Here are a few thoughts and suggestions to help you with your application to graduate school.

Cover letter/personal statement

This is an opportunity for you to create a brief personal narrative that "joins the dots" of your academic self. It should not be more than three pages double-spaced. The main purpose of your personal statement is to create a sense among the members of the admissions committee that you are going to succeed in their program. In order to do this, you need to demonstrate that you are:

  • knowledgeable, with a good background in key areas
  • thoughtful and articulate
  • focused

Unlike the personal statement you wrote for college, this one does not need to give a sense of you as a well-rounded person. It needs to give a sense of you as a scholar. To this end, you may wish to talk about particular subjects, approaches, or areas you have found interesting, how your interests in them have developed, and how you wish to pursue them in graduate school. You may talk about particular changes in direction that you have experienced in your coursework and interests so far. You may talk about ways you perceive different courses or interests intersecting or augmenting each other. If you have several areas of interest, you might wish to identify a common thread among them that helps convey your sense of focus and direction.

If your GRE scores or GPA are lower than you would wish, you can address that in your personal statement. (NOTE: We are not currently requiring scores from the GRE.)

Your personal statement should be geared to each specific program to which you are sending it. You want to talk about why the program will help you reach your goals. Focus on a program's strengths in key areas and especially on the way in which its faculty could help you pursue your research objectives.

You have to walk a fine line between modesty and self-confidence. Do not assume you will be accepted, or that you know everything about a subject. Convey instead a sense of someone who is fascinated by various aspects of the field, has thought about them seriously, and hopes to be able to take advantage of the possibilities offered by this particular program to continue learning about these things.

Writing Sample

Your writing sample should give a clear impression both of your research interests and of your abilities as a scholar and writer. Most applicants submit a substantive paper they have composed in the context of an earlier class. If you have written a senior paper, an Honors thesis, a graduate research paper or a Masters thesis of which you are proud, this (or a part of it) is ideal for submission. It is recommended that you rework the paper to take account of any comments you received on it from your instructors. It also helps to give the revised paper to one or more faculty members for further advice and comments.

Normally writing samples are between 10 and 20 pages in length. If you are drawing from a longer study, it is best to excerpt a chapter or section of c. 20 pages. Remember that admissions committee members must work through many files and will not have time to read more than 20 pages.

Your work does not have to be publishable. But it has to be good enough that it will make a favorable impression on someone with real expertise in the field.

If you can, polish up a paper that is at least somewhat related to the areas you claimed were of special interest to you in your personal statement. If a paper you wrote for a completely unrelated class is far and away your best effort, you may consider sending that in, but you may wish to explain why you chose this particular paper in your personal statement.

In your personal statement, mention something important or interesting to you as a scholar about your writing sample. Did it open your mind to something? Did it change your direction of interest? Does it exemplify an approach you want to continue pursuing?

Curriculum Vitae

This should look professional and should reflect your academic accomplishments first and foremost. It need be only one page long, but that page should be full. If you have teaching experience or have studied abroad, be sure to list this, likewise honors and awards, including Deans List vel sim. You can list ancient authors you've read, or languages you have studied and your level of proficiency. It can also convey other pursuits, interests and occupations that have been important in your life. These last are useful for giving the committee an impression of you as a whole person but should play a secondary role alongside your academic pursuits and accomplishments.


NOTE: We are not currently requiring scores from the GRE.

The higher, the better. If you have low GREs, do not panic: this will not automatically exclude you from consideration even at excellent programs. You may wish to mention them directly in your personal statement, however, as mentioned above.

If you think you can improve your scores, by all means retake the GRE. Most applicants who retake the GREs after having prepared more carefully can improve their scores. Remember that this is only one element in your application and is not usually the most important.

Letters of Recommendation

You should think of four people to write for you. Even though most places only require three letters, some require four. Those people should ideally be recognized scholars in the field who know you well. At least one of your letters should be from a faculty member with interests or areas of expertise related to what you claim are your own in your personal statement.

Ask for letters at least six weeks before they are due.

Provide your recommenders with samples of your personal statement and your transcript (unofficial printout is fine). This will help them write a letter tailored to your current needs. If you have it, provide them also with your c.v. Be sure to give them a list of due dates for each program to which you are applying, and include addressed and stamped envelopes if you are asking them to post letters. If you have taught and can provide them with FCQ results or with a teaching statement you have written, do that. If you have a copy of work you have submitted to them (exams, papers, etc.), include that too -- most faculty teach so many students that it is hard for them to remember specific details about your work.

Waive your right to read letters. If you do not, the readers will not take seriously the good things your recommenders say about you. It is not only okay but a good idea to ask people outright if they could write a good letter for you, or what kind of letter they could write for you.

Asking for Help

Do it. You can ask as many people as you like for help. Be aware that each faculty member will have a different opinion, but their collective advice should help you make an informed decision.