How to Write a Standout Letter of Intent for Graduate School

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A letter of intent—sometimes called a statement of purpose—is a way to introduce yourself to a graduate admissions committee. Learn what to include as you get ready to apply to grad school.

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When you apply to graduate school, you’ll need to pull together a variety of materials for the admissions committee to review, including your CV, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and in some cases GRE or GMAT scores (if your school uses a standardized graduate admissions test). Part of your application will also include a letter of intent—sometimes called a statement of purpose—which is typically a one-page letter stating your goals in pursuing graduate school. 

A letter of intent is an opportunity for a committee to hear directly from you and learn more about your interest in their program. It’s also a chance for them to get a sense of your voice, research interests, and ability to communicate. In this article, we’ll go over what you’ll need to include when writing a letter of intent and tips for crafting a strong one.  

Important steps before writing your letter

A letter of intent and a cover letter for a job have a lot in common, so if you’ve written the latter, it may help you craft the former. Both documents tend to require research and more detail about your strengths and goals. 

It’s recommended that you apply to between four and six graduate schools, selecting the departments or programs that most closely align with your goals and needs. In that case, before you begin drafting your letter, it’s worthwhile to take some time and: 

  • Reflect on your goals: Before you apply to specific programs, take some time to reflect on why you’re interested in attending graduate school. In other words, what are your goals? These can be academic goals, such as learning more about a subject or moving into an area unrelated to your bachelor’s degree. Or your goals can be motivated by your career aspirations. 

  • Conduct research: Each program you apply to will want to know why you’re interested in attending them specifically. Is it because of a particular faculty member? Are the research opportunities desirable? Or does the curriculum structure meet your learning goals? You don’t need to include just one reason, but it’s helpful to know enough about each program so that you can discuss how it fits your larger goals. 

Take notes about the programs you’re most interested in attending and why. Think about how these reasons line up with your goals—and even your needs. If you need to keep working part-time or full-time, perhaps a program’s flexibility will be worth mentioning. Or if relocating to a school isn’t an option for you, then finding online programs and calling out the benefit of studying remotely is worth mentioning. 

Letter of intent sections

Once you’ve taken the foundational steps noted above, it’s time to start drafting your letter of intent. These documents tend to follow a straightforward format that includes a header, introduction, explanation of your research interests, what you’ve accomplished so far (either academically, professionally, or personally), your goals in attending grad school, and a conclusion. You can adjust the main sections—interests, goals, and accomplishments—to best suit the order of your overall narrative. Let’s review each one before turning to a full example. 

Header

Your letter of intent should follow the format of a formal business letter, which includes the name and address of the person you’re addressing, the date, and a formal salutation. Typically, you’ll want to find each program’s graduate director and address your letter to them, using the program’s or department’s mailing address (usually found at the bottom of their webpage). 

Introduction

Use the first line or two of your letter to officially introduce yourself. You can state your name or take the opportunity to flag what you’re currently doing—or what you’ve previously done—as a way to explain your interest in graduate school.

Interests

Explain what you’d like to study and your reasons for doing so at each program. This can be a great time to specify what unique factor attracts you to a program or department, such as a stellar faculty member, unique coursework electives, or job placement support. 

Goals

Go into detail about what you hope to get out of the program. It may help to think about goals in light of: educational goals and career goals.

  • Educational goals: These pertain to what you want to learn and why. 

  • Career goals: These pertain to what you hope to do in your career and how your education will help you achieve that. 

Your goals don’t need to be limited to education and work. There are other reasons for attending graduate school, such as personal development or an interest in the subject matter. But whatever your ambitions for undertaking an advanced education, it’s good to clarify those intentions in your letter. 

Accomplishments  

Discuss what makes you stand out as a potential candidate. Many grad school applicants come straight from their undergraduate program, while others might have worked before returning to school. No matter what category applies to you, it’s worth highlighting what you’ve accomplished that showcases your ability to pursue graduate-level work.

Conclusion 

Lastly, wrap up your letter with a one- or two-sentence conclusion that briefly restates the points above and thanks the addressee for their time. 

Learn more: How to Get a Master’s Degree?

After you develop a rough draft of your letter of intent, it’s a good idea to carve out time to revise and polish it. You may seek feedback from a trusted peer, colleague, family member, or friend, who can give you helpful notes to strengthen your document. 

Letter of intent example

Below, we’ve applied the sections we discussed earlier into a complete example. You can reorder the sections about your interests, goals, and accomplishments to align with the overall narrative you’re seeking to create. In other words, there may be times when it’s best to lead with your goals before discussing the other sections, or to open with your interests before moving into your accomplishments and goals. 

There’s some flexibility when organizing a letter of intent; you can use that flexibility to reflect your unique story. 

[Header] 

Dr. Marcus Williams

X University

Department of Public Health

123 College St. 

City, State

Zip Code

December 15, 2022 

Dear Dr. Williams: 

[Introduction]

After spending the first three years of my career working with data for a notable educational start-up, I’ve grown markedly more interested in how to use that data to benefit public health measures as a biostatistician. I’m therefore writing to apply for the Master of Public Health program at X University. 

[Interests]

I’m interested in earning my master’s degree from the Department of Public Health because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program. I believe that taking core courses in a range of interrelated public health subjects, especially epidemiology and environmental health, will provide me with the foundation I need as I pursue a career as a biostatistician after graduation. I’m particularly excited to work with Dr. Harriet Bedelman, whose research on technology’s effect on community health measures has informed my interest in the field.

[Accomplishments]

I’m eager to explore the intersections between public health and data and believe a graduate education is the best way forward. After earning my bachelor’s degree in computer science, with an emphasis on data analysis, I began working as part of the data team at an educational K-12 start-up. I learned a lot about how to design algorithms to work with data, parsing a vast amount of information to provide actionable insights. It's an experience that I believe will set me apart from my peers and allow me to develop interdisciplinary research at X University. 

[Goals]

I believe data has the power to inform and improve public health outcomes, especially in light of global health events like the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m keen to unite my background in data science with my future in public health. In fact, I believe my aptitude for statistics will serve me well in the program. 

[Conclusion]

I believe that the Department of Health is the program to best help me achieve my goal of becoming a biostatistician and that I stand to contribute a good deal to my cohort. Thank you for your consideration. 

Sincerely,

Alexandra James

Why is a letter of intent important? 

Letters of intent—or statements of purpose—are important for several reasons:

  • It gives the admissions committee an idea about who you are.

  • It frames the application to follow, personalizing some of the other data-driven documents.  

  • It shows why you’re interested in that particular school.

  • It outlines your research interests and goals in attending graduate school.

Letters of intent also showcase your communication and writing skills, which are both valuable skills that most graduate programs—no matter what you study—expect students to have and continue developing. 

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It? 

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