How to Write a Letter of Intent When Applying to a Graduate Program

Research-oriented graduate programs (Masters and PhD) often require applicants to submit letters of intent. Typically, a program admissions committee uses the letter of intent to determine whether the applicant's academic and career goals fit with the program and the professors' areas of expertise. The letter of intent may also be used to match a successful applicant with a supervisor.

Focus on goals

In writing your letter of intent, describe clearly why you want to study for a graduate degree. How will the degree enable you to accomplish your career goals? What areas of research interest you? Mention one or two research areas in sufficient detail to allow the admissions committee to form a clear picture of your interests. A few references to the research literature are helpful. Explain how your background and acquired skills have prepared you to succeed in the program and in your areas of research specialization.

Your letter of intent and declaration of research interest is not a binding contract. Although the letter may be key to your admission into the program and facilitate your assignment to a supervisor with similar interests, most programs recognize that students' goals and interests change and that such changes are legitimate. Usually you are free to switch to a different specialization within the program.

Contact a professor

A good strategy for choosing a graduate program is to read the CVs of professors who teach in the program. Pay particular attention to their lists of publications. If you can identify one professor whose research specialization most closely matches your interests, it is often a good idea to contact him or her by email or telephone to get more information. Most professors are happy to talk with potential students about their research and the graduate programs they teach in.

Size and format

Your letter of intent should be one to two pages of succinctly written prose, or 400 to 800 words including a brief reference list. Appropriately citing a few research articles demonstrates that you have some aquaintance with the area in which you are proposing to work, and that you understand the conventions of bibliographic citation in that area. When applying to programs in the social sciences and education, your citations should strictly adhere to APA (American Psychological Association) form.

If You are Rejected

If your application is rejected do not assume that your qualifications are not good enough for graduate school. An admissions committee sometimes rejects an applicant because it judges that no professors in the program have the expertise to supervise the type of research outlined in the letter of intent. It is also possible that there are professors who do have the expertise, but they are unable to take on more graduate students. Do not hesitate to re-apply to the same program for a later intake if you were rejected for this reason.

If You are Accepted

If your application is accepted you will usually be assigned a pro-tem (temporary) supervisor who will serve as your academic advisor. Your pro-tem supervisor was likely assigned to you because his or her research interests match those you indicated in your letter of intent. In most cases, the pro-tem supervisor becomes the student's senior supervisor at a later point in the program, or helps the student to identify a more suitable senior supervisor.

Updated 2008.01.11
© John C. Nesbit