If you’re a senior or you’ve recently graduated, you basically have two options.
1. Get a higher degree
2. Get a job
There is, of course, the third option of living in your parents’ basement, playing video games, and eating meatloaf, but we’re going to pretend that this isn’t something you’ve considered.
Now, let’s get back to options one and two. You’ve probably weighed the pros and cons of both and have decided if grad school or a job is the better choice for you. That’s great. But, no matter which you’ve chosen, there is one step you’re going to have to take.
What? Is this some crazy labyrinth? Aren’t you choosing one so that you don’t have to pursue the other?
Yep, and you’ll definitely have different experiences depending on which option you pick, but first you have to apply. And both applications require you to explain why you should be chosen.
The good news?
Writing a graduate school application essay and a cover letter for a job have a lot in common. In fact, human resource manager Pauline Bailey once worked for admissions at USF and talks about how similar it is to look over grad school applications and job applications.
So, whether you’re continuing your studies or applying for jobs, these three writing tips will help.
1. Start With a Passionate Hook
In his essay, “How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose,” Vince Gotera gives an example of an introduction to a graduate school application essay. At first glance it seems fine.
“I am applying to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Okoboji because I believe my writing will blossom at your program since it is a place where I will be challenged and I can hone my writing skills.”
This introductory paragraph explains that the applicant wants to pursue a higher degree in their field and that they believe this graduate program will help them do that.
Cool. What’s the problem here?
Well, Gotera makes an important point. Your essay is only a page in length and this intro takes up about 15% of that. Do you really want it to just be “fine”?
No! You want it to catch the reader’s attention.
Okay, you’ve heard that before, but what does that really mean?
It means start with a story or an anecdote. Do some reflecting and discover what it is that made you interested in this field. Everyone has a story.
For example, my intro as a writer (whether applying for graduate school or a job) might be something like this:
“Growing up, I had a strange habit of sitting at bus stops when I wasn’t catching the bus. Why? Because it was best place to observe people with all their quirks and mannerisms. My mind was constantly creating backstories, dialogues, scenarios. I couldn’t help it. I was born a writer.”
See the difference?
Not only is the first one BORING but it also makes the reader feel dumb. As Gotera says, of course your skills will improve, the program will challenge you, and you’re hoping to “hone” your writing skills. Duh. You wouldn’t be applying otherwise. But none of this makes you stand out.
Also, you’d be committing one of these cover letter crimes: making it all about you. Stop saying what the program or position will do for you. This is the time to show what you’ll do for the program.
A quick hook will set you apart as an individual as well as assure the admissions director or employer that you have a strong connection to the field and will probably make a good addition to the team.
2. Acknowledge Any Slip-Ups
I’ve linked to specific advice for dealing with both of those situations, but, no matter what your personal “slip-up” is, this is the place to address it.
This does not mean making excuses. You’re not going to win anyone over with a sob story.
Admit that you faltered. Give a truthful and concise explanation about what happened and then show how you took the initiative to improve. Make it clear to the reader that this small misstep in your performance will not affect your work ethic now.
Focus on how you overcame this obstacle rather than the obstacle itself.
3. Name Drop
Gotera suggests mentioning a professor within the program that you’re applying for. The same goes for your cover letter when applying for a job. It will show you have done your homework and that you are interested specifically in this position, not just any position.
It’s great if you have a contact at the company or within the department. Definitely let the hiring manager or admissions director know that you heard about the program or job opening from that person. But, if you don’t actually know anyone who works there, you should still mention a name in your letter.
You’re not just dropping a name and then moving on. The point is to show you’re a “fit” for this graduate school program or company—not that you can use Google.
Do some research. Find something that a professor or someone at the company (CEO, project team, etc.) has done that stands out to you.
Write down why it stood out to you, why it’s important for the field, and how you would build upon it. Show that you understand the industry and want to be a part of it.
Gotera recommends not choosing the most well-known professor because others will be doing the same. I agree—unless you happen to come across something you feel really, really strongly about. If you’re the world’s biggest True Detective fan, and you discover that a well-known professor has written an essay comparing his anthropology work with Errol Childress’s creepy stick figurines, by all means mention that.
The most important aspect is to show how eager you are about this subject and that you’ve taken the time to do your research.
Whether you’re writing a graduate admissions essay or a cover letter for a job, you’re trying to prove that you are interested in this field and will make a good addition to the team. Show the admissions director or hiring manager why you’re a good fit with personal details, humility, determination, and knowledge of the industry.
Homework time! Start with the hook. What’s your story? This isn’t always easy to find. Sometimes you don’t even know why you’re interested in something. In his essay, Gotera talks about a young woman who didn’t even realize that she had a family connection to her field until she did some serious reflecting. Don’t rush this. Take a good amount of time to discover your background with this industry. Then move on to other aspects of your graduate admissions essay or cover letter for a job. Still need a little help? Check out these other posts on writing your cover letter.