Cover Letter vs. Personal Statement — Here’s The Difference
By: Author Marcel Iseli
Posted on Last updated: April 10, 2023
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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.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.
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PracticeMatch Physician Articles
- Cover Letters vs. Personal Statements
Cover Letters vs. Personal Statements Crystal Carter
Not sure how to distinguish cover letters from personal statements? We’re here to help! We’ll break down the parts of each piece of content, as well as what they’re used for. Cover letters and personal statements are both used in many different settings, and both of them serve different purposes. If you’re planning to apply to residency or fellowship, you will need a personal statement, where a cover letter is required when applying for jobs. In the event that you need assistance writing your personal statement, we have written an article about it. You can access that article here .
Cover Letter A cover letter serves the purpose of establishing your qualifications for a position for which you may have applied. Cover letters tend to be more formal and introductory. Your cover letter should be used to expand upon the experience listed on your Curriculum Vitae (CV). Most people make the mistake of writing their cover letter about how the company could help them advance their career, rather than writing about how the company would benefit from hiring them. Your cover letter should not only be about selling your skills to a company, but you should explain how your skills could benefit that company. It is important to tailor your cover letter to each position that you apply for. As easy as it is to go in and replace the company name and job title before submitting a job application, you should also take the time to change the skills and experiences you have included so that they fit the position you’re applying for. Keep in mind that while including your skills and experiences in your cover letter is beneficial, you should make sure that you include the information that best fits the description of each position. Below are some things you should remember when writing your cover letter:
- Highlight the right experiences
- Showcase your skills
- Don’t focus too much on your education
- Avoid apologizing for any missing experience
- Consider including testimonials from your colleagues and supervisors
- Don’t be too formal – an excessive amount of formality makes you seem robotic
Personal Statement If you’re applying for medical school, you will need a personal statement. Personal statements are less formal and more flexible than cover letters. When writing your personal statement, there is no such thing as a “perfect topic”, nor will you have an “aha moment”. You should focus on writing about the experiences that helped you decide on a specialty, and you could even discuss other specialties that you considered. It is also important that you use identifying information in your story to avoid the risk of writing a personal statement that someone else could’ve written. Your personal statement should make you stand out rather than blend in, and should have quality and depth, and be personal and unique to you.
Here are some important reminders for your personal statement:
- Introduce your personal statement with a unique observation or idea that you will further develop in subsequent paragraphs
- Demonstrate the qualities that make you distinct by choosing experiences that highlight your best characteristics
- Show instead of tell – use a story to talk about your qualities
- Explain ways that you intend to help patients, or reasons you want to help patients
- Maintain the focus of your personal statement on the main character – you!
- Explain your thought process, critical thinking, and decision-making abilities
- Use identifying information to write a personal statement that could have only been written by you
Now that you know the difference between cover letters and personal statements, you’re reading to prepare yourself for medical school! If you find that there’s something we missed or something you would just like to share, please reach out to us at [email protected] – we love to hear from you!
Crystal Carter, Content Marketing Specialist You can stay connected with me on LinkedIn for all of the latest PracticeMatch articles and upcoming events.
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If you’re zipping through the documents in your CS&A candidate file, checking “to-be-completed” items off a list ( resume : check. transcripts: check. references : check.), you might pause when you come to the personal statement. Burdened by personal and professional commitments (those papers aren’t going to grade themselves), you might decide that you can skip it. You’ll be sending cover letters to each school that interests you anyway. And how different can the two documents be?
If this is the way you’re thinking, you’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate who you are without the constraints of addressing a particular school. Here are some key differences between a cover letter and a personal statement —both important parts of your candidate file.
1. Cover Letter = Them. Personal Statement = You
While to a certain extent every document you submit during your application process is for and about the school to which you’re applying, the cover letter presents a more direct opportunity to specify the attributes of a particular school that align with your past successes and future plans. The inherent vagueness of the personal statement allows you to discuss yourself more generally, without having to fit into the mold of a specific school.
2. Presenting All Tiers of Your Experience
We all have them: the “top tier” experience in our resumes. These are the positions with the best titles, the coolest opportunities, the real “turning points” in our careers. When you’re writing a cover letter, you need to address your top tier experiences, as well as any experience you’ve had that’s directly related to the opportunity at hand. That’s a lot of showcasing to do in one page.
Your personal statement provides an opportunity to highlight some of your “second tier” experiences—the ones that may have lasted for a shorter time or occurred years ago, but that may have made a real difference in the formation of your career. Your personal statement should complement—not completely echo—your cover letter. The two documents together allow you to flesh out some parts of your history that you may have had to rush by submitting solely a cover letter.
3. Hook ’em With a Story
Blank space on a cover letter is precious: you need to seamlessly condense your life story and catch your reader’s attention in a page or less. There’s not much room for the “softer” elements of presentation, like an anecdote that explains why you began teaching or a story that embodies why you love what you do.
There is room for that, however, in your personal statement. You have more room for creativity when you’re complementing—not highlighting—your accomplishments, and this creativity can create a rounder portrait of who you are.
The personal statement is just that: personal. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your personality, tone of voice, and outlook in a very real way. Spend some time writing it and making it excellent: in the initial stages of your job application, the personal statement will do a lot of the heavy lifting in answering questions about what kind of educator and person you are. Whether you make it funny, touching, or smart, be sure to make it yours.
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West Sharon 10/12/2020 at 9:18am
Extension of your professional goals: Some statements for job applications may include specific reference to your goals and how the position can help you achieve those goals. For a university personal statement, reinforce how the school s mission or coursework can prepare you for a career. In both types of statements, consider discussing relevant short- and long-term goals, such as what you hope to achieve in the school or position and where you see yourself in 5-10 years. Summary of your personal statement: A brief summary of the main points in your statement can be an effective strategy for a one-sentence conclusion or one sentence of a larger conclusion. Be sure to connect your achievements, experiences and skills directly to your future contributions with the company or university.
Judith Hansen 9/25/2023 at 8:00am
It’s great that I found this article. I am in need of a statement of purpose writer and I decided to use a statement of purpose writer because I have never written one before. I don’t really know what they are about. Your article helped me to better understand what they are for.
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What’s a Cover Letter?
A one-page document in 3-4 paragraphs which accompanies (“covers”) your resume in an application to tell an organization 1) why you’re interested in a certain position and 2) why based on your education, experience, and other qualifications, you would be a good fit for the position.
How do I Make a Cover Letter?
- Download our Cover Letter Template .
- Resources like Cover Letter Samples and this Review Rubric can help you create a rough draft.
- Let the pros review it! Send it to us at [email protected] .
- Once your cover letter is finished, it’s ready to be uploaded to Handshake for applications!
Personal statements are critical to any graduate school application but can be challenging to write. See Upstate’s Guide to personal statements, personal statement evaluation chart, and some sample personal statements.
Upstate’s Guide to personal statements