We all know that first impressions can have lasting influence on what others think of us. It can be difficult to reverse a negative first impression, whereas a positive one can sway people to overlook minor misgivings that come up later. Grad school applicants who make positive first impressions on the members of an admissions committee or a potential graduate supervisor have a much better chance of eventually being accepted than those who initially come across as run-of-the-mill. Many programs receive a huge number of applicants each year, from which there may be only a few selected. Paring the pool down to only applicants who stand out in some positive way facilitates the selection process. Bad first impressions can lead to a quick rejection. For very competitive programs even just a flat first impression that is not particularly bad can still be an impediment.
Cover letters can provide the basis for a first impression and set the tone for further evaluation of an applicant. A good letter can spark interest and enthusiasm for your application, whereas a poor letter can undermine it. Cover letters display your organizational and writing skills, your judgment and priorities, social skills, personal style, and your ability to focus on important matters and to avoid irrelevant ones.
Most graduate school applicants encounter situations in which a cover letter is required. One situation is when contacting a potential supervisor before applying. This may be done by e-mail, of course, but it should still be fashioned as a proper cover letter. Another situation that calls for a cover letter is when applying to programs that do not require a separate application form. A cover letter is not usually needed to accompany an application form, but in some cases it may be a good idea to include one, such as when important information about you is not covered in another part of the application. A third situation calling for a cover letter is when contacting schools to request additional information on the programs they offer or to request their application packages. This situation is becoming less and less common, as nearly all schools now allow people to download program information and application forms and instructions from the Internet.
What does one say in a cover letter? What should be left out? Not surprisingly, the answers depend on whether it is a general cover letter that will introduce you to an admissions committee, or one that will be used to make contact with a prospective supervisor. The admissions committee is looking to find applicants who have excellent scholarly potential, as evidenced by past academic and related accomplishments, and who also have priorities and interests that fit with the program’s objectives and specializations.
The introductory paragraph should state your interest in applying to this particular graduate program. One or two sentences in either the first or the second paragraph should provide a background summary of your education and training experience that is most relevant to your graduate school application. This would include such things as relevant work experience, years of experience, any degrees held and/or the degree program you are currently enrolled in, and degree completion or expected completion dates. Make this summary brief. Its purpose is simply to indicate that you have the necessary background, without going into detail. Details of your background are in other parts of the application, such as your transcripts and personal statement.
The best way to spark a potential supervisor’s interest in you is to know who they are, what they have done, and what they do now. Avoid describing your own interests too narrowly. Remember that grades often have little relevance to the needs of graduate supervisors. They are more likely to be interested in knowing whether you have an aptitude for research.