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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Example Letter of Intent for Graduate School
A graduate school letter of intent sets the tone for your application. As such, you want to ensure you cover all the bases, from formatting to content. A sample letter of intent for graduate school could help get you started.
First, the basics. A graduate school letter of intent is, in essence, a cover letter for your application. It’s a formal letter that focuses on who you are, why you’re applying to that particular Master's or Doctoral program, and why that program should consider your application. However, there might be a few different ways to do this. You might focus your letter on specific achievements related to your application and goals. Or you could write in a more personal way, showing who you are and why you are committed to grad school. Whichever option you choose, it’s important to pay close attention to the style and mechanics of effective letter writing.
Letter of Intent Format
If you’ve ever written a business cover letter, the following information might seem a little familiar. That’s because the mechanics of writing a letter of interest are quite similar. In essence, a formal letter is comprised of a header, a salutation, the body, and the closing. Each of these needs to be present in your letter of intent and typically confined to a single printed page. Length requirements may vary, though, so make sure you’re familiar with the application requirements when you write.
The header should contain each of the following elements, separated by a line break.
- The sender’s full name, address, and contact information (phone and/or email)
- The date the letter is being sent
- The recipient’s name and address. (Note: It’s a good idea to personalize this as much as possible. If you can find out the name of the primary decision-maker who will be reading your application contents, address the letter to that person, unless instructed otherwise. If you can’t find this information, something more general like “Graduate Selection Committee” could be used instead.)
Here is an example letter of intent header:
Ms. Alice Henry
432 Bridge Street
March 3, 2017
Graduate Program Director
How to Write a Letter of Intent: Contents and Organization
The body of your letter of intent is where you could introduce yourself to the application committee and make your case for acceptance. You might take a few different approaches here, depending on your purpose in writing a letter of intent. While this could vary widely, most of the time it will alternate between two specific goals.
- Guiding the reader’s attention to specific elements of the application packet (i.e. certain accomplishments, experience, etc.)
- Personalizing the application, by giving the reader a more holistic view of who the applicant is and why they’re applying
Which one is appropriate for you depends, in many ways, on your background and the rest of your application. For example, if you’re applying with a stellar GPA, an impressive resume, and high test scores, you might not need that element of personalization to set you apart. Instead, it might be a good idea to emphasize your most impressive achievements.
In this case, the organization of your letter of intent body may be fairly straightforward, taking a note from business-oriented cover letters. For example, you might dedicate the first paragraph to the opportunity you’re pursuing. The second might be about your relevant skills and how you’ve demonstrated them. You could then end with your educational or career background related to your application.
But what if your CV is a little more average, or if you have struggled in the past? Then an alternate approach, like your personal story, might be a solid tactic. By giving an identity and context to your application, you could draw attention to who you are and your passion for your field.
In this case, how you organize the letter may vary widely, depending on what you’re trying to say and the story you have to tell. Often this could be chronological. But it might be a good idea to put some thought into how you’re planning to organize your letter. Then look back at your draft to make sure that strategy works.
Sample Letter of Intent for Graduate School
The following is an example letter of intent for graduate school, written by fictional school applicants. While your letter of interest should be entirely unique, this example may give you a few ideas to start. You can also use it as a letter of intent template to ensure you are following the correct format.
Example Letter of Intent
This writer chose to take a more personal approach with their content. So instead of organizing the paragraphs based on the type of achievement, they did it chronologically, telling the story behind why they want to study in that program.
Mr. Robert Smith
5 Main Street
February 11, 2017
University of Education
Graduate Program Director
Attn: Graduate Selection Committee
I am applying to your master’s program in elementary education for the Fall 2017 semester. After earning my undergraduate degree in elementary education from Teachers University, I worked for seven years as a fourth grade teacher ABC Elementary School in Anytown, Idaho.
I have wanted to be a teacher since third grade, inspired by my experience with my own teacher. As a student, I struggled to understand multiplication. I remember feeling frustrated, helpless, and sad. My teacher recognized my problem and spent months tutoring me in the subject after school. It took a lot of time and a great deal of patience on her part, but one day it clicked. Suddenly, I understood what I was doing. The joy and pride I felt was unmatched by any other moment in my preceding nine years.
I learned much more than multiplication during our study sessions. My teacher taught me to believe in myself. She taught me about the value of hard work, and the joy one experiences when helping others. Even at nine, I knew I wanted to share those lessons. For the past seven years, I have been fortunate enough to do so, with great success. Last year, I was selected from a pool of thirty teachers as the school’s “Most-Liked Teacher,” an award conferred by student opinion.
I have chosen to apply to the University of Education to pursue a master’s degree in elementary education because I am passionate about building upon the success and fulfillment I have already experienced as a teacher. My academic and career goals include exploring cutting-edge teaching techniques integrating the latest technology within my classroom. The University of Education’s reputation for excellence in developing new teaching technologies is the catalyst for my decision to attend graduate school in the first case. I am particularly interested in pursuing the New Teaching Models track, and I’m considering writing a thesis on the topic.
Thank you for your considering my application. It would be an honor to continue my studies and pursue my passion at the University of Education.
The Takeaways for Your Graduate School Letter of Intent
Hopefully the above sample letter of intent for graduate school helped you gain a clearer picture of what you need to write. Once you’ve finished, carefully review your draft for spelling errors, typos, grammar, and punctuation. It’s also important to ensure you have all the correct and complete information. Easy-to-miss details, like the wrong name of the recipient or school, could damage your chances of consideration. Check that these are correct, and that your main body content stays on-message. Finally, make sure your letter content is organized in a logical way for a reader.
Your letter of intent could be your first impression on the application committee. Follow these guidelines and use a sample letter of intent to make that impression count.