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Cover Letter vs. Personal Statement — Here’s The Difference

Cover Letter vs. Personal Statement — Here’s The Difference

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You’re working on an application, and you’ve been asked to provide both a cover letter and a personal statement.

You start to write the cover letter, and you suddenly get the uncomfortable feeling that it might be turning into a personal statement.

But how can you be sure? What’s the difference?

We’ll explain how these two are different–and similar–and give you some tips for dealing with each one below.

What is the difference between a cover letter and a personal statement?

A cover letter is a way of introducing yourself and attempting to “sell” yourself to the company or school you are applying to. It highlights your main qualifications. A personal statement is less formal, more creative, longer and is your own narrative about your background.

What is a cover letter?

When you are submitting a job application, you are often asked to include a cover letter.

A cover letter is a formal introduction. It is also a persuasive document that should be written to grab the attention of your potential employer.

It should be as short as possible as long as it still gets the point across. Cover letters should never be longer than a page, but just a couple of paragraphs is even better.

A cover letter essentially needs to do two things.

The first is that it needs to establish your qualifications for the position. The second is that it needs to explain why you would be an asset to the company.

One of the biggest mistakes that people often make with a cover letter is regarding the second point.

Instead of explaining why the company or organization would benefit from hiring them, people often write about how they feel the position will help them advance in their career.

Keep in mind that while you may have some wonderful mentors at work who guide and support you in your career, the person who is making hiring decisions ultimately wants to know what you will bring to the company and not the other way around.

Your cover letter should also demonstrate some knowledge of the company.

For example, you might write something like this:

I understand that XYZ Company is expanding its widget manufacturing wing. In my previous position at ABC company, I excelled in marketing widgets to a new vendor base, greatly expanding the company’s production.

A paragraph like that lets the company know that you have done your homework and you are aware of a big change they are implementing.

It also demonstrates how you can bring specific experience to the company that will benefit them.

What if you are a recent graduate or you otherwise don’t have much experience? You can still emphasize your strong qualities that you will bring to the position:

As treasurer of my school’s outdoor club, I learned to be organized and conscientious about finances. I will bring this same strength to the bookkeeping position at Smith Industries.

Here’s another way you might approach it, by emphasizing what you studied in school:

I understand that your company is expanding its use of blockchain technology. I took several courses in this area as part of my business degree.

Although it is less common, you may be asked to provide a cover letter as part of a college or university application.

This is more likely if you are applying for a graduate program than an undergraduate one.

You would handle this in a similar way to writing a cover letter for a company, but you might focus instead on what you could bring to the university and, specifically, the department you are applying to.

Just as you would mention something specific about the place where you wanted to get a job for the professional cover letter, you should say something specific about the department for an academic cover letter.

For example, maybe you are applying for a graduate program in history:

As an undergraduate at Excellent University, I studied medieval history with a focus on Anglo-Saxon England. I am interested in attending New University because of your department’s concentration on the Kingdom of Wessex in the 9th century, which I wrote my honor’s thesis on.

Whether it is for a job or a place at your dream university, a cover letter is the first impression that you make, so it is important to make it as strong as you can.

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement is a kind of essay about you, your values and your ambitions and how the course or job that you are applying for relates to those values and ambitions.

Personal statements are more common when you are a student applying for a place at a college or university although some job applications may require them as well.

With a personal statement, you have a lot more scope than you do with a cover letter.

You will usually be given an idea of how long your personal statement should be. The most common length is between 1 and 3 pages or about 250 to 750 words.

For a personal statement, think about the things you want to convey to the admissions committee that is not already obvious from your application.

For example, if you faced substantial obstacles in graduating from high school and pursuing a higher education, how you overcame these obstacles might be an appropriate topic for your personal statement.

Maybe you are applying for graduate school in environmental science or ecology.

Your personal statement might be about how a family member taught you to value the natural world and how that passion has compelled you to spend your life studying and working in that field.

Remember how up above we said that the cover letter should emphasize how you can be an asset to the company, organization or school you are applying to?

In contrast, you can think of the personal statement as being the document that is all about you!

While a cover letter is a formal document, a personal statement is the place to let your personality shine.


How cover letters and personal statements are similar

One way that cover letters and personal statements are similar is that you want to get right to the point from the start.

You want to grab the attention of the person reading each document, but don’t try to be gimmicky. Instead, just state your interest up front.

For a cover letter, say what you are responding to and why you are interested. A journalism student applying for an internship at a small local newspaper might write something like the following:

I am writing to express my interest in your summer internship position for journalists that I learned about through my university’s career center. I am majoring in journalism at ABC University, where I am the managing editor of the university paper. I am a passionate believer in the importance of local journalism to small towns and communities.

Similarly, for a personal statement, start with the reason that you want to attend the university:

My love of the rivers and lakes that I grew up around sparked a lifelong interest in river ecology and how fish populations can be better managed. I want to attend XYZ University because of your department’s focus on freshwater salmon.

What you may also notice from these examples is the other thing both documents have in common: You should be as concrete as possible.

Show that you know a lot about the position that you are trying to get and that you have the specific skills and knowledge to succeed.