Applying to the Graduate Program in Religious Studies

Please read this page carefully before contacting us with questions about the application requirements or process. We also recommend viewing the Fall 2023 webinar for prospective applicants.

The Graduate Group in Religious Studies is accepting applications for the PhD program. (Applications open on October 2 and are due on December 15). Presently, no MA program is available. Please note that Penn does not offer ministerial degrees or training.

The Graduate Group admits 2–3 students per year. Students who are admitted to the program receive a 5-year funding package that includes tuition and a cost of living stipend. All PhD students are required to serve as teaching assistants for 2 years as part of this package; most perform their TA work in their 2nd and 3rd years.

Applications are welcome from students from various academic backgrounds, though some exposure to the academic field of Religious Studies in an academic setting is usually required.

A BA/BS degree or equivalent is the minimum requirement. Many applicants have already done extensive work in Religious Studies, either as undergraduates, or in post-baccalaureate or Master’s programs elsewhere, while other applicants often will have majored in classics, philosophy, history, a modern language and literature, or area studies. In addition, incoming doctoral students should typically have prior training in one or more of the research languages required for their fields (see fields of study for details). Students who enter the program with graduate-level credits at other comparable institutions may petition to receive transfer credit for up to a maximum of eight courses.

In general, a comprehensive application package should show a combination of: 

  1. demonstrated research aptitude;
  2. creativity and scholarly promise;
  3. cogent scholarly writing;
  4. ability to consistently meet designated deadlines and objectives; and
  5. intellectual alignment with faculty and resources at the University of Pennsylvania. 

All applications must be submitted online through the School of Arts and Science's online application portal. For additional information, please see the Grad Division’s policies and procedures. We will begin reviewing applications on December 15. All aspects of the application, including letters of recommendation, should be submitted by this time. 

Applicants must submit the following documents via the online application portal:

  • An academic curriculum vitae summarizing your academic background.
  • A personal statement of up to 750 words. In the personal statement, all Ph.D. applications within the Graduate Division of Arts & Sciences should address the following prompt:

    Please describe how your background and academic experiences have influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree and led you to apply to Penn. Your essay should detail your specific research interests and intellectual goals within your chosen field. Please provide information about your educational trajectory, intellectual curiosity and academic ambitions. If you have overcome adversity and/or experienced limited access to resources or opportunities in your field of study, please feel free to share how that has affected the course of your education. We are interested in your lived experiences and how your particular perspective might contribute to the inclusive and dynamic learning community that Penn values and strives to create.

In responding to this prompt, applicants to the Religious Studies Graduate Group should explain how their proposed dissertation project fits with existing intellectual questions and scholarly conversations in the field of religious studies. We are looking for engagement with relevant academic literature, original and innovative research questions, and a feasible dissertation project that can conceivably be completed within the typical five-year time frame. A good personal statement will name the specific faculty members with whom applicants hope to work and any on-campus resources they hope to use if admitted to Penn (examples might include research centers, libraries, museums, or special collections). Please note that our program is not a theology program; applications that foreground missiological or theological agendas will not be competitive.    

  • writing sample of academic prose (such as a term paper or standalone excerpt of a larger text, such as an MA thesis) of 15–30 double-spaced pages. 
  • Academic transcript(s) from all previous academic work undertaken. (Screenshots or PDFs of unofficial transcripts may be submitted at the application stage. Official transcripts will be requested if you are offered and accept admission to the program.)
  • Applicants will also be prompted to provide contact details for 3-5 letters of recommendation from individuals who can speak to their academic background and aptitude. Typically, these will be letters from professors with whom applicants have studied, but in rare cases they may be from employers or other mentors.

In addition to the items on the list above, applicants must indicate which of our graduate research areas they intend to pursue. Applicants should indicate at least one, and no more than three, research areas. Please select your primary research area first.

A GRE result is NOT currently required for an application to the program, but applicants who are not US citizens or do not have English as the first language must submit language test scores. TOEFL & IELTS scores are accepted. These tests must have been taken within two years of the application due date. There are no minimum requirements but:

  • TOEFL: Competitive applicants tend to have a composite score of 100 or above with demonstrated consistency across the four sections of the exam (reading, listening, speaking, and writing).
  • IELTS: Competitive applicants tend to have an overall band score of 7 or above with demonstrated consistency across the four sections of the exam (listening, reading, writing, and speaking).
  • Students self-report their scores on the application and we will electronically match them through Collegenet. The institution code for electronically submitting these scores to Penn GAS is 2926.
  • If you have completed a post-secondary degree from an institution in which the language of instruction is English, we can typically waive the TOEFL/ IELTS requirement. Please contact Kate Stoler ( after your application has been compiled, including submission of your academic transcripts, to request this waiver.

Applicants requesting a fee waiver can send their inquiries, with proof of financial need, to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, If you are a McNair Scholar, please mention that in your email. Please note that fee waivers are rare.

In advance of submitting their applications, applicants are encouraged to contact the specific faculty member(s) in their potential research area(s) via email to indicate their intention to apply. After the 12/15 application deadline has passed, however, all inquiries about the selection process must be directed solely to the Graduate Coordinator or the Graduate Chair. 

Please note that individual faculty members may not be admitting students in any given year; the Religious Studies Graduate Group typically only admits 2–3 students per year.

Electronic applications are accepted from October 1st. The deadline for filing an application is midnight (ET) on December 15th. Applications and writing samples cannot be accepted after that date. The application fee is $90.00. 

Normally, decision letters (acceptances or declines) will be sent out by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by March 1. Waitlisted students will be notified via email.