Effective Admission Letters

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

When you write a letter or personal statement as part of applying for graduate or professional school, you will make your case as much by the way you write as by what you say. Here are some of the qualities to aim for.

Be focussed. Take your cue first from the prompts given in the application form. Is the real question why you want to be a lawyer, or is it why you will make a good one? If the prompt is very general or the questions scattered, decide what point you want to make overall: that you are a proven achiever, or that you can deal with challenges, or that you have something special to contribute to the profession…. Don’t just write about law or medicine in general—that is extremely boring to the readers. Write about yourself as a lawyer, physician, or anthropologist.

Be coherent. Being “together” is a quality of writing as well as of character. A clearly organized letter can create a picture of a clear-minded and sensible person. You might want to write from an outline or a diagram of main points. At least check the topic sentences of each paragraph in your finished piece to see if they make a logical sequence. Ask a tough-minded friend to give her impression. See over for types of structure and for books that give further advice about writing.

Be interpretive. You need to make an impression concisely, so don’t use your letter just to repeat the facts set out in other parts of the application. Provide explicit answers for the question that arises in the mind of any reader looking at a hundred or more similar documents—”So what?” Use nouns and adjectives that name qualities (outgoing, curiosity, confident) and verbs that show action (coordinated, investigated, tried). Make an effort to find the exact right ones to suit the evidence you are offering.

Be specific. There’s no point making claims unless you can back them up. Refer to the fact lists in other parts of your application (“as my academic record shows”), but be sure to offer enough examples in your letter so that it can stand on its own. Say that they are just instances, not your whole proof (“An incident from last summer is an example….”). The concrete language you use for these specific references will also balance the generalizing words of your interpretive points.

Be personal. Your letter substitutes for an interview. In effect, the readers have asked you to tell stories, mention details, expand on facts. So mention things you might not have put into the rest of the application—your ethnic background or political interests, if you wish and if they are relevant. Don’t be afraid to mention problems or difficulties; stress how you overcame them. Use “I” rather than phrases like “this writer” or “my experience” or “was experienced by me.” A stylistic tip: to avoid monotony, start some sentences with a subordinate clause such as “While I scrubbed floors” or “Because of my difficulties”—then go on to I did or I learned.

Options for Organizing an Admission Letter

Judge by the clues on the application form and by the nature of the profession or discipline what kind of logical structure you could use to tie your points together into a coherent whole. You may see indications you are expected to tell stories, or be self-analytical, or to enter into discussions in the discipline. Here are some standard patterns for prose exposition:

Narrative: This has the virtue of being linear, and thus easy to organize. It progresses from a beginning to an end, and you can divide up the middle into manageable sections. But beware of overworked openings like “I have always wanted to be a dentist.” Make sure, too, that you balance interpretive points with specific facts

Analytic: To deal with the central question why you are a good match for the program, give an overall answer about yourself and then discuss the elements that contribute to your engagement with the discipline and predict your contributions. Discuss your interests in terms of key issues and theories in your discipline. To balance the dryness of this approach. break into memorable stories at times, using specific details, and use verbs to put yourself in action. Show what you intend to do after you have completed the program.

Technical: To indicate your research or professional interests, show your involvement with a specific issue. Don’t just outline the topic you want to work on; write about your summer research job or independent-study project, or your program on student radio or your volunteer experience. Outline specific undergraduate programs as examples. Emphasize what you learned from these activities, and indicate how your studies will extend that learning.

Other Sources of Advice

Writing Style: Don’t give your readers any excuses to eliminate your application. Proofread carefully for missing details as well as errors in grammar or punctuation. Write readably; don’t overload your sentences with academic jargon or pretentious words. Pull out your dictionary and reference books on writing if you’re wondering about specific constructions. If you need to set up your statement as a letter, check a book or website on standard letter formatting for the date and return addresses. If you use a Word template, choose one of the simpler ones to avoid looking pretentious.

Guidebooks: Lots of books give advice on writing graduate admissions letters. The ones you’ll see in bookstores and libraries are nearly all focussed on American universities, so take their advice and samples with a grain of salt. Above all, don’t imitate too closely—suspected plagiarism or obvious insincerity brings quick rejection.

Online Advice: Academic sites like these give advice and sometimes include examples. Avoid commercial sites.