Dan Lindley

Advice on Cover Letters

March 10, 2018; v. 2.5

This advice is distilled from my experience writing many cover letters and from serving on several selection and admissions committees.

All applicants want to be accepted. Yet many letters boil down to a declaration that the applicant is interested and a plea to be accepted. This sort of letter adds little to the application and does not compare favorably to more specific, serious, professional, and scholarly letters. If the competition is tough, you have severe relative gains concerns and you must balance against a considerable threat. Do not just say you are interested. Every other applicant is too.

Often accompanying such pleas is another flaw: inclusion of goofy, excessive, and/or irrelevant personal details. An example might be an applicant to the semester in Spain program who mentions that he/she had a poster of the Alhambra in his/her room since age 2.

Balancing these warnings against excess personalization is the need to show that you are a driven, interesting individual. In evaluating applicants' letters, I view it as a very bad sign if statements are impersonal, bland, and vague.

Thus, one or a few relevant, artfully explicated, calm-in-tone, not goofy personal details may help set you apart. The key criteria for inserting personal information is whether or not that personal information shows why you are a motivated and qualified candidate, worthy of receiving a scarce good (or, as a job candidate, why you will provide a high quality service). How do the personal details reinforce the rest of the factual, professional information provided in your letter and CV?

Avoid adjectives and assertions. Let facts speak for themselves. Few things are as tiresome and empty as run-on assertions such as 'I am a natural leader with high confidence and ability to speak well in public. These excellent qualities will allow me to excel in law school.' Etc. When I read this sort of thing, I think: there are no facts here. Instead of leadership and confidence, the real message being conveyed is that of hubris and arrogance combined with puffy writing. If you are a leader, what have you led? If you are a public speaker, when did you speak? (here personal details may help if relevant to the larger picture you are trying to paint: why did you speak, what did you say, and why did it matter to you and your professional and scholarly plans?) If you are smart or at least good in school, your GPA will be on your CV and/or transcript. Let the facts speak for themselves. Your accomplishments are facts. These facts should be substituted for assertions and adjectives. These facts will create adjectives in the readers' minds.

Likewise, avoid jargon. Say what you need to say simply and clearly. Do not muddy things up. Clarity is jumps off the page. Readers should be thinking about the substance of what you wrote, not wondering what you wrote.

Think about the perspective of the selection committee (sound like applying Jervis? You bet it does.). They may have hundreds of folders in front of them. Their first task is to reject as many people as quickly as possible so they can debate the short list. Do not give them excuses to reject you. Get your materials in on time. Make them polished and error free. Spelling and other mistakes make you look bad. Staple things neatly. Make things easy for the reader. Do not be goofy or informal.

That was the easy part. Think more about what they are looking for. If you are applying to a program that will provide you a service, why will you be a worthy consumer of that service, more worthy than the other competitors? What research and professional interests do you have that will be advanced by that program? Why does the program offer you something special, perhaps something that no other program does? (tricky territory here: avoid telling Harvard why it is best - they know that already and it is sycophantic - but do try to say why they offer you something special. And not just you in a vague way, but because your interest in Peruvian archeology (note your 3 courses and summer internship, etc, FACTS) led you to them as they have the only archeological center in Northern Peru. Bottom line: they are doling out a scarce resource. They take that responsibility and resource seriously. Prove with facts why you are worthy.

If you are applying to something for which you will be providing the service, typically a job or an internship, then you have to say what you have to offer without blowing your horn too loudly. Again, avoid assertions and adjectives and let your record reveal what you have to offer. It pays to tailor your letters to individual job descriptions. But you must always be truthful and be yourself. Smart people smell bluffing, and they do not like it. Often committees are not sure what they are looking for, so imagine the danger of bluffing to try to fit their needs and missing the opportunity to present your true strengths. Maybe the committee would have liked you just the way you are, if you had just presented yourself truthfully.

In sum, assume committees are smart. Do not tell them you are great, or make other adjective-filled assertions. Give them evidence that you are great, and they will figure it out. The facts will speak for themselves, and the committee will hear them. Your job is to present the facts in the clearest and most persuasive way: with pithy, clear, professional, error-free writing wrapped in a neat presentation.

Caveat Emptor: this advice reflects my background and the sorts of schools, programs, and applications I am familiar with. It may pay to be more personal, eccentric, or 'goofy' for some applications.