How to write a killer Letter of Intent
August 16, 2006 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to pursue a Masters/PhD in Cognitive Visual Neuroscience. I now know how to ask for letters of recommendation - thanks - but how do I write a killer letter of intent/application essay? Alternately, what are the major mistakes/pitfalls new students make when writing such a letter? Answers need not be Psych specific.
posted by fake to Education (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
(Physics Ph.D. Student here, but I think this advice is not discipline specific.)

Remember that this is not a college application essay, where you want to wow the admissions committee with your cleverness and unbridled enthusiasm. Graduate admissions folk want productive, disciplined, forward-thinking students, and you want your essay to show that. When you write, be as specific as you possibly can about why that particular program is the right one. Explain the research you want to do and make sure it's in line with whatever's going on at that school. Explain how your background led you there and how it qualifies you to go to that school. Do not write about how excited your are and how you don't really know what you want to do and are open to anything and don't try to be too clever. They want good, hard workers who know where they're going, so make it clear that that's who you are.

On the other hand, the admissions committee will have to read a lot of these essays, so good, clear, interesting writing is important. Be interesting, but be focused.
posted by dseaton at 8:50 AM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

The best advice I can give is to contact a prof who works in the program you want to enter and ask them for what would make a killer letter of intent. I did this with my PhD application and the prof gave me really specific advice: the format to use, the theories/framework that the uni department were particularly interested in, what parts of my academic background to highlight etc. She even read a draft of the letter and provided feedback....and then became my supervisor. I'm convinced this entire exercise (the approach as well as the letter) contributed greatly to my acceptance in the program.
posted by meerkatty at 8:50 AM on August 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

Oops. I meant to say what meerkatty said as well. My story is similar and the moral the same: having spoken to someone you want to work with (and who wants to work with you) will make a huge difference.

Definitely very good advice.
posted by dseaton at 9:00 AM on August 16, 2006

It's useful if you have already done something linked to what you intend to do for your PhD research. My MSc thesis did me a lot of good in getting my PhD funding and now I supervise that's one of the things I look for. Play this up in your letter.

I'll also reemphasise that you should get in touch with the people you'd like to supervise your work. Forming any kind of relationship will be a benefit later. (Also: I kept in touch with one of the people who interviewed me at one place but who couldn't fund me - she later helped out with mentoring and I ended up working for her in my first post doc position.)
posted by biffa at 9:21 AM on August 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone. Just a little background - I'm in regular contact with a professor (who suggested I apply in the first place, and will, with any luck, be my advisor).

Biffa, I've worked for them as an independent contractor generating computer graphics for studies- so I'm familiar with the tech they use and some of the research they do. It's a big part of the reason I'm interested in studying with them at all.

My undergrad degree is in sculpture, so I'm far from home. I'll be sure to ask him the same questions, but any more general advice would be awesome! I was hoping by leaving out the personal stuff (what would make MY letter great) it would be more general advice- what to do and what to avoid (which is what you've all been doing, and I really appreciate it).
posted by fake at 10:02 AM on August 16, 2006

It seems obvious, but I have read a surprising number of personal statements with spelling and grammatical errors; proofread over and over, and if you are not sure whether you are using a word or phrase correctly, look it up or use something else.
posted by TedW at 10:20 AM on August 16, 2006

If you're really stumped and have some cash, hire a college counselor. My parents hired a lady when I was in hs to help me figure out where to go to college and how to best write my essay. I used her again when I applied to grad school. She was amazing at helping me brainstorm good topics and also she proofread it for me.
posted by radioamy at 10:31 AM on August 16, 2006

so I'm far from home

In this case, make sure to play up how the things that you learned in unrelated-field and later work/educational experiences can carry over or strengthen your developing skills in new-field. This is part of the "how my previous experience makes me a great fit for your program and what I want to study at your institution" section.

Not that I know what's grabbed you about either field, but if it were me, I might include something like how sculpture had helped me better conceptualize the three-dimensional world and how we see it. That and [something] led me to pursue this Ph.D. program, where I can do novel research in the ~hand-waving~ variations and neurological causes of variations in 3D perception.

[has been accepted into science/eng. Ph.D. programs and now reads applications for several university-centric international opportunities.]
posted by whatzit at 11:06 AM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Be as goal oriented as possible. Do not tell a tragic story of your life unless it has already been made into a TV movie.
posted by k8t at 11:23 AM on August 16, 2006

Check out:

1. This tipsheet written by an acquaintance of mine

2. This personal statement writing "course"

3. These sample essays, some of which are better than others, but will all give you a feel for the genre

If you already have a professor who will likely get behind your application, you're light years ahead of the game. Your personal statement is just your chance to explain what kind of questions you want to answer in graduate school and how you're prepared to answer them. Think of it as one part job application cover letter and one part project proposal. Good luck!
posted by chickletworks at 12:57 PM on August 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

Check out the philosophy of the graduate program you want to join. In mine (Ph.D. Neuroscience, University of Minnesota) they wanted more open-mindedness. They were put off by students who thought they knew EXACTLY what they wanted to do. They appreciated balance between having some sense of direction and passion, but also enough humility to acknowledge that you are only a (potential) student and you are open to learning new things.

I found the most helpful people were the director of graduate studies and the two women who were the graduate program coordinators (sort of like secretaries, but totally on top of every aspect of how to be a grad student in their program).

Other grad programs might want you to be very directed and already have your advisor picked out. So investigate the program's philosophy.
posted by aimless at 3:22 PM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Большое спасибо, друзья!!

I absolutely couldn't have anticipated such a great response. I'd mark a best answer, but I'd need to mark every post.
posted by fake at 8:45 AM on August 17, 2006

IAAP, though I haven't sat on graduate admissions committees, and even if I had ours wouldn't be hugely competitive. That said:

You don't want to tailor your essay too closely to the school you're writing it for. By this I mean that if you learn that a school is big on Theory1, you don't want to say that you're interested in studying Theory1 unless you really and truly are. Admission to graduate school is not (just) a matter of winning and losing, it's also a matter of matching applicants to departments. You want to be honest about what you are and aren't interested in, and let the admissions chips fall where they may.

I do not think you need to talk much about how sculpture led you to psychology. If you can discuss some literature, you obviously know enough. I would just mention your BA, note its more-or-less irrelevance, and then focus on the relevant experience you do have.

All of the sample essays I looked at seemed completely terrible to me, but again I have not sat on grad admissions committees at competitive schools. They were awful, rambling things that didn't make it clear that the writer had any firm idea what graduate school would be like or what those disciplines were like.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:42 AM on January 24, 2007

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