How to write application letters for jobs and schools

A student here in Indonesia recently asked me for advice on writing a letter of application to a summer program in Europe. Knowing no details of the program or of expectations in the host country, I drew on my experience in the United States. There, I’ve not only applied successfully to various schools and for numerous jobs, but I’ve reflected on the times I failed. I’ve also served on many hiring committees and participated in graduate-school admissions decisions. So here’s my advice, which I find applicable (ha!) for jobs and for academic programs:
  • Project a positive attitude. It’s infectious, and, really, your desire to avoid something else (e.g., unemployment or a less prestigious school) is not a convincing reason for someone to favor your application.
  • Demonstrate that you have a clear idea regarding the position for which you’re applying. Do your homework to find out expected activities.
  • Make it clear that you really want that particular position, rather than simply a place in some school, program, or business. One year I applied for about seventy academic positions, but I got one that I had marked with two asterisks (highest choice) on my list, in part because I honestly told the hiring committee that it was at the top of my list.
  • Show that you have personal goals that are appropriate for the position you desire. Here’s where I think I rightly failed in a couple of job interviews. If the job entails a lot of office work, you should be ready to express sincerely how you gain satisfaction by making photocopies or shipping packages.
  • Be interesting (but not wacko or negative). Let your personality, interests, and past achievements shine through. The people reviewing your application are going to deal with you in person for a while, and they’ll prefer to spend time with an interesting person.
  • Finally, no one likes to read a poorly written letter – spelling, grammar, punctuation, and following the guidelines all can make a big difference.
If you’re otherwise qualified, you’ll have a good chance of success.
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