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How to Write a Letter of Intent for a PhD Program

by Andrew Aarons

Applying for a Ph.D. usually involves a lot of paperwork. Transcripts need to be sent, writing samples need to be selected and academic references need to be requested. Amidst all that flurry, don’t neglect your letter of intent, often called a statement of purpose. It introduces you and your research interests to the admissions committee -- the group of faculty members that may choose you to work with them -- and it’s one of the most important determinants of whether or not you’ll get into your program of choice.

Keep it Short

Instead of being afraid of the admissions committee, put yourself in their place. They’re locked in a room together, probably for many hours, with stacks of letters to read and probably not enough coffee. Which prospective student do you think they’ll prefer: the one who writes a novel-length manuscript about why they should be admitted to a program or the one who keeps it to a page or two? If you are given a word limit, be sure not to go over it; if you’re not given a word limit, then err on the side of caution and don’t write more than two pages, double spaced.

Talk about Yourself

Now is not the time to be shy or humble. Reserve your self-deprecating jokes for first dates -- in a letter of intent, you need to exude confidence. Confidence, however, doesn't mean cocky. To sell yourself to the admissions committee, don’t just say that you’re awesome and leave it at that. Let them know that you’ve accomplished awesome things. Admissions committees know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and by proving that you’ve excelled in this field during your undergraduate or master's degrees, you’ll convince them why you will excel during a doctorate program.

Talk About Your Readers

The admissions committee isn’t only interested in knowing that you’re a great scholar: they want to know that you’ll be a great fit with their scholarly community. When they select a new crop of Ph.D. students, they’re not only choosing a group of people who they might want to attend their classes, collaborate with on research projects, and run into in the halls. Do background research before you write your letter of intent to get an idea of faculty research interests, and demonstrate how well they align with yours.

Follow the Rules

When you apply for a Ph.D. program, you are given a clear set of rules to follow. The department should clearly articulate what they want you to discuss in your letter of intent. If they tell you they want to know about when you first became interested in your field, be sure to discuss that in detail; similarly, if they ask you to explain what you want to study specifically, demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of your area of interest.

About the Author

Living in Canada, Andrew Aarons has been writing professionally since 2003. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Ottawa, where he served as a writer and editor for the university newspaper. Aarons is also a certified computer-support technician.

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