Writing a Great Application by Sheila Kannappan

Steve asked how to write a good resume/CV, but with grad school application season upon us, I thought we could have a broader discussion of how to write a good application for a job or school in general. Everyone, share your wisdom! What works?


  1. Sheila Kannappan
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    My first tip is that you should do your homework — know why you really want this particular school or job to select you, and give lots of concrete details about why you think it would be a great fit both ways. DO say “I’d love to work with Professors X, Y, or Z because I loved my classes (or research experiences) in subfield Q that is related to their work.” Do NOT say “I want to attend University X because of its high renown in the field of (astro)physics.” (Gag.) Resumes and CVs can also be tailored to the audience — if you put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer, what does he/she want to know about you? Your GPA? The list of languages you can program in? Your leadership skills? Your ability to work in a team? Sometimes extracurricular activities convey qualities about you that are important for a reviewer, so you should definitely consider including these, especially if you can cast them in somewhat professional language (Employment/Volunteer Work History as opposed to Hobbies). Just my two cents, let’s see what others say!

  2. Laura Miller
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Be sure to keep the personal statement positive, and also consider addressing any issues in the application. You can also ask your letter writers to do this,

    For example, lets say that you had a low GPA your first year because your background was weak. Then you can say, “My first year in college was challenging because I came from a rural high school with few advanced classes. I was able to strengthen my background over time and had a 4.0 GPA last semester.”

  3. Zane Beckwith
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I definitely agree with the two previous comments, and they’re people reading these things so their opinions are very good to know! My extra two-cents, learned the hard way, is to try to make a personal connection with as many people as you can. Reach out to faculty you’d like to work with. Contact grad students; they won’t be reading your application, but they can give you some insight into the school. Talk to mentors at your own school to get their advice, and maybe cultivate their connections. And, importantly, don’t get discouraged if any of these people isn’t immediately helpful. There are some crabby people out there, but mostly people are really busy, and it’s easy to inadvertently be rude; what I mean is to not take it personally, and to not let it stop you from contacting other people. I hate the catch-all term “networking”, but really so many things come down to just talking to people and knowing people.

  4. Richard Superfine
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    For graduate school personal statements, as in all writing, make sure that you get someone who is a good editor to read your writing. There can be a fine line between a written statement being too polished and it retaining a sense of personality. But a sloppily written statement conveys that you are not thoughtful, or do not feel that the application is worth the effort. There is very little that I write that is not looked at by another professional, who invariably helps me to make my point with greater clarity. And, most important, refining your writing is actually refining your thinking.

  5. John Wilkerson
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Your graduate school personal statement should tell an integrated and coherent story. Part of an effective story is to directly connect your experiences to your future interests at the institution to which you are applying. This also requires that you research and think about the opportunities and groups available at each school that you are interested in attending.

    My other tip relates to providing information to those whom you ask to write recommendations, in particular professors with whom you have done research. In addition to providing them with a standard CV, it is useful to provide them with a short summary of highlights related to your research activities carried out with them or in their group. This serves as a useful reminder when they are writing your letter, and often will jog their memory of other interactions or experiences with you. I request this from all of the students that ask me to write letters.

  6. Sean
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    When writing about your own research, try to show that you have a mature scientific context for the work. While the minutiae of everyday work in the lab absorbs the bulk of your time, only the scientific outcomes matter to the community. You think of yourself as the person who evaporates metal onto a substrate for some graduate student, but to the community you are a a player in an experiment that clarifies the XYZ problem that scientists have been attacking for years. One exception to the above rule: You are wise to mention “aha moments” where a new method or idea was created that solved an important problem or surmounted some daunting road-block. These moments make your excitement about your research concrete.

    To add to Sheila’ list. Success in science and hence in grad school is mainly about hard work and the willingness to get back on to the same horse you’ve bucked from daily for weeks (see the exception above). If you have a way of conveying your diligence and persistence in concrete terms, you might do well to add that. This might be from your research experience. But it might be from challenges in your life: You earned your degree while holding down a full-time job or while playing varsity soccer.

  7. Sheila Kannappan
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Here are some suggestions from my husband, who works in industry and sees a lot of applications for internships:

    Things that could be included in an application for an internship (with a business). Because internships are usually fixed duration and short, the institution and staff need applicants that have a good work ethic, and can make progress quickly.

    1. Skills (e.g. computer programming, statistics) and your comfort level with them (e.g. if you are proficient, say so).

    2. Experiences that demonstrate your ability to learn new skills. You should seek an internship that has the potential to broaden your skill set, rather than one that does little other than make use of something you already know.

    3. Experiences that demonstrate your initiative and ability to work independently. This doesn’t mean that you had to have the original idea, only that you were able to take some guidance at the beginning, and then develop the skills to be able to function with decreasing amounts of supervision.

    4. Experiences that convey your excitement about something relevant to the business. For example, a hands-on approach might be inferred in someone who mentions that they love working on their own car. These are the sorts of things might not show up in a resume that is biased towards academic and employment history, but they are very valuable to establishing a good fit.

    5. Experiences that show how you function in a team. In school, your grades represent output from you alone, but real-world projects typically require more people with a variety of skills to work together to achieve a desired outcome. Some internships will want you to interact with multiple other people, while others may give you a project that is self-contained. Even in the latter case, you will want to be able to develop contacts, and the general knowledge to be able to put your work in the context of other things that are happening in the company.

  8. Sheila Kannappan
    Posted November 22, 2015 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Here’s a handout I made with some tips on writing a really competitive personal essay: http://user.physics.unc.edu/~sheila/PersonalStatementHandout.pdf

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