Writing Application Materials

As part of the application for admission to our graduate degree programs, applicants are required to produce a Statement of Purpose and a Writing Sample.

Statement of Purpose

A statement of purpose is a description of academic and/or professional interests. A successful statement will use its 1000 words to clearly state the applicant's specific area of interest and the particular historical problems, theories, movements, etc., upon which the applicant would like to see his or her graduate study focus. While many students shift areas of interest during their initial years in the program, it is nonetheless important that the applicant convinces the Department that he or she is a good fit with the areas of interest of our current faculty; and that he or she can demonstrate the ability to focus on and think through a potential research topic.

In the same vein, the statement should also allow the admissions committee to clearly identify applicants' interests. The best way to do this is to stick to one interest. Applicants who simultaneously want to be researchers in early modern Europe and twentieth-century US may seem like less serious candidates than ones who know they want to work on the history of civil rights (for example). A Ph.D. applicant must also directly reference one of our major fields: U.S. to 1865, U.S. since 1865, Early Modern Europe, Modern Europe, History of Technology. If training for a position as an archivist and/or a public historian is also a goal, the applicant should indicate that in the statement.

Applicants for the M.A. program are not expected to have detailed ideas about research topics. They should nonetheless indicate a specific area of interest (and, ideally, a faculty member who they have contacted and with whom they are particularly interested in working with). If the student is particularly interested in concentrating on archival studies or public history during the M.A., please indicate which one. While the programs work closely together - students often share classes and even move from one program to the other - it is important that applicants give the admissions committee a sense of why they have chosen the M.A. and what they hope to achieve by successfully completing the degree.

Writing about research

Applicants should also get the admissions committee to care about their research. The statement of purpose will therefore also ideally include:

  1. A hook. Something to grab the reader's attention. This might be a historical example, perhaps one discovered during an undergraduate thesis or M.A. thesis, which should interest readers.
  2. A thesis statement. A clear statement of what the proposed research is and what bigger historical argument it might address. Applicants should demonstrate an awareness of relevant historiographical debates (the arguments other historians have had and are currently having).
  3. A narrative. An idea of how the applicant came to a particular historical interest and his or her development as a historian. Was it a particular book / lecture / class discussion? How has the applicant's perspective developed since then? If the application is completing or has completed an undergraduate thesis or M.A. thesis on the subject, how has his or her ideas changed in response to findings in the evidence?

Finally, a good statement of purpose presents its case clearly, in the most explicit and specific terms.

Writing Sample

The writing sample is typically a paper written for a course in a previous academic program. While applicants may wish to use the sample as further proof of competence in the field of interest, it does not have to be on the same topic or even the same historical field as the research proposed. The strongest sample is that which showcases the applicant's ability to produce a sustained historical argument built on analyses of primary sources (with the necessary professional references / citations).

While the Department does not set a minimum or maximum length for the writing sample, it should be of substantial length. An applicant may wish to excerpt a 15-20 page section of a long undergraduate or M.A. thesis, as this may offer the admissions committee the strongest example of the work. Feel free to accompany such an excerpt with a short commentary on how it fits in the overall thesis.

Last Updated: November 30, 2015