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Preparing the Perfect PhD Application Package

The PhD application package usually requires that you prepare a number of possible documents, among them a proposal, transcripts of grades, a curriculum vitae (CV), perhaps an English language exam (e.g. IELTS, TOEFL or CAE), a statement of purpose (SOP) and maybe a personal statement.

Regardless of which items are required, you should consider all the documents as components contributing to a whole application. These components, when reviewed together, should be able to effectively convey your motivation for researching a particular topic at a specific institutionThis article discusses the various documents of the PhD application package.

PhD proposal

The PhD proposal is a fully academic display and explanation of your research topic.

  • It should cover the importance or relevance of the proposed topic and the relevant literature, while also identifying a problem, gap or question that your research plans to address.
  • It then sets out how you plan to address the problem, the most appropriate methodology you plan to use and the implications for whatever you will find.
  • It may also include a study plan of the next few years.

The PhD proposal may vary considerably in length.

  • English universities often require a longer document.
  • American universities may ask for a much shorter piece as students will attend courses in their first year before writing a prospectus. (If interested, learn more about the prospective here: How to write an effective PhD Prospectus)


A transcript is an official document issued by a university that gives details of courses taken, grades received and degrees conferred. These document(s) prove your academic credentials and the genuineness of your results.


  • You may need to get an official translation if the transcript is not in the language of the institution you are applying to. (If interested, learn more about our translation services here.)
  • It is also usually possible to obtain an interim transcript for a current degree programme that is not yet completed.

Curriculum vitae (CV)

Your CV or resume can be as long as you need it to be, possibly extending to multiple pages.

  • It should cover your education.
  • It should also allow you space to highlight notable aspects of your career, work (professional or voluntary), and linguistic abilities (including identifying the languages you are able to undertake academic studies in), as well as academic awards, extra courses, involvement in university life and technology-related skills (including familiarity with one or more programming languages and other relevant computer skills).
  • You should also include in your CV any conference presentations given and (relevant) publications.

English exam

An English exam may also be necessary, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) often being the qualification of choice in many universities globally. This is because the IELTS academic exam mirrors some of the realities of university existence and calls for skills required to enter a study programme at this advanced level. Some of the skills it addresses are:

  • Ability to listen to something once and understand it, rather than to have it repeated
  • Comprehension and extraction of specific information from a long piece of reading
  • Writing to a level that is able to respond adequately to data, produce an argument, etc.

Statement of purpose (SOP)

A document of around 500 words, an SOP is usually your chance to bring all elements of the package together.

  • You will need to explain why you are so interested in the topic you propose and how your courses/previous education reflect(s) this motivation. The idea is to present a logical progression from decisions made early in your education path, such as your choice of a bachelor’s degree, to the specific topic that you currently propose to study as the main substance of your research.
  • You will also use this document to explain why the institution you are applying to is ideal for you, and your projected research.
  • You will also connect and expand on the bullet points from your CV, explaining certain anomalous aspects or events, such as grades on the transcript or gaps/changes in employment.

Learn more about writing an SOP here: How to write a Statement of Purpose

Personal statement

A personal statement may or may not be required at the PhD level. The requirements for this can be very specifically dictated by the institution you apply to, but this usually provides an opportunity for you to explain more broadly your accomplishments, both academically and in other areas, such as extra-curricular, professional, etc.

Learn more about writing a personal statement here: How to write a Personal Statement

Important note

You have control over every document except the transcripts. That said, there should be opportunity somewhere in the application package that allows you to explain any anomalies. 

End note: Customising your PhD application package

Ultimately, the package is prepared with a specific institution in mind.

  • Be sure to do thorough research on the institutions you wish to apply to.
  • Write/Prepare each document to speak directly to each institution, possibly even to a specific pre-eminent supervisor within the institution. The PhD committee will be able to identify a PhD package that has been generically written and ‘cut and pasted’ across multiple applications without addressing their institution’s specific qualities or strengths. So, make sure you tailor each application carefully.

This is your chance to sell yourself and your proposed project to a particular supervisor in a specific institution. Seize it!


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