessed by two readers chosen by the Director of the Poetry Writing Program in consultation with the Director of the Distinguished Majors Program. Final honors will be determined by the Undergraduate Honors Committee, whose members will also consider the participant’s overall work in the major.