Letters of Recommendation 

History faculty take seriously the responsibility of writing letters of recommendation to advance the educational, research, and career goals of their students. Crafting letters, however, takes time and energy — particularly since every year, a Brown faculty member submits dozens of letters of recommendation for: current students, both undergrad and grad; past students, both undergrad and grad; postdoctoral fellows; faculty peers at Brown and other institutions; other researchers; institutional grant applications, etc. Please follow the guidelines below so that you may get the best possible letters.

  • Select faculty with whom you have worked closest. They usually know you the best and can write vividly about your strengths.
  • Avoid last-minute requests (i.e., any request less than one week prior to deadline). It's likely that the faculty member cannot accommodate you. Faculty normally need at least three weeks notice to comply with your request, even if they already have a letter on file since they may want to update that letter. Never assume that letters can be faxed or e-mailed at the last second. Allow an equal amount of time for these requests as you would for mailed letters.
  • In your request to faculty:
    • include a copy of your resume and transcript (unofficial will do)
    • explain in a paragraph or two what your purpose is in applying, what you hope to accomplish, etc.
  • After the faculty member agrees to your request, send digital copies or hardcopies (depending on faculty preference) of:
    • your resume 
    • your transcript  
    • any statement of purpose or application essay
    • (optional — best to ask) past work done for the letter writer or even work done in another class
  • Make sure that you have filled out the waiver of confidentiality agreement. Letters cannot be sent unless you have done this.
  • Send a "gentle reminder" email one week prior to the due date if necessary.

FAQs about applying to the History MA & PhD programs

Q. May I meet with the Director of Graduate Studies to discuss my interest in applying to your program?

A. As a general rule, the Director of Graduate Studies is available to meet with students after they have applied and been accepted to the graduate program. We encourage you to contact faculty (by email) with whom you may wish to work. 

Q. What is the acceptance rate for the Brown History Department?

A. From a very diverse applicant pool of approximately 200 applicants, we carefully choose a class of about 10-12 PhD students whose interests and strengths seem to fit particularly well with the intellectual configuration of the department.

The Graduate Admissions Committee weighs a number of factors when considering candidates. Of primary interest are a candidate's personal statement and writing sample. These pieces of writing must show, first of all, that the applicant would like to be a part of and is capable of succeeding at a graduate program whose goal is to train students to be professional historians who work in a range of careers, including but not restricted to higher education.

We look for applicants who are asking provocative historical questions and who are interested in exploring such questions in a rigorous and diverse intellectual community. The personal statement and writing sample must also demonstrate that the candidate understands and would fit in well with our program's strengths. They must show that the candidate has the skills and abilities required for those who are to be trained in history. Finally, we are committed to creating a diverse and inclusive department, and welcome applicants to comment, if they wish, on how they might contribute to that goal — whether personally, in their work, or in their community building.

A candidate's undergraduate and — if applicable — graduate record also play important roles in our efforts to answer these questions, as do letters of recommendation and test scores. We review these materials holistically, and with the greatest emphasis on those records that speak most directly to the qualities necessary for undertaking a history PhD: primary research, writing, project organization, critical analysis, intellectual self-confidence, the ability to collaborate, perseverance, and so on.

Q. What is the cut-off point for GPA or GRE scores in the Brown History Department?

A. There is no cut-off point for either GPA or GRE scores in the department. However, low scores serve as an alerting mechanism that push us to look very carefully at the rest of a student’s record as we assess their potential for success in this department.

Q. What are you looking for in a Statement of Academic Purpose?

A. We are looking for a three-to-five page essay that begins with a statement detailing your particular historical interests and then proceeds to discuss your particular strengths, interests, and aspirations as a historian and the ways you think the Brown History Department — both individually and communally — is suited to support you in working towards your goals.

Q. How long should the writing sample be, and what criteria do you use to evaluate the samples?

A. We have no official requirement regarding the length of the writing sample. We ask that you send us a piece of writing that allows us to determine if you have the necessary skills to succeed as a graduate student in history and, ultimately, in a career as a professional historian. Such skills would include an ability to create an argument from historical evidence, clearly present that argument in written form, and firmly locate it in some field of historical study.

Doing this well usually requires a piece of between twenty and twenty-five pages. Applicants often submit a seminar paper or chapter of an undergraduate thesis as their writing sample. Whatever you send, we strongly recommend that you seek the counsel of a faculty member at your present school (if you are currently attending one) or one of your previous institutions who has some familiarity with the current field of history.

Q. Do I have to take the TOEFL or IELTS exam if my native language is not English?

A. In most cases, yes. Brown University requires one of these exams, unless you are receiving a degree from a university in which the primary language of instruction is English. Please refer to the Graduate School guidelines on language proficiency for additional details.

Q. Do I need to have an MA prior to applying to the PhD program?

A.  A terminal MA is not required prior to applying or matriculating for the PhD. It is advisable that you contact faculty in your subject area, however, to gain an understanding of the skills and training (such as languages, etc.) that may be necessary or advisable prior to admission.

Q. What financial support does Brown offer its graduate students in the Masters program in History?

A. The department is not currently able to offer fellowship support for students in the fifth year MA program.

Q. What financial support does Brown offer its graduate students in the PhD program in History?

A. The University offers a five-year support package to all incoming students, conditional upon satisfactory progress through the graduate program. First-year students receive fellowship support, which includes full tuition, health insurance, the health services fee, and a stipend. In their second, third, and fifth years, graduate students are supported primarily by teaching assistantships, which include full tuition, health insurance, the health services fee, and a stipend.

All students are encouraged to apply for outside fellowship support as they move into the dissertation phase of the program as part of the professionalization process that helps to sharpen their thinking about their upcoming projects; the university will continue to support those who are not successful in winning such fellowships with a combination of research/dissertation fellowships and T.A. support provided they remain in good standing and are making good progress toward the PhD.

Q. If I submit an application online, how do I get the writing sample to you? 

A. We prefer writing samples to be submitted with your online application.

Q. If I am accepted for admission, can I defer?

A. We ask that students not apply to the program until they are sure that they will be able to attend in the following year. Deferral is possible only in very exceptional cases, when unexpected, unavoidable circumstances intervene.

Q. Can I reactivate my application from one year to the next?

A. Applications cannot be reactivated from one year to the next. Applicants who wish to re-apply must also re-submit their supporting materials.

Q. What is the admission deadline?

A. The deadline for submitting PhD applications to the History Department each year is December 15. Review of 5th year MA applications usually begins on January 15 of each year and continues throughout the spring semester.

Q. Whom should I notify if the name on my transcripts, GREs, or other documents is different from the name on my initial application?

A. Notify Lisa Tillson by email to avoid any mishaps with admission materials submitted to the Graduate School.