Some zombies creeping up below. Save your imperiled brain and read that first. Then come back here.
Consider what follows less of a guide than an opening to a conversation. If you're an undergraduate or MA student, look at the comments below (if any appear) for corrections to my missteps. But because of my own mistakes and those of my students, and because googling for how to write a graduate cover letter in the humanities gets me only hits guiding recent PhDs in applying for jobs, what follows fills a need, I think.
EDIT: I'd forgotten that they're also called statements of purpose. So: here is a nice set of guidelines with good links. Consider this post a supplement.
Caveat: (and slight edit) My department's graduate offerings are MAs or MFAs (CUNY PhD students all do their doctorates at the Graduate Center in Manhattan), and the only hand I've had in admissions to date was a volunteered afternoon of culling rejected MFA applicants to determine which might be suitable candidates for our MA program. Further caveat: in my four years at Brooklyn College, I believe only one student for whom I've written a recommendation letter has been accepted to a funded spot in a literature doctoral program, although I've had successes in placing students in other kinds of degree programs and in helping them win fellowships.
If you're still with me--and you've every right to have jumped ship by this point--here are two important facts:
- as of this Fall, I now require students requesting recommendation letters to provide me with their application materials--particularly their cover letter--at least several weeks in advance;
- every first draft of a cover letter I've seen has been...not very good, no matter how smart the student.
My first cover letter, back in 1997, was awful (too). Like all the inadequate cover letters I've seen since, it crowed about my enthusiasm for literature and my hope to teach, and that plus some good recommendation letters and stellar GRE scores cost me several hundred dollars in application fees and won me nothing but rejection from 8 or so doctoral programs and the offer of a spot in a very expensive MA program. I scurried to apply one last time to a local MA program, which--for unknown reasons--said yes, funded me, and taught me how to teach and, more importantly, how to be a graduate student.
So: A good cover letter for a doctoral program needs to express more than enthusiasm. It's kind of a Gerald Graff point, but I don't think graduate schools want students who they have to train to be students. And students must realize that a graduate degree is a professional degree: just wanting to be in the program is not enough. Enthusiasm is nice, but know that everyone applying to a doctoral program is presumed to be nutty enough to want to spent 8.2 years for a degree that could end in nothing but learning. Everyone's enthusiastic; but not everyone has focus.
Your letter needs more than a sense of enthusiasm, and it needs more than personal story, regardless of surmounted hardship or chance meetings with, oh, Jacques Le Goff. It needs to describe someone who does research, someone who chooses projects that matter (think, students, about the so what? factor), and someone who at least seems to have a research agenda tying together his or her various projects to date.
I tend to think, then, that a good cover letter has the following format. Two-pages, single spaced, with room for addresses, salutations, and signatures:
- Paragraph 1: introduction (my name's blah blah, I'm finishing a degree at blah, and I'm applying to your program in blah blah and will concentrate in medieval/early modern/Vorticist/whatever literature)
- Paragraph 2: here's what I've worked on so far and why it's so interesting/important
- Paragraph 3: here's what I hope to work on in the future, and here's where I see my career going
- Paragraph 4 (customized for each letter): how you hope to take advantage of the particular academic resources of each school, particularly its faculty
- Paragraph 5: personal stuff
Thank you for time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.Yours sincerely,Prospective Student
My 1999 letter, the one that finally got me into a funded PhD program, followed this format, and was edited mercilessly four or five times by a universally beloved medievalist, then at Western Washington University. In other words, draft your letter well in advance and expect to have it torn to pieces. If you follow the above format, maybe you can get by with only three rewrites instead of five.
My second paragraph described the medieval courses I'd taken at in my MA program (Chaucer, Medieval Drama, independent study on Medieval Women's Lit), and focused on the three conference papers I'd given by that point and on my MA Thesis. Paragraph three discussed my preference for noncanonical medieval texts and expressed my hope to one day edit a TEAMS volume. Paragraph four differed depending on the school, and graph five was the only place I talked about me as a human being rather than just as a scholar: that's where I sold myself as a first-generation working class college student blah blah blah. Everything else, though, did its utmost to present me as a kind of junior colleague.
I know this all sounds kind of dull, particularly given the kinds of work we champion and practice here. Correct me in comments, then.