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 topi 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.

References for More Advice

Style: Don't give your readers any excuses to eliminate your letter. Proofread carefully for missing details as well as errors in grammar or punctuation. Don't overload your sentences with jargon or pretentious words. Use the books below (available in Robarts Library and college libraries) as reference works on matters of correctness, and read relevant parts to review what people consider interesting and readable style. If you need to format your statement as a letter, see Brusaw on letter formats.

  • Charles T. Brusaw et al. The Business Writer's Handbook. HF 5726 B874
  • Margot Northey. Making Sense. LB 2369 N67
  • William J. Strunk, Jr. and E.B.White. The Elements of Style. PE 1408 S772
  • William Zinsser. On Writing Well. PE 1429 Z5

Specific Guidebooks: A number of books give advice specifically on writing admissions letters for American universities. Look for those that refer to graduate admission letters, not the kinds that high-school students need to write. Take their advice and samples with a grain of salt, and above all don't copy—suspected plagiarism or obvious imitation make for a quick rejection. The Career Centre at U. of T. has a binder on Applying to Grad School (Educ 3.1) and a number of reference books. Other books are available in U. of T. libraries or in public libraries. Here are a few:

  • Donald Asher. Graduate Admissions Essays. LB 2366.2 A84 Robarts, UC, Career Centre
  • Howard Greene. Scaling the Ivy Wall. LB 2351 G73 1975 Robarts
  • Howard Greene. Beyond The Ivy Wall: 10 Essential Steps to Graduate School Admission. LB 2371.4 G74 1989 UC, Scarborough, York
  • Patricia Keith-Spiegel. Complete Guide to Graduate School Admission—Psychology. BF 77 K35 Robarts
  • Dave G. Mumby. Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting in With or Without Excellent Grades. LB 2371 M85 1997 Robarts, Vic, UC, UTM
  • H.W. Power and R. DiAntonio. The Admissions Essay.LB 2351.52 U6P69 ERIN
  • R.J. Stelzer. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement.LB 2351.52 U6S74 Robarts, SMC, Vic, UC, UTM

More Advice

Online Help. Have a look at this other online advice, again remembering that none will exactly fit your situation.

  • Purdue University, Writing the Personal Statement, a good summary of standard advice, mainly directed at high-school writers seeking admission to undergraduate colleges. It includes several examples from the Stelzer book above, and comments from experienced readers of admission statements.
  • University of Wisconsin gives thorough advice on application essays and personal statements. It offers guidance on the whole process, from researching readers' expectations to generating ideas, organizing your ideas, and revising for maximum impact.
  • PsychWeb sets out insiders' advice on the whole process of applying to graduate programs in Psychology, including getting the right reference letters—useful for people in other fields too.
  • University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee has sensible tips on what to ask for in letters of reference.
  • The Pew Charitable Foundation conducted a thorough survey in 1999-2000 of Ph.D. programs and Ph.D. students in the US to see how the graduate experience could be improved. This page suggests questions you should ask yourself about your own interests, and lists questions you should send to the programs you're considering. It includes links to advice from current Ph.D. students.

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