University application letters can be intimidating. It often feels like your entire future hinges on your ability to write an effective letter. While your personal essay isn't the only thing that admissions boards consider when deciding who to accept, it's true that a well-written application letter can give you an edge in the application process. Your letter is the closest thing you'll get to an in-person interview. Make it the best representation of yourself that you possibly can by offering the admissions committee a strong insight into your abilities and contributions as a prospective student at their university.
Read your application form carefully. Be certain that you understand any specific essay questions or prompts before you begin, and make sure you understand and follow all of the instructions provided on the form.
Decide how to organize and focus your letter. A narrative focus is chronological, telling the story of your academic career. An analytical approach focuses on why you're a good match for the program by analyzing why you are interested in your field of study and in that particular university's program of study, and the contributions you hope to make to the field. A technical approach emphasizes your involvement with the issue by discussing your past participation in programs and your project experience.
Write coherently. Pay attention to grammar and punctuation, and use clear and concise language. Avoid contractions and don't overuse "I" statements; a few, however, are acceptable, because this letter serves as a personal statement. Use this as an opportunity to show the university that you possess effective writing skills.
Write to stand out. Avoid passive voice, and stay away from clichés and broad reasoning such as, "I want to major in social work so I can help people." Try to answer direct questions in a way that is specific and original to you, and not how every other applicant might answer. Use action verbs such as "created," "performed," "achieved," in describing your achievements and plans.
Include any information about yourself that might give you an edge over another applicant. Include your gender and ethnicity. Sometimes slots are reserved for women or students of a specific ethnicity--don't feel bad about taking advantage of that fact. Also, assistance programs might be available for minorities. If you have a disability or come from an otherwise disadvantaged background, discuss how these things have made you stronger as a person and taught you to overcome adversity. Discuss life experiences outside of your academic experience to help the admissions board view you as a person instead of a number.
Keep it brief. Be selective about the information you include. Don't tell your entire life story; stick to the highlights that present you as the best choice for admission, keeping in mind that your audience will have limited time to read your letter. Use that time wisely.
- Female university student smiling and carrying some notebooks image by Christopher Meder from Fotolia.com