In recent years my graduate teaching has focused mainly on foundational courses in our program. I have taught the second year course that students in all fields take while completing their MA essay. I also have taught the course in which students write their dissertation prospectuses. Less frequently, I have taught the reading courses on the nineteenth and the twentieth century United States history.
Think carefully about what you want and expect from graduate education in History. Graduate school in History bears little resemblance to the undergraduate study of History. A love of History by itself is insufficient to get you through a doctoral program. If you want deeper exposure to History but you don’t love historiography, don’t have unlimited stamina for conducting research, or are impatient, perhaps a Master’s program would suit you better. And don’t enter a doctoral program unless you have a real appetite for writing and re-writing.
After reading literally thousands of graduate applications, here is my distilled advice on how to write the most effective application to a doctoral program. Good grades as an undergraduate are an obvious prerequisite. But good grades alone won’t assure you admission to a top tier program. You will also need to make sure that your application presents you, your interests, and your abilities in the best possible light. Take care to ensure that your statement of purpose, your letters of recommendation, and your writing sample all work together to present you as you would like to be seen.
The first part of an application that I read is the Statement of Purpose. More than any other document in your application, the Statement allows you to speak directly to the faculty who will decide whether to admit you. Use your statement to tell us what historical questions interest you and why UNC-CH (or whatever institution) is well suited to help you develop your talents. Don’t bother telling us that you love history or that you have long wanted to be a professor. Virtually all applicants share these same qualities. Instead, tell us what interests you, why it interests you, and how you hope to explore your interests at UNC-CH. If you have a very clear idea of the topic you want to study in graduate school, wonderful. But perhaps your ideas are still somewhat unfocused. In that case, explain the broad topic that interests you. For example, you may be interested in how the ideas of pain, suffering, and gender have evolved over time but you may be uncertain as to whether to focus on the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. You could leave open the specific temporal focus and instead concentrate on explaining why this general topic interests you. In simple terms, let us know what in the past excites you.
Of only slightly less importance (to me) than the Statement of Purpose are Letters of Recommendation. Letters are especially revealing and helpful if they address the skills that will be crucial to your success in a graduate program: familiarity with archival research, ability to conceive and execute an extended and original historical argument, and writing ability. Pick recommenders who have the greatest familiarity with your skills that are most relevant to a doctoral program. Of course, a strong letter of recommendation from a professor who cannot speak to your research and writing skills is better than no letter. But whenever possible seek out a letter writer who can speak authoritatively about your preparation for a doctoral program in History.
Your Writing Sample is the clincher for establishing your preparation for a doctoral program. The Sample allows us to see your mind at work. Preferably the Sample should be long enough to allow us to see how you selected evidence and marshaled it. The Sample also should reveal how you developed your argument. It is better to submit an 80 page senior thesis than a 10 page book review. You may doubt that we will read a long Sample, but in fact we often do.
Finally, reach out to scholars with whom you think you might want to work. Email them and ask them if they have any advice about your proposed topic of study. I typically offer to discuss by phone or Skype topics that mesh with our department’s strengths. Such conversations are not so much interviews as another opportunity to add depth to texture to an application. We also view such communications as evidence of your interest in our program.