Congratulations. You have made a great life-choice to apply to graduate school. This shows that you are serious about study, interested in deep learning and committed to being properly educated so that you can do your job as a qualified professional. The difficult task is to write your application so that you stand out from all the other applicants. But, you ask, "how can the cover letter help me?"

Why is the cover letter important? Each graduate school has a philosophy, a tone and in your writing the selection committee is looking to make their job as easy as possible by discarding applications that do not align with their educational ethos. By discarding as many applications as possible, in part because of poorly written cover letters, the valid pool of applications shrinks and selection becomes much easier. 

What is the ethos of all graduate education? Being able to communicate effectively in writing. Thus, the cover letter is the most important tool in your graduate school application. This is the first problem that confuses students who believe that their grades are most important.

Lets use this opportunity to learn how to write a proper cover letter, so that the selection committee needs to seriously consider your candidacy for graduate study.

Content & Format

There are two issues that you need to consider when writing your cover letter:

1. What content should I include?

2. How should I format the cover letter?

Both of these are important and therein lies the second problem, students do not consider these as distinct issues and usually write their cover letter by focusing on the content, and this is a fatal flaw.

I am sure that you have lots of great things to say about yourself, but so do all the other graduate school applicants. You can distinguish yourself in content, but you must demonstrate effective communication skills by using a smart format for your cover letter message.


Lets take a minute to discuss your message. Brainstorm a list of items you might consider using in your cover letter. I have seen some great content related to many topics:

  • Volunteering,
  • travel,
  • work-study programs,
  • working as a teaching assistant or research assistant,
  • work experience,
  • life experience,
  • awards, society memberships, grants
  • publications
  • and from time-to-time outstanding academic credentials.

One or two of these most important areas should be included in your cover letter, you cannot include everything, sorry. This is problem number three, students try to say too much in a short cover letter. Be brief, show depth of experience, rather than breadth of experience.

If your application has problems you need to be transparent and address these issues in the cover letter. What kinds of problems? Maybe you had a difficult semester in school and your GPA dipped. Explain why you had a rough semester, explain what you learned about yourself and explain why this won't happen again.

Another common problem is that student often apply for graduate school even though they are missing prerequisites. Problem number four is ignoring any shortcomings in your candidacey. Here are a few common issues that should not stop you from applying to graduate school.

  • Missing prerequisite courses
  • A GPA that is below the "required" GPA for your program
  • Limited work experience
  • An undergraduate degree from an unrelated discipline

If any of these, or other issues, pertain to your situation make sure that you include them in your cover letter. Always turn a negative into a positive, here are a few tips:

  • "I want you to know that I am taking two important courses over the next few month, Statistics 101 and 102 so that I have the prerequisite knowledge when I start the graduate program."
  • "I appreciate that you have established a minimum GPA. I would like to point out that during my undergraduate study my GPA improved every semester and I expect that it will continue to improve while I am studying add your topic here".
  • "Work is critical to make practical links between academic concepts and real-world application, but I am more interested in research and teaching, which is why I want to continue my education without taking time-off to work."
  • "I believe that one of the most important lessons that I gained while an undergraduate student is the skill to study, to be self-disciplined and to ask the right questions. These skills will help me to be successful during graduate studies."

Don't worry about the format, yet. Now that you have brainstormed a list of important topics to include you need to think about a few examples that are important. If you say, "I believe in giving back to the community" can you provide an example of when you did this? If you say "I love research" do you have experience working in a lab, or assisting a professor? A few concrete examples are essential.

You have all the content you need. Congratulations! Now write your cover letter, but still don't worry about the format, that comes later. Write your letter, just write! I know you have lots to say about yourself and it is okay to brag, a bit.


DO NOT look at this section on formatting until you have a first draft of your cover letter.

Why shouldn't I read this part until I have a first draft? 
The answer is simple, it is more difficult to create something that does not exist than it is to edit something that has already been created.

Creating and editing are two very different skills. It is impossible to wear your CREATIVE HAT FIRST and your EDITORIAL HAT SECOND.

Okay, I trust that you have finished your first draft. Don't panic, you are going to chop-up your letter and change the format. You have everything important in your letter, but the format needs to communicate its own message too. So cut and paste the appropriate sentences from your first draft into a second draft. I suggest a format that very clearly shows your ability to communicate focused and clear ideas. Each paragraph is on-topic and when combined the letter communicates, your background, your motivation and your vision for graduate study.

Problem number five, it is difficult to edit-out content about our lives.

Your cover letter needs five paragraphs:

1. INTRODUCTION: Who are you? What graduate degree are you applying for? What area of study is especially appealing?

2. ACADEMIC BACKGROUND: What have you done in undergraduate school that has made you ready for graduate school? You can explain any problems with your academic record in this section. Include one important example that highlights your academic skills.

3. WORK BACKGROUND: What have you done in work (volunteer work is okay too) that relates to the population, industry, discipline, or research of the graduate degree? How will graduate studies help you to better do your job once you complete the graduate degree? Again, provide one concrete example.

4. WHY GRADUATE EDUCATION?: Linking together your previous education and work you are on a quest to learn more, to dig deeper, to understand more fully what you have observed or scratched the surface about.

5. CONCLUSION: Clearly, you are the best candidate for this graduate program. You will be a great peer for the other students. You look forward to working with Dr. XOX on her research about...(this should relate to the appealing idea in paragraph one) and you will disseminate proper knowledge to further your discipline in the workplace and at academic conferences.

That is it. No more, no less. Edit every word, and find someone to proofread your cover letter.

Problem number six, editing your own writing is nearly impossible. Even professional authors have a team of editors to help clarify the content and the format.

Just Write