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Writing Your Cover Letter/Essay

Application Essay/Cover letters

Most applications to graduate school will ask for a statement of purpose or personal statement. Some institutions will be very specific about what issues you need to cover in the essay, others will be much more open.

In general, the good statements of purpose will, in a clear, concrete, and relatively concise fashion, explain the following:

  1. Why you want to pursue a given course of study (and here, not just “I love x”, but what is your specific interest in a field, and what area/subfield/research topic is your intent to pursue)?
  2. Highlight your experiences and qualifications that have prepared you to be successful in that course of study (internships, lab experiences, undergraduate research, study abroad in a specific language, etc.). This will also serve to reinforce #1.
  3. Explain what about the specific program is appealing to you in pursuit of a specific degree. Why, in short, would program X be the best/good place for you to come.
  4. Explain your longer term ambitions with the degree.

Ideally, your statement will then line up to make an argument. I want to pursue X career on the bases of Y experiences and qualifications by attending this great program Z.

A statement of purpose can also be a place to explain holes in your record, although this needs to be done in a careful fashion that ultimately swings back to your accomplishments.

This can also be a place to lay out other circumstances that have shaped your educational path (for example, if working a second job, studying abroad, military service, raising a family, etc., have also shaped your educational experience and/or conceptions of future career in this field).

A Question of Style:

First, just get started. You are going to write multiple drafts, and probably the first version will only partially mirror the final version.

Second, be authentic and straightforward. Whipping out the thesaurus, or trying to include too much jargon, is not necessary. Describe your ambitions and experiences in your own voice.

Third, use concrete examples from your own experiences to create your narrative of why you want to pursue a degree and what you have down to prepare/show your readiness for it.

Fourth, stay concise. People will be reading these essays between meetings, over lunch, or perhaps late at night. Two pages single spaced should be the maximum unless the school instructs otherwise. That also means keep it catchy from the outset and stay on point.

There are also some pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Don’t rehash your CV or list of achievements. And you don’t need to restate your GPA. They can see that on the transcript.
  2. Don’t just talk about your love for a topic. You want to show your interest is grounded in real experiences.
  3. Don’t recount all your life experiences. Focus on what is relevant and appropriate for the task at hand.
  4. Don’t lecture the reader. You are writing to experts. You don’t have to tell them what they already know.




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