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Graduate Writing: Applying for Graduate School

Applying for Graduate School

Once you have made the decision to apply for graduate school, double-check all application requirements. All universities will require some of the same material (e.g., transcripts), but each has slightly different requirements. If you are applying to multiple programs, keep clear notes of what each requires (even if they are within the same university) and be sure to personalize any writing components (e.g., letter of introduction, statement of interest).

You may be required to include a research or personal statement and/or a writing sample as part of your application. Such texts are conventional especially if you want to complete a project, thesis, or dissertation-based degree.

Be sure to verify requirements! Guidelines can differ even within the same university. For instance, some departments will ask for a 2000-word research statement while others ask for a mere 500 words.

Communicating with Prospective Supervisors

If you are planning to complete a thesis- or dissertation-based degree (optional at MA/MSc and mandatory at PhD), you may need to first secure an advisor for your research prior to submitting your application. Alternately, this may be done after you have been accepted. Furthermore, while some departments assign supervisors, it is common to make this arrangement yourself based on shared research interests and a supervisor’s availability. Review the department’s website or reach out to the program coordinators to find out expectations.

If you are a bit nervous about reaching out, remember that professors are motivated to accept and supervise graduate students. Many believe deeply in the value of nurturing future scholars or will be excited about your research topic. Apart from such personal investment, professors are often required to supervise graduate students as part of their own career responsibilities and progression.

But before you press send on that introductory email, determine whether the professor may be a suitable supervisor. Check out their websites and review their recent publications to see if their research aligns with what you want to study. You may also wish to review what their current students are researching to get a sense of what it would be like to work with that professor.

Keep in mind that your initial email does not need to be extensive; strive to be comprehensive but concise. Be sure to include the following information:

  • Explain your research topic or area of interest and motivation.
    • Including any related research that you have already completed
  • Summarize your educational and relevant academic, professional and/or voluntary experiences.
    • Including any publications, conference presentations, significant projects and other evidence that demonstrates your existing skillset and potential to be successful in the program
  • Suggest a telephone call or virtual meeting so that you can discuss potential fit (helpful for prospective MA/MSc students and strongly recommended for prospective PhD students).


Looking for more information on reaching out to prospective supervisors?


If a supervisor declines to work with you or if you are rejected from the program(s) to which you applied, keep in mind that rejection is part of the process and not a personal judgement (even though it may feel that way!). Rather, there might be other factors at play. For instance, dozens of qualified applicants may have applied for a limited number of spots. Or a professor that you’d like to work with simply has limited capacity to take on additional students.

If you want to know why your application was rejected, you may decide to follow up with a brief email or phone call. Regardless of the reason why, if you apply again you will want to strengthen your application package to make yourself a more competitive candidate and/or consider if you should broaden your search.


Looking for more information on managing rejection?

Research Statements

Research statements go by many names: statement of interest, description of research interests, statement of interest, prospectus, and statement of purpose to name a few.

Regardless of how it is described, the purpose of such a document is to provide insight into what you want to research while enrolled in a thesis- or dissertation-based program.

Depending on the program to which are applying, you may be given very detailed instruction on what to include in your statement while others may provide far less information.

PhD programs generally require longer, more detailed statements that discuss a specific research question to be investigated whereas MA/MSc programs may not require applicants to have a carefully conceived project in mind.

Caution: Sometimes students use this document to highlight their past accomplishments without writing meaningfully about what they would like to do next. A research statement is a future-oriented text; while you will need to reference how your previous experience has prepared you to carry out the project, the focus of the statement should be about the research you want to carry out if accepted.

Looking for more information on writing effective research statements?

  •  Kraatz, K. (Facilitator). (2020, November 18). Writing your personal statement [Webinar]. University of Waterloo.

  •  Stapleton, A. (2020, Oct. 12). PhD research proposal: 5 essential elements to make it AWESOME. [Video].   

  •  UBC Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. (2020, September). Top tip: How to write a good statement of interest. GradProspect Newsletter.

  •  University of Reading [UniofReading]. (2019, July 3). How to write a PhD research proposal [Video]. YouTube.

Personal Statements

For students applying for non-thesis track programs (MA/MSc), you may be asked to submit a personal statement instead of a research statement (though some programs will require both or will use these terms synonymously). The personal statement is an opportunity for you to explain your motivation for entering the program. Depending on the guidelines provided, you may also be asked to explain how the degree relates to your future ambitions as a scholar and/or professional.

If you are returning to university after a significant break and/or if you did not achieve high grades during your undergraduate degree, the personal statement can also be an opportunity to explain your growth and accomplishments that have prepared you for graduate work. Likewise, if you completed your undergraduate degree in a different discipline, this document could help you frame your argument for shifting focus as you enter graduate school.

Universities want students to complete their degrees, so they want to admit students who are likely to succeed in the program. A personal statement is one piece of the larger puzzle that can help an admissions committee assess your ability to finish the degree in a timely manner.


Looking for more information on writing effective personal statements?

Writing Samples

While your research and/or personal statement serve as examples of your writing, some programs also require longer writing samples. These samples provide evidence of your original ideas, your engagement with scholarly literature, and your ability to organize complex information and communicate effectively within a specific discipline. Like the rest of your application package (e.g., reference letters and transcripts), the writing sample will help determine whether you have a suitable skillset to succeed in the program.

Often these samples will be drawn from your previous course work (e.g., research paper, scholarly essay) related to the program to which you are applying. Some prospective students, however, may use a published academic article (more common among prospective PhD students, but not universal). Regardless, you may need to edit your paper or article to meet word count or page limits, so give yourself sufficient time to revise. While specific programs will have their own requirements, a writing sample is usually 15–25 double-spaced pages.

If you are unsure about the suitability of your sample, seek feedback from professors and/or trusted peers.