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. On the other hand, a positive first impression can sway people to overlook minor misgivings about us that come up, later. Likewise, grad-school applicants who make strong and positive first impressions on 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.
Setting The Right Tone
A cover letter can provide the basis for a first impression and set the tone for further evaluation of the applicant. A well-written 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. These attributes may be much easier to assess from the personal statement, and few people would look at a cover letter for the intended purpose of evaluating the applicant. Still, someone who begins looking at an applicant’s file by reading the cover letter may not be able to help noticing obvious negative signs that are present in a poor letter. The main objective in writing a good cover letter, therefore, is not so much to make a positive impression, as it is to avoid making a negative one!
When to include a cover letter
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 submitting 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 to include in a cover letter
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 a cover letter 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 content of the personal statement should convey these things about the applicant. 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.
The general tone of a cover letter can reflect much about the personality and social skills of its writer. Negative impressions are formed when the writer comes across as arrogant or conceited, or conversely, as being too timid or lacking confidence. And don't forget the importance of courtesy in making good first impressions! The final comment in any cover letter should be an expression of gratitude to the readers for their time and consideration in reading your letter and whatever material was enclosed with it. “Thank you for your consideration,” is all that is needed.
Formatting a cover letter
A cover letter should be formatted to look "normal". Most letters have at least the following six components, although in some instances there may be more: The minimal components are 1) the date, 2) the address of the recipient, 3) the greeting or salutation, 4) the body of the letter, 5) a complimentary closing, and 6) the signature of the author with his or her full name printed beneath it. A bit less formality is needed when contacting a potential supervisor via e-mail, and it is acceptable to exclude certain components of a standard cover letter, such as the date and the address of the recipient. For the most part though, it is wise to format initial e-mail contacts in the same way as a standard letter. Do not send it as an attachment; make it the actual content of the message.