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Getting Into Grad School

December 11, 2018

Application lettersThis might seem like an odd post because it is only tangentially related to Egypt. But it is based on lessons learned while I was the director of the graduate program in Sociology-Anthropology at the American University in Cairo. These lessons were learned as I went through the process of weeding more than a hundred applications to our graduate program every year, and these lessons helped me advise our students on how to present themselves so that their substantial accomplishments will show to the best effect. And it worked: many of the students I advised got into top notch graduate schools in Europe, North America and Asia.

I thought about this because a student asked me for a letter of recommendation to a graduate program recently, and as part of the package she sent me her “cover letter.” That’s what she called it. And that’s what it read like. And I e-mailed her and suggested she make some substantive changes to her application letter.

I’ve given this talk a hundred times, but I’ve never written it down before. Here it is:

A letter to graduate school is different than a letter applying to an undergraduate program. When you write to a graduate program you applying to a specific group of specialists in a field of research and asking them to invest a great deal of time and money in you, instead of one of the many other applicants. Your application letter is not a cover letter for your c.v.; it is an advertisement of what you have to offer, an explanation to busy graduate faculty of why you should be one of the handful of students they accept this year.

To that end, I usually advise students that a letter to a grad program should serve at least four functions:

  1. First, it should provide a hook, something that makes you stand out.
  2. Second, it should explain and expand on the accomplishments that are just bullet points on the resume.
  3. Third, it should explain not just why you want to study the field you are applying to but why you want to study that subject with them, in their particular graduate program.
  4. And finally, it should speak to what you will bring to the program.

Let’s take each of these separately.


Here’s what I mean by a hook: Once you have made the first cut, you will be one of the “long short list” of applications that the selection committee goes into a room with to whittle down to a “short shortlist.”

At some point, the committee chair will pick up your file and say your name. Someone else will ask, “Remind me which one she is.” And someone will answer, “you know, she’s the one who ________”

That blank, that answer, is what I mean by your hook. Your hook is whatever makes you memorable, so that when reminded, everyone nods. They’ve got you placed now.

You want your hook to be something that makes you interesting as well as memorable. “You know, the woman who analyzes revolutionary graffiti” would be great. It’s about your accomplishments.

“The woman who used to work for the UN”  isn’t as great, but still positive (I suspect mine, decades ago, was, “you know, the guy who used to be a journalist”).

But don’t give your reviewers negative things to remember you by, even if they are meant as jokes: “You know, the one who said she never shuts up in class.” (Yes, I had a letter in which the applicant joked that she ‘d be a great grad student for that reason).


Which brings me to your need to spell out your accomplishments.

What many students don’t seem to realize is that the application letter isn’t a cover letter for your cv. The letter is the single most important part of your application. The resume, transcripts and faculty recommendations are supporting documents for the letter.

So the letter is your make-or-break. This is where you need to explain in detail those accomplishments in which professors in field to which you are applying will be interested.

Don’t tell them a story about how you picked the topic of your undergraduate research project because it was the least boring topic you could think of; tell them what you studied, how you studied it and what you found. Explain to them that you presented your findings at a poster session of a regional conference. Describe how you further developed your work in a seminar, and publicly presented it at an end-of-semester conference.

This is where you explain the stories behind the entries on your cv, and why they should matter to your grad school faculty.

What Do You Want From Them?

But you need to explain not why your accomplishments are relevant to your desire to go to graduate school, but why they are relevant for this particular graduate school.

Every graduate program has a select faculty and set of specializations. You need to look at what researchers do in each of the specific graduate program to which you are applying. You need to articulate the things that interest you, that you know people there are also interested in and working on.

At the very least, get on line and look at the faculty interests and describe some interests of yours that map to theirs. You do not need to name specific people and say you want to work with them (although you may) but you definitely need to spell out interests you have that they as a department will be able to help you develop.

And remember: this is an application letter, not a contract. If you change your mind when you get there, no one will hold you to the letter (I ended up doing both MA and PhD research in completely different areas and theories than I pitched in my letter—but the letter got me in the door–and an offer of funding so I could afford to go)

What’s In It For Them?

Finally, you need to write about what you will bring to their program.

Try to offer more than just interest and enthusiasm. If you have actual research experience, if you have written a grant, had it funded, presented your findings, taught (or assisted with teaching) a course, published a paper, or if you have real competence in some language or topic, these are all things that might be attractive to graduate faculty.

One of my own mentors once told me that the best thing about being a professor is getting to partially shape the practices of bright students who will then go on to do all kinds of cool things that you would never have the time to do. He was absolutely right. I love watching the professional careers of my former students as they grow and change and engage in all kinds of activities, some expected, some not so much.

But first you have to help them launch.

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