10 Tips for a Successful Application Letter

A successful application letter demonstrates the ways in which a candidate’s specific qualifications match the needs of a particular school. Along with other factors, academic hiring committees base their determination of your potential contribution to the community on the strength of your application letter (AL). Incorporating these 10 tips into your cover letter can help make the most successful case:

Studious woman doing her research at home and writing something

1. Embrace Both Form and Function

Resist the temptation to reproduce your resume in narrative form, and instead approach the application letter as an entirely different entity which summarizes your candidacy and outlines your qualities as a student in a coherent, evidence-based narrative. Your ability to express yourself is as relevant as the content itself, enabling admission committees to get a sense of your creativity, writing ability and personality.

2. Stand Out from the Crowd

Speaking of personality, this is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from the other candidates. Application letters offer the chance to highlight attributes which separate you from the pack. Do you have amazing skills in the arts or fluency in a foreign language? Have you recently presented a paper or received an award? Your cover letter provides the opportunity to show off these unique characteristics.

3. Get to the Point

While an application letter may have more room than a traditional one-page business cover letter, this doesn’t give you permission to ramble on: every word should still count. Don’t risk ending up in the recycling pile with a bland, beige introduction. A successful AL make a strong case from the very first sentence and delivers to a compelling conclusion. Let the admission committee know that you’ve come to play by immediately demonstrating why you want to enroll in a specific program in a specific school and backing it up throughout the body of the letter.

4.The Hard Sell

Some prospective students undersell themselves because they fear coming off as arrogant. Instead of waxing on at length about your many accomplishments, show them through irrefutable evidence. Facts and figures strengthen your case in a verifiable way. For example, if the program you want to get in is looking for “strong people skills,” as a qualification, don’t repeat back those precise words and expect to impress an admission committee. Instead for example, share that you managed one of your school’s club for two years and that you raised thousands of dollars for an annual charity event. Details are far more effective than generalities.

5. A Piece of the Puzzle

Your application, cover letter and interview aren’t separate entities; rather they are each pieces of a comprehensive puzzle. Your AL should enhance — as opposed to replicate — the other aspects of your candidacy.

6. An Editor’s Eye

Just because an application letter can go longer than two pages doesn’t mean it should. The world’s best credentials are meaningless if obscured by unnecessary fluff. Use the minimal amount of paper necessary to make your case in the most compelling way. For some candidates this may be a single page; for others it can be as many as three.

7.Research Matters for PhD Applicants

While your research experience may be critical to your application, avoid going into in-depth detail in your letter as this can limit audience accessibility. Pitch your application for the broadest readership so it can be understood by the admission committee as well as by the department chair. If you are applying for a PhD, refrain from making grand claims about the significance of your research, but show how it could contribute to the school.

8. Learning Topics

A well-executed resume covers the full range of your academic experience, including courses taken, favored texts and training methods. Use your application letter to highlight the most relevant of these as they are an open door to your work as a student. This is also an ideal spot to sum up your learning strategies and philosophies — particularly if you are applying to a small, teaching-oriented university.

9. Know Your Audience

When talking about joining a department as a PhD student, don’t just cite its “world-class reputation.” Instead, research the institution, departments and specific areas as they apply to your research, and propose how you can make a contribution to the academic community through your research. The more closely your skill set and interests match a particular institution, the more viable a candidate your become.

10. Build Your Personal Brand

While matching your specific skill set to a specific school is an effective technique, don’t risk losing sight of your personality in the process. Regardless of what university you are aiming for, your personality as a student or as a researcher should be consistently represented. The best way to rise to the top is by consistently highlighting the most relevant features, not saying just what you think the admission committee wants to hear.