The Three W’s in a Cover Letter

So you want to apply for admission to a graduate programme. Are you ready to commit? No, I am not asking you about your commitment to the program for its entire length. That comes later.

I am asking if you are ready to sit down, write a page or two and impress your potential supervisor enough to get the ball rolling.

Cover letters. They are like advertisements only packaged for a very specific demographic and lacking the option to lie. Well, you could lie but that likely won’t end well so why don’t we steer clear from that… Now, writing a good cover letter can be especially hard for those not comfortable writing about themselves, like yours truly. After stewing in the pit of despair known as staring at the same paragraph for half an hour or so, I turned to Google. Don’t get me wrong, Google was perfectly adequate with tips and tricks for a good cover letter. The problem for me was that, the tricks were mile posts that only told you how far you needed to go but not to where you should be going. And did I mention the crippling self-doubt that writing about myself brings about 90% of the time?

So after writing quite a few cover letters I think I have figured out a recipe that works for me. The problem with writing a cover letter is that you have to write about yourself in a “notice me Senpai” way. If you are struggling with writing about yourself then don’t write about yourself.

We are all born storytellers, we just sometimes forget that. Imagine you are writing a story about someone else. You know this character well enough; you know their history, their passion and their drive. Likewise, you also know of their shortcomings. Combine both of these facets and you are in the perfect position to paint them in a favourable light. Not to mention, it gets easier to deal with the ever nagging voice at the back of your head that “you are not good enough” when you are writing someone else’s story. Afterall, doesn’t this person you are writing about sound impressive? Look at all the things they have done and accomplished! Imagine their enthusiasm and translate that into words. And at the end of the day, it helps shake off the imposter syndrome just a tiny bit.

Now that you have decided you are writing someone else’s story, how do you go about it? I found the meat of a good (on a scale of burn it with fire to you are great) cover letter is in asking and trying to answer three questions.

Why are you writing this letter?
Who are you and what have you done so far?
What do you have to offer to the project and vice versa?

With these questions in mind, I tried to figure out the anatomy of a cover letter.

The anatomy of a cover letter. (Side note: Canva has a vast number of free resume and letterhead templates that you can use so check in out.)

Find out the name of the person you are writing to. You are not going to send the email into the void, so clearly another human being is involved. Most places will provide you the details of that person, and if they don’t you can always check out their projects section and find that information. This is a lot better than writing ‘To whom it may concern’. Trust me, it is. This should also go for the email you will be attaching your cover letter to.

Now, the why of the cover letter. Why are you writing to this person? Is it on a position that was advertised somewhere? Are you looking for a supervisor to start your program at that institute? The person reading your cover letter won’t know what you are interested in unless you tell them. This should preferably be the subject to your email.

Let them get to know you. Sure your CV will partially do that, but they won’t know how you handled a research project, if you decided to add something to the project or worked at something from a different angle. If the beginning of the letter is about telling them, then this is where you show them what you are made of. One easy way to do this would be to use the STAR method. This is where the story analogy really fits in. You get to set up the stage (Situation) for your character to behave (Task), do things (Action) that you can then fit in a description (Result). This is the part the reader connects with the character, their struggle and their achievements. Carried out a summer research project or an Honors project? This is your chance to show what you did. Sure you can say “I did this”, but the how and the why are unanswered and the story falls flat. If you are an expert in a bunch of different techniques show them how you used them to answer your research question. (Tip: If you did carry out a research project, mention what you found out.)

Why do you want to be a part of this project? What do you want from this project and programme? Yes, they are scary questions but you still need to have some idea about them. This is where you connect with the reader from the other side of the letter. How do you fit into their lab? Are your interests different from theirs? Your narrative has to fit the mould of these questions. Of course, you don’t need to answer them straightforwardly. One easy way to start is to say if you are interested in a particular field that corresponds with theirs and how you think being a part of this project would help you get there.

Another question to keep in mind is that what can you offer to this programme/project? It’s a difficult question to answer and one I still struggle with the most. Remember, you know the strengths of the story you are telling. Use that to your advantage. It can be your tenacity, your enthusiasm, your ability to ask interesting questions and the way you convey these qualities and more to the reader depends on how you shaped your story up until this point. This is where you tie the knot of the story. This is where you say, ‘I am good at what I do and I would be terrific at this so you should give me the chance to be so’.

Thank them for their time. Mention what other documents you have attached with this letter. Your CV, academic transcripts and/or letters of recommendations should be sufficient.

Send the documents, try not to stew in the what may happen. Start writing your next cover letter. I promise you, it does get easier.

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