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I am an undergraduate applying for a research internship at another university. The application guidelines for the position specify that the motivation letter must show that the applicant has read a few papers on the research topic. How do I include this information in the letter? Should I mention specific papers or just express what I've learned from reading some of the research on the topic?

The field is Computer Science, in case that makes a difference.

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Cite specific papers that motivated you and be genuine about this

Since the selection panel want you to demonstrate that you have read a few papers on the research topic of interest to you, you should cite specific papers that have been interesting to you and which motivate you. Stay on track by keeping the discussion related to your interest and motivation in the field (this is not the place for a literature review), but give examples of papers that you particularly enjoyed, or even just little nuggets of insight within a paper that you found interesting or important. To give insight into your motivations, it is useful to explain why you liked a particular paper/idea/method, and it is important to be genuine --- don't bullshit people --- don't just say you were motivated by a paper because you know it was an important paper in the field or because it was written by one of the academics in the faculty to which you are applying.

To make this task easier, it might be useful to write your motivation letter in tandem with your research proposal, since the latter will include a literature review in your topic and it will mention many relevant papers in the field (all of which you should have read). As you write your literature review and read all the papers giving context to your research, you will surely find that there are some interesting ones that you enjoy reading and which motivate your research. (If not, reconsider whether a research career is a good choice for you.) Keep track of this as you go and cite those papers in your motivation letter.

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The problem right now in computer science (in the US at least) is that there are just way too many students compared to the number of professors. In my department, every time we offer any course, it immediately fills up and there's a waitlist out the door. Same goes for when we offer a summer research opportunity. What this means is that, in order to avoid being overwhelmed, existing undergraduate research programs are asking more from applicants, to demonstrate that they really are interested in the research problems specifically, and not just applying haphazardly to a zillion programs hoping to get into something that they can put on their resume and get a job later. By raising the bar for the application, one hopes that students who are not that interested in research won't apply, and the number of applications to sift through will be more manageable (and higher quality).

As an undergrad interested in research in computer science in some program at university X, the first thing to do is to carefully read the webpage of that research program. Ask yourself:

  1. Who are the professors who are going to be supervising research?
  2. Have they posted specific research problems they want to supervise?
  3. Does this build on existing work they have done?
  4. How does my background enable me to jump into this kind of research?

If the website does not list specific papers they want you to read, you can find them from either the descriptions of the research provided or by looking at the webpages of the professors and reading their recent publications that seem related to the undergrad research program. Then, in your application statement you can list which papers you read, what you found interesting about them, how it relates to your background (i.e., your coursework and any independent projects you've done), any ideas you had while reading the work that you would like to investigate, and why you think you are a good fit for their program.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but hopefully other applicants will be dissuaded and you will have a better chance of being accepted if you read the relevant papers and make a compelling case for how your background prepares you to successfully carry out research building on those papers.

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