It’s application season, and more often than not, recruiters require a personal statement or cover letter. Whether it’s for graduate school or for an internship or job (cover letter), one thing remains crucial: making a good first impression. So, how exactly do you put your best foot forward while telling your story, setting yourself apart, AND indicating just how much of a good fit you are? Here are some pointers from my experience with writing and reviewing personal statements and cover letters. But first.
What exactly is a personal statement or cover letter?
A personal statement is exactly what it says it is. A personal statement. Some people think they need to be very removed and technical in their personal statements, but that’s begging the question. When you’re asked for a personal statement, give exactly that: a statement of who you are as a person. Of course, in this case, you won’t be going into detail about your favorite food or music, when you last went on a date or took your siblings out, no, none of that. Unless. Unless it ties into what you’re applying for. In that case, those personal details will help whoever is reviewing your application get a sense of who you are as a person. In that case, you definitely want to add those nuances.
Do your research & pay attention to context.
Personal statements or cover letters can go many ways, but what sets any two apart is the context. Are you applying to a graduate program in the sciences? Or maybe it’s in finance? Is the program you’re interested in looking for specific skills or expertise? Are they seeking more “minority” students, for instance? These are some of the questions that will help you determine what context to put your cover letter in. The only way you’ll have a sense of the context is by doing your research. More often than not institutions tell you what they are looking for; on their website, in the application, in a brochure, at a recruitment event and so on.. They know what they want, now it’s up to you to convince them that you’re exactly that. Check their website out. Read about the program you’re applying for. Read everything if you can. Yes, read about what courses you’ll be taking, what the classroom structure is like, who the professors might be, and so on. And while you’re doing that, look out for things you identify with.
Example: A program might say that they’re looking to recruit more students from Africa or Asia. If you’ve lived in either of these regions, that’s a point in your favor that you should try to at least touch upon. When looking at the course modules think about classes you’ve taken in the past that might be related. Never taken an international trade or biological science class before? That doesn’t need to go against you. These things form part of daily life. Talk about your experience at a local Ghanaian market or your fascination with how frogs croak at night. Learn to draw on your passion, your personal experiences, and your surroundings. That’s what will make your personal statement or cover letter, well, yours.
Now that we’re clear on those, let’s get down to the actual personal structure. Specifically, the structure and what you should aim to communicate at each level.
The Introduction. Also known as the deal-breaker.
Many interviewers will tell you that they make their decision about a candidate within the first 30-60 seconds of meeting them at a job interview. When it comes to the cover letter or personal statement, that one minute time frame is your introduction. Your introduction will determine whether the person potentially holding your fate in their hands will read on, or put your application away. Different people fashion their introductions differently, but I always advocate telling your ‘personal story’ in the introduction. Why? Because it increases the chances of you being recognised and remembered as a person – as Adjoa, Kofi, Fatimata, Chioma or whoever you are – in lieu of Candidate No. 1505. Once you share your personal story, you transition from being just another candidate, to being a person who shared their story. And that’s important, because guess what? That’s what the cover letter is about – making a statement about who you are!
In my opinion, the key element of the introduction should be your passion. What makes your heart race? What gets you up at 7am in the morning? What would you undoubtedly say is your own? That’s what you should communicate in your introduction. Of course, it should be related to the opportunity you’re pursuing in some way, and if it isn’t in a direct sense, find and highlight the linkages. That said, if you’re applying for an academic or professional opportunity that doesn’t link to your passion or interests in someway, then you should probably take some time to brainstorm why you’re pursuing that opportunity in the first place.
Example: I’m passionate about economic development and information access. So my introduction normally talks about how my fascination for development came about, and I tie that into the fact that my interest was so strong, I actually dedicated six years of my life to studying and learning about that field of study at college and in graduate school.
When asked for a personal statement, give exactly that: a statement of who you are as a person. Click To Tweet
Your Experience: How you’ve prepared & what you bring to the table
After putting a human face to the title “candidate” with your introduction, you proceed to tell a bit about your life story – specifically, your academic or career story. Which opportunities have you taken in the past? Why did you take them? How do you think they have prepared you for pursuing this new opportunity? Whether its a cover letter or a college application, recruiters want to see (read) you make the connections between your past life and this future opportunity. Sure, some of the connections might speak for themselves or seem obvious, but you need to spell.it.out. This is really important because it shows that you have taken the time to research and think about how this new opportunity is a great aspect of your academic or career path. Initially, I neglected to state these connections because I thought it was apparent. But one of my really good friends from college (shoutouts UK!) sat me down and told me, “State the connections. It might be obvious, but they want to hear it from you!” Boy, has that made a world of difference ever since.
Example: You had the opportunity to participate in a science student lab on nanotechnology, so you talk about the fact that you were one of a selected few who got to do this, at so-so and so institution with so-so and so renowned scientist. That’s all beautiful and dandy, and although its obvious you have some lab experience, you need to state the connection with your new pursuit. Saying something like this could further enhance your chances: “My experience at the lab increased my interest in nano-technology and gave me an opportunity to work with lab equipment – both in teams and alone. This will not only enable me to work well in the chemical lab course modules offered by the “so so and so” program, but will also make me an active team player when the need arises.”
Sucking Up (“Ahooshing”) Time: Why that particular opportunity?
People like to talk about themselves. That’s a fact. From the store owner down the street to the president of a prestigious organization, everyone. The only thing that tops talking about oneself, is hearing other people talk about you. Particularly if its full of praise and applause. At some point in your personal statement, you’re going to have to do some major sucking up or as we say in Ghana, ahooshing. But hold your horses. I don’t mean: “Your organization/program is the best organization/program in the entire world, and that’s why I want to be with you!” Umm, that’s a tad over the top. For one thing, you’re not yet a part of the program/organization, so technically, you cannot tell that they’re the best. Neither have you sampled all the similar programs/organizations out there, so you can’t conclusively say that either.
Here’s the thing.You tell them what they want to hear. Yes, exactly that. It’s not about being pretentious or anything of the sort. It’s about having done your research, and figuring out that’s where you want to be. Most companies or programs will tell you what they think makes them stand apart. It’s your job to reiterate those facts and link it to yourself. Read a program/organization’s mission or values. Check to see what successes they have garnered lately. Look at what elements of their organization/program they pride themselves on. Those are the things you use for your major suck-up mission.
Example: An international studies program states on its website that they have a strong focus on language integration in courses, and also pair their students up with sector organizations in order to give them professional experience. Here’s what you could say: ” I am excited about your Master in International Affairs program, because of its language immersion and professional experience elements. I believe that these elements will not only help me improve my language skills and put me in touch with industry professionals, but will also help me achieve my goal of being a competitive player on the international scene. With a Masters in International Affairs from X university, I will be adequately prepared for succeeding in the dynamic and challenging international sector.” Get it? You essentially told them they’re the only ones who can make you successful!
Conclusion: Reiterating your interest & summarizing highlights
Many people don’t pay attention to the conclusion of their personal statement, but it is just as important as the other elements. Recruiters tend to get applications in the hundreds or thousands, and a good chunk of them read the introduction and skip to the conclusion if they like what they saw. Why? They don’t have that much time and expect your conclusion to summarize the key points in your cover letter. So that’s what you should give them. If you don’t say anything at all, you should most definitely communicate your passion, what you hope to gain from the program, and where you see yourself after the program. This doesn’t have to be an entire essay on its own.
Example: It can be something as simple as, “I believe the so so and so program will enable me to channel my passion for so so and so in a constructive manner. In addition to building upon the skills and expertise I already have in so so and so, it will serve as a learning experience that will introduce me to (mention some of the key things you will be learning), and help make me achieve my dream of promoting sustainable economic change in Ghana and Africa.”
Other Things To Look Out For In Your Cover Letter
As much as possible, try to make sure your grammar is on point. One of the key things I notice from reviewing people’s statements is that they use multiple tenses. This gets very confusing for the reader and can ruin your chances of making a good impression. If you start with the present tense, stay consistent with it. Of course, if you’re narrating past events, you’ll use the past tense, but don’t jump between tenses unless it makes absolute sense.
Spelling & Vocabulary
Make sure you’re spelling accurately. You can spell check your statement to ensure you’re spelling things right, but aside that, you also need to be aware of which language you’re using. If you’re applying to a school in the United Kingdom and you’re based in the United States, either find out which variation of the English language they would like, or use their official language: British English. Also, watch out for the punctuation marks. A comma in the wrong place can lend an entirely new meaning to a sentence.
Make sure you adhere to the word limit and any other instructions for that matter. If you go beyond the limit, edit until you meet it. It could simply mean reducing the number of examples you give or checking to make sure you’re not repeating yourself.
Proofread, proofread, proofread – get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th and even 5th opinion:! That’s what a lot of recruiters advocate. Make sure you look over your personal statement at least three times. And then look it over three times again, reading backwards (meaning, start from the last sentence and read up). You’ll be more likely to catch silly mistakes that way.
Also, get a second opinion. If you can get up to 5 opinions, do so no matter how good of a writer you (think you) might be. Why? Because everyone has a particular writing style that might sound fine to the writer, but is a bit awkward with the reader. In this case, you want to tailor the statement to the reader. Also, everyone has what I call “comfort words” and tend to use them frequently. Mine for instance (at least when I speak) is ‘definitely’ (I used it twice in this article!). Make sure you’re not repeating the same word(s) too many times, and especially not back to back! It just sounds awkward.
Example: “I am excited about your Masters program, because of its language and professional experience elements. I believe that these
elements will not only help me to improve my language skills and put me in touch with industry professionals, but will also help me assist me in achieving my goal of being a competitive player on the international scene. With a Masters in International Affairs from university X, I will be adequately prepared for succeeding in the dynamic and challenging international sector.” — In this case, synonyms are your best friend!
So get those opinions and have them edit and proofread for you. Once you get the feedback, please, please be open to the suggestions. You don’t absolutely have to apply them, but take them into consideration and ask for an explanation if necessary. After you’re done editing, look over the statement a couple of times, and if you feel good about it – it’s important to feel optimistic about it, else it’s not finished. This is your very own showcase – send it along!
Addressing the Right Recipient
Make sure you address it to the right person/organization/program. This is probably the worst mistake you could commit. Going through the trouble of writing an entire personal statement, sending it out to Harvard University, and then, finding out that in paragraph 3, line 2, you said “I’m excited about Colombia University’s so so and so program”. Organizations and graduate programs know they have competition out there. They don’t need you to rub it in.
So there you have it. All you need to get you started on that personal statement. Have questions, suggestions or past experiences you would like to share? Comment below. All the best!
Written by Jemila Abdulai. Originally published Nov. 30 2009
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.