Publication Date

October 1, 1989

Perspectives Section

The Graduate

AHA Topic

Graduate Education

Editor’s Note: This essay was written at the request of the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians, chaired by Professor Judith R. Walkowitz. While addressed directly to students, it will also interest those Perspectives readers who, in their capacity as undergraduate advisors, must guide college students through the maze of the graduate-school application process. Since the essay will eventually be incorporated in a practical “how to” booklet addressed to persons interested in pursuing graduate work in history, comments and suggestions for revision are welcomed by the author.

Together with the academic transcript and (in some cases) GRE scores, the most important components of an application for graduate study in history are, for many history departments, the student’s own statement of purpose and the supporting letters of recommendation. This essay offers some suggestions for avoiding common pitfalls in the preparation of these components, and for making them as strong and persuasive as possible.

In brief, the most effective statements of purpose are those that are specific, well written, professional in tone, scrupulously accurate in spelling and grammar, and tailored to the particular institution to which the application is addressed. The statement should avoid sweeping philosophical generalizations, avowals of political or other ideology, or ruminations about the nature of historical knowledge and its essential role in bettering the human condition. No matter how earnestly intended or passionately felt, such lofty rhetoric all too easily descends to the level of cliché, especially when offered in a necessarily compressed form, suggesting an immature and jejune outlook rather than the intended profundity. Summaries of extra-curricular activities and achievements, no matter how outstanding, are usually best confined to those having a direct bearing on the professional field to which you are seeking entry.

While it is certainly appropriate to discuss how you became interested in history, and to include something about your long-range career goals, such matters should be kept brief and to the point. Remember that your application is one of many being read by busy faculty members who have numerous other time-consuming obligations as well. Keep your tendencies toward loquaciousness well in check, and observe word limits strictly.

The strongest essay is one that sums up your scholarly interests and immediate academic objectives in a clear and straightforward fashion. Your statement should be quite precise about the time period, geographic region, or kind of history you want to study, and perhaps even the specific topic you wish ultimately to investigate. You should briefly indicate how your undergraduate reading, research, and course work have shaped your particular interests and have prepared you to pursue them further. At the same time, bear in mind that the earlier phases of graduate education involve primarily general training rather than research on a specific topic. Therefore, your statement should convey an openness to the acquisition of a wide range of historical knowledge and research skills rather than an obsessive fixation on a single narrow topic. (An application from a college senior whose sole purpose in life is to study the Battle of Antietam or the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 would probably raise warning signals for most graduate admissions committees.)

It is entirely appropriate, indeed desirable, to tailor your statement of purpose to the institution to which you are applying. Feel free, for example, to mention professors with whom you would like to work or specific strengths—such as particular manuscript holdings or degree programs—that make the institution attractive to you. Such specificity should avoid elaborate praise or flattery and a fawning, excessively deferential tone is likely to be counterproductive.

The statement of purpose is also the place for you to address briefly any anomalies or ambiguities in your record that might give an admissions committee pause, such as a non-standard grading system or courses whose content is not clear from the transcript (e.g., “Independent Study”). If your undergraduate background in history is weak, it might be advisable for you to describe in more detail than would otherwise be necessary the evolution of your academic interests, and to make plain that your commitment to the discipline is now firm.

The quality of the essay is probably more important than its substantive content. The members of the admissions committee who pass upon your application will evaluate your statement for the evidence it offers about the quality, clarity, and originality of your mind; your maturity and sense of direction; your skills as a writer; and your capacity for careful attention to detail. A thoughtful, well-crafted, coherently organized essay can go a long way toward favorably disposing a committee on your behalf. Conversely, a shallow, formulaic, hastily written statement marred by poor organization, awkwardness of expression, or (even worse) outright grammatical errors or misspellings, can seriously undermine an otherwise strong application. I have seen application essays where misspelled words or grammatical errors had been heavily circled or underlined by previous readers, with an exclamation point in the margin. Such lapses of detail are not necessarily fatal in themselves, particularly if the admissions committee convinces itself that the applicant is “a diamond in the rough.” But they are sufficiently damaging, especially in borderline cases, that every effort to avoid them is strongly recommended.

The letters of recommendation are highly important as well. You should select with great care the professors you ask to write on your behalf. While you obviously cannot quiz a professor in detail about what he or she will say in a letter of recommendation, it is in order for you to ask an instructor in advance whether he or she feels able to write a reasonably positive letter for you. If possible, select instructors whose scholarly work might be known to those who will be reading the letters. (Admissions committees evaluate the writers of recommendation letters, as well as the subjects of those letters!) Sometimes, particularly at large institutions, it is junior faculty members, or even graduate teaching assistants, who know the applicant best and who write the most useful and perceptive letters. Where feasible, however, try to supplement letters from beginning or relatively unknown instructors with others from more established scholars.

Generally speaking, try to secure a letter of recommendation as soon as possible after you have completed a course or an independent study project, when you and your work are still fresh in the instructor’s consciousness. If you wish to obtain a letter from a professor with whom you studied a year or so in the past, or who taught you in a large lecture course, spend a little time talking with that individual about your work in the course, your general undergraduate program, and your scholarly interests, to refresh his or her memory and fix yourself more precisely in his or her mind. The more specific a letter of recommendation, the greater the weight it tends to carry.

Clearly, no single “formula” can guarantee admission to graduate school in history or any other discipline. Each admissions decision reflects a variety of factors and subjective judgments by fallible human beings. But the tips offered above should help maximize your chances. Good luck!

Paul Boyer is Henry R. Luce Visiting Professor of American Culture in the Department of History, Northwestern University. He can be contacted in writing at the following address: Institute for Research in the Humanities, Old Observatory, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Madison, WI 53706.