contacting potential supervisors


Grad School Cover Letters: Making a Good First Impression

We all know that first impressions can have lasting influence on what others think of us. It can be difficult to reverse a negative first impression, whereas a positive one can sway people to overlook minor misgivings that come up later. Grad school applicants who make positive first impressions on the members of an admissions committee or a potential graduate supervisor have a much better chance of eventually being accepted than those who initially come across as run-of-the-mill. Many programs receive a huge number of applicants each year, from which there may be only a few selected. Paring the pool down to only applicants who stand out in some positive way facilitates the selection process. Bad first impressions can lead to a quick rejection. For very competitive programs even just a flat first impression that is not particularly bad can still be an impediment.

Cover letters can provide the basis for a first impression and set the tone for further evaluation of an applicant. A good letter can spark interest and enthusiasm for your application, whereas a poor letter can undermine it. Cover letters display your organizational and writing skills, your judgment and priorities, social skills, personal style, and your ability to focus on important matters and to avoid irrelevant ones.

Most graduate school applicants encounter situations in which a cover letter is required. One situation is when contacting a potential supervisor before applying. This may be done by e-mail, of course, but it should still be fashioned as a proper cover letter. Another situation that calls for a cover letter is when applying to programs that do not require a separate application form. A cover letter is not usually needed to accompany an application form, but in some cases it may be a good idea to include one, such as when important information about you is not covered in another part of the application. A third situation calling for a cover letter is when contacting schools to request additional information on the programs they offer or to request their application packages. This situation is becoming less and less common, as nearly all schools now allow people to download program information and application forms and instructions from the Internet.

What does one say in a cover letter? What should be left out? Not surprisingly, the answers depend on whether it is a general cover letter that will introduce you to an admissions committee, or one that will be used to make contact with a prospective supervisor. The admissions committee is looking to find applicants who have excellent scholarly potential, as evidenced by past academic and related accomplishments, and who also have priorities and interests that fit with the program’s objectives and specializations.

The introductory paragraph should state your interest in applying to this particular graduate program. One or two sentences in either the first or the second paragraph should provide a background summary of your education and training experience that is most relevant to your graduate school application. This would include such things as relevant work experience, years of experience, any degrees held and/or the degree program you are currently enrolled in, and degree completion or expected completion dates. Make this summary brief. Its purpose is simply to indicate that you have the necessary background, without going into detail. Details of your background are in other parts of the application, such as your transcripts and personal statement.

The best way to spark a potential supervisor’s interest in you is to know who they are, what they have done, and what they do now. Avoid describing your own interests too narrowly. Remember that grades often have little relevance to the needs of graduate supervisors. They are more likely to be interested in knowing whether you have an aptitude for research.


“Sleeping” Your Way Into Graduate School

Note the quotation marks around the first word in the title. They are there because the topic today is NOT how to stay in bed until late morning, snooze at the back of the lecture hall during classes, and still get into grad school.

Many college or university students enjoy getting to know certain professors on a personal level. It can have payoffs, such as providing opportunities for professional or academic mentoring. It can also be critically helpful for students who later need letters of recommendation to support applications to graduate school, for scholarships, or for job applications. A good rapport and significant interaction is necessary if someone is to get to know some of the important things about your character and personality.

Some professors are known for keeping a distance from their students, whereas others are more sociable. Students also vary along the same dimensions. There is nothing wrong with this variation, of course. There is no “right way” or “best policy” that should apply to all students and professors when it comes to the kinds of interpersonal relationships they should maintain – as long as there are no breaches of any student or faculty code of conduct, no laws are broken, no one abuses power or authority, or otherwise behaves unethically. College-aged students are adults, and so are their professors. It is not surprising, therefore, that some students and professors will occasionally find themselves in “adult situations”, which provide certain opportunities and temptations.

Whether or not either person’s behavior violates the abovementioned conditions for an acceptable relationship is not the issue I want to address. Instead, I want to comment on whether a student could conceivably use sexual charming to manipulate certain situations in a way that helps him or her get into graduate school.

Frankly, I have no doubt that it can be done and it has been done many times. There are hundreds of thousands of college students out there and tens of thousands of professors. With such numbers, it’s safe to assume that some of those students engage in extreme flirting and even unabashed seduction of professors. There can be all sorts of motives (including love) but can sex actually be used as a tactic for getting a good reference letter, or even just a good grade?

Using such unscrupulous tactics to get ahead in the academic world fails in the vast majority of cases; in fact, it often backfires. I have seen it happen more than once. Not the successful attempt to get ahead by screwing the right person – I mean the destruction of a student’s chances of getting into grad school because of promiscuous behavior around professors. In each case, the student was not even trying to use sex to manipulate anything, such as a grade or a letter of recommendation, and there was no clearly unethical behavior by either professor or student. Still, the student’s reputation was trashed because other people either witnessed inappropriate behavior, or else heard gossip.

Some professors may be disdainful of colleagues who get involved romantically with students, but the truth is that there are usually no significant long-term consequences for a professor who engages in mild indiscretions, as long as he or she stays within certain ethical boundaries (never messing with your own students, for example).

For students who openly flirt with professors, on the other hand, the damage it causes to their reputation is usually severe and lasting. Some people might wonder whether the student manipulates people this way in order to gain some personal advantage; others just assume the student has bad judgment. Invariably, those students’ tarnished reputations overshadow any real academic or scholarly strengths they possess, so no one ever really gets a strong and positive impression. Without the respect and support of professors who know them, most students have little chance of receiving effective letters of recommendation and being accepted into a good graduate program.

The take-home message is: Licentious behavior can color a student’s reputation, which may be a significant problem when it comes to asking professors for letters of recommendation. My advice to students who like to flirt: You have too much to lose by playing promiscuous games with professors, so you really should limit that kind of thing to your fantasies.

Article is courtesy of Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. :

Image courtesy of Sarah G…’s :

Finding Professors to Work With; Prolix

Finding Professors to Work With; Prolix.