You’ve probably written a few letters in your lifetime, but few will be more important than a letter of intent for doctoral admissions. A letter of intent is really an essay, which you’ve probably also written before. Unlike most essays you write in college, this one is about yourself and might make the difference between pursuing the career you want and sticking with a master's or bachelor's degree.
If you don’t tell the admissions committee exactly what it wants to know, then you might as well not tell it anything at all. When schools present admissions application packages, they always explain each component in some detail. Letters of intent are different for different schools. Some schools want you to tell them how your life led you to the place where you’re applying for admissions, others want to know about your specific research interests, and most want some combination of both.
Remember that the admissions committee isn’t made up of emotionless automatons. The people on the committee want to know that not only can you succeed, but that you’re someone they’d like to get to know. Over the next five years you’ll spend a lot of time with the faculty members that make up the admissions committee. You’ll see them at department events, in class, and in the hallway. Ensure that the tone of your essay is not only professional, but also congenial and warm.
Talk About Yourself
It’s not enough to just sound like yourself in a letter of intent, of course -- you have to talk about yourself. And you’ll probably have to talk about yourself in multiple dimensions. The committee may want to know what made you interested in this field, what made you interested in a Ph.D. in it, and what your skills and abilities are. The letter of intent shouldn’t read like a diary, but it does need to be personal.
Talk About the School
As much as a letter of intent is about you on the surface, on a more important level, it’s about the school you’re applying to. The committee wants to be convinced that you are good for the department -- that you’ll make it look good by doing well. It also wants to know that you’ll be a good fit with existing faculty members, students, and research projects. Research the department thoroughly before you apply to become a part of it so that you can prove that you’re not only a great candidate, but that you’re the right candidate for this school.