Tips for writing graduate school personal statements and cover letters for job applications

Tips for Writing Graduate School Personal Statements and Cover Letters

Approximate reading time:4 minutes
I have wound up reading and editing several graduate school personal statements recently. I also just found the literally one hundred or more cover letters and resumes I wrote between 2011 and 2016 while searching a variety of hard drives last month. (Thanks, quarter-life crisis.) So while I am neither admissions officer nor HR professional and can’t speak to what admissions or hiring departments are looking for, I have learned a thing or two about writing these documents. Here’s some tips for effectively writing graduate school personal statements or cover letters.

Tell a (short) story.

It took me awhile to realize that writing a personal statement does not mean writing my autobiography, and that a cover letter is not meant to be my resume. The point of a personal statement or cover letter is to compel the reader to keep reading the rest of your application. And stories tend to be more compelling than a recitation of facts and experiences.
I know that the prompts for personal statements are infuriatingly vague, and there tends to be no prompt given for cover letters at all. So I recommend two basic formats to structure these documents:

Writing Graduate School Personal Statements:

Many academic programs ask for a summary of the experiences in your life that make you a good fit for the program. Try using the “three disasters and an ending” format to organize your statement. (Note: these don’t have to be actual disasters, just important formative experiences.)
  • Introduction: Demonstrate your interest in and knowledge of the program.
  • First Paragraph: Disaster/Formative Experience 1 (and what you learned)
  • Second Paragraph: Disaster/Formative Experience 2 (and what you learned)
  • Third Paragraph: Disaster/Formative Experience 3 (and what you learned)
  • Conclusion: Restate how the program fits in with your personal and professional goals and how you have come to be qualified for the program.

Writing Job Application Cover Letters

The resume is already all about you, so make the cover letter all about the organization and how you fit into it.
  • Restate the needs of the hiring organization.
  • Show how your experience, skills, and knowledge can meet those needs.
  • Describe your availability and eagerness to begin.

Start strong.

Do not save your best for last with cover letters or personal statements. Admissions officers and hiring managers often receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. They will not read all of them all the way through. Hate to break it to you. So make your first few sentences, even your first few words, really count. One technique I learned from my least favorite but probably most effective high school English teacher: each sentence in your opening paragraph should be a summary or minithesis of each of the body paragraphs. So if you describe 3 formative experiences or important qualities in your personal statement, preview each experience in one sentence or less in your introductory paragraph.
Imagine, for a minute, that I wanted to apply to a genetic counseling program. My body paragraphs are about the following experiences:
  • Shadowing a genetic counselor
  • Teaching high school science
  • Being a parent and caring for children
In my introduction, I would include one sentence about each of these experiences and their impact on me.

Say it once, support it, move on.

We often have a tendency to think that more words will be more convincing, but only if those words say something significant. Just because you have a certain word count to work with, that doesn’t mean you have to use every one of those words! Choose your words wisely and don’t belabor the same points over and over. Avoid being cited by the Department of Redundancy Department! (I hated when my teacher caught these in my essays.)

Use 20% fewer words.

Along the same lines, here’s some advice from my favorite (and also highly effective) high school English teacher. In addition to not being redundant, pick strong words that give you more bang for the buck. When you can, use verbs instead of stringing together adjectives. “He shouted,” is more powerful than, “He said loudly.” Now I am not a diehard anti-passive voice fanatic. In some cases it makes sense to emphasize the object rather than the subject, and it can help break up the stream of “I did…I learned…I am,” that can plague you when writing personal statements and cover letters. Be careful to balance your sentence lengths: too many long sentences are hard to follow, but lots of short sentences can sound choppy. As you edit your personal statement or cover letter, go through and make sure every word is there for a good reason.

Write for your audience using their language.

In addition to writing your graduate school personal statement or cover letter to be easily readable, you need to show that you’re a good fit for the program or job. Comb the job description or program website looking for how they describe their students or employees, and echo some of them in your writing. Along the same lines, make sure you customize your cover letter to each job you apply to. You don’t have to rewrite the entire letter each time, but it should at least look like you’ve read the specific job description. With higher education applications, sometimes you have to submit the same statement for every program you apply to. In that case, you can’t customize for every school, so just remember to be focused and detailed in your story.
Writing an effective graduate school personal statement or cover letter can open the doors to a lot of opportunities. Don’t be daunted! Take your time and be systematic, and call in favors from well-read friends (or contact me!) to look over your work before you submit. Good luck!

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