Some Advice on Applying to Graduate Programs in Musicology/Ethnomusicology

Before you embark on this process, ask yourself if this is what you really want to pursue, and not just a delay tactic from avoiding “the real world” after graduating or because you don’t know what you want to do with your life ‘so might as well try out graduate school.’ I recommend you read Phil Ford’s “Come-To-Jesus Talk” blog post. Also, talk to the (ethno)musicology professors at your program, and with any friends who are pursuing a similar degree.

Materials you will need to submit your application:

  • Letter of Intent/Personal Statement
  • Two (or more) writing samples
  • CV or Resume
  • Three reference letters (ideally at least one is by a musicology/ethnomusicology professor)
  • College transcripts
  • GRE Scores (though some programs don’t require these)
  • Some programs also ask for: Statement on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism


Summer prior to applying:

  • Work on your writing samples (more on this below) polish the writing and formatting
  • Write Letter of intent/Personal Statement (more on this below)
  • CV or Resume
  • Make a list of programs you’re planning on applying to. You can explore the programs currently offered at various institutions throughout North America at the American Musicological Society’s and Society for Ethnomusicology’s websites’ Guide to Graduate Programs; talk with your musicology/ethno professors about the programs they recommend based on your interests. If there are articles or books you’ve read that are interesting, look up the authors and see if they teach at a university with a graduate program.
  • Make a spreadsheet [like this one] to track: Schools/Program websites/Application Fees/Deadlines/Pros & Cons


  • Early fall: ask references if they are willing and able to write letters for you. Share with them the specifics about the programs that you’re applying to, such as: type of program, deadline, why you want to apply there specifically. Also share with them your personal statement so they can speak to your specific interests and strengths
  • Mid-fall: gather all your application materials and send reminders to your letter writers with the list of schools and deadlines for submitting their letters
  • If you have the funds: Attend AMS and/or SEM annual or chapter meetings: Prior to the meetings, reach out to faculty at the programs where you’re planning to apply and ask if you can meet them for coffee to talk about the program or meet them at their program’s reception. Most programs have a small reception on Friday or Saturday evening for faculty, students, alumni, and other friends. This is a great place to meet current students, get a sense of how people get along (are students and faculty mingling and interacting or are they keeping separate?), and ask current students how they like their program. The conference is also a great opportunity to attend presentations by current faculty and students and get a sense of their research areas and methods. This can help you decide whether or not you even want to apply to their program.
    • If you identify as someone belonging to a historically underrepresented or marginalized group, there are travel funds to help cover the costs of attending the conferences, but the deadlines are much earlier in the spring! (usually May 31 for the AMS)
    AMS Eileen Southern Travel Grant & SEM Annual Meeting Travel Fund
    • Questions to ask current students and/or profs: what is the student-to-prof ratio? How many years does it take on average to finish their program? What do they do in their spare time at the town/city where the college is located? What is the structure of the program? Is there guaranteed funding for all students admitted into the program/or what kinds of funding (scholarships/fellowships) are available? What are the opportunities and expectations to gain teaching experience? What current research project excites you [the professor] right now? Are you [the professor] publishing a book or article soon? What are the language requirements? Are there entrance exams [in music theory, ear training, sight singing, music history]?
  • December 1st: Deadline for application submission, some programs have an initial deadline for the personal statement, CV, and online application, and a later deadline (usually in January) for the rest of the materials (writing samples, transcripts, letters of recommendation). But if you can submit everything at once, even better.


  • January-March: What happens during this period varies a lot by program. Some programs make decisions solely based on the written materials, without ever meeting with or talking to applicants. Other programs make a long (or short) list of applicants they will interview, and how and when those interviews take place also varies. Some hold interviews over Zoom, others invite applicants to campus.
  • March: Applicants are notified of their acceptance/rejection to programs and funding offers. Woohoo!
  • March-April 15: if you didn’t get a chance to visit the university/city of your top programs that have accepted you, this is the time to do so. You can meet with faculty and current students, you can do this via Zoom if you can’t travel to the site, and ask all the questions you have about the program and living in that city so you can make an informed decision about which program you will be attending.
  • April 15: This is a national deadline, all graduate applicants who have offers from programs must accept or decline the offers. Congratulations, you made it!

Preparing the Letter of Intent/Personal Statement

  • Introduce yourself in a professional context: I’m currently a senior piano performance major at ‘xxx’ university.
  • Why you want to pursue a graduate degree in musicology?
  • How you came across the discipline, a specific class/project/professor?
  • Describe the research projects you have completed or repertories you have studied that introduced you to/got you excited about the discipline
  • What kinds of questions are you interested in pursuing through future research?
  • Why do you want to attend that specific school (what’s special about that program, hint: professors love to read about how awesome their program is, but be specific about what’s special about that program, not a generic ‘your program is nationally recognized’)?
  • Name the specific faculty in that program that you would look forward to working with and learning from and why
  • Describe future plans, are you planning on pursuing an academic position as a professor, as a librarian, do you want to work in the culture non-profit sector, in publishing? What would you do upon completing the degree?
  • Make sure an advisor reads your personal statement for grammar and tone, proof read, proof read, proof read
  • You may ask a friend who has successfully applied to graduate programs to share their personal statement with you (they may say ‘no’), to get an idea of how to structure your letter
  • Click here for more advice on how to write your personal statement for graduate school applications

Preparing Writing Samples

  • Most programs ask for two
  • These can be term papers for any music history, music rep/tradition course. 8-12 pages
  • Use Chicago style for citations and formatting if applying to a musicology program. APA if applying to an ethno program. But if you already wrote your paper following one particular style, don’t sweat it, just make sure that whatever style you used is applied consistently
  • Have a professor and someone at your university’s writing center read your writing samples and provide feedback on structure, argument, grammar, and formatting: proof read, proof read, proof read
  • Make sure there is a clearly articulated thesis/argument, that it is clearly structured, and your writing is clear and effective


  • Am I expected to have teaching experience? No.
  • I don’t have a BM, I went to a BA program, will that be a problem? It depends, some programs require a BM.
  • I finished my BM/BA some years ago and I’m now ready to apply to graduate programs, will that hurt my application? Or, does taking time off between your undergrad and grad degree hurt your chances of getting into a grad program? No, and if you’ve been active/working, it might work to your advantage. Having real-life work experience (depending on what that work is) might be an asset when applying to graduate programs.
  • I’m not sure if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, but I want to try it out, what should I do? Apply to master’s programs and be upfront about it in your interview and even in your personal statement. Something to the effect of “I look forward to exploring this discipline at your institution in order to decide whether I want to make the longer commitment of later pursuing a PhD…” can go a long way.

Other Advice

  • Don’t choose a program solely because you want to study ‘xyz’ and the leading expert on ‘xyz’ teaches there. Sometimes the expert is not the best advisor/mentor. Think more of the methodologies the professors there use, will they be able to advise you regardless of the topic you end up choosing for your thesis or dissertation? The ‘how’ (methodology) is often more important than the ‘what’ when looking at programs and potential advisors.
  • Think of where you feel comfortable living. Geographic location, weather, cost of living, proximity to family or an international airport, diversity of the city/town population, should all factor into your decision when making the list of schools to which you will apply.
  • Edit [suggested by Cesar Favila]: if you know the area/country/site of your future research (whether archival or ethnographic fieldwork) start acquiring the language(s) you will need to 1) be able to conduct research there and dialog with scholars and collaborators in that country and 2) pass your graduate language exams [most MM programs have 1 foreign language requirement and PhD programs have 2]. As my friend and colleague Cesar Favila pointed out, language proficiency acquisition can take a long time, and the more you can do prior to graduate school, the better.

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