How To Write a Graduate School Letter of Intent

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Updated: May 31, 2024, Reading time: 24 minutes

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With the rise of graduate school admissions, we can conclude that thousands of letters of intent have been written by applicants and reviewed by admissions officers! The importance of a well-written grad school letter of intent cannot be overemphasized because, indeed, first impressions matter. 

At its core, every letter of intent is a formal cover letter that declares your goal of applying for admission into a graduate program. You’re also providing the proper context for your application, including the documents and related information.

Think of it like an in-person interview combined with an elevator pitch, and you will realize its critical importance in your acceptance into your desired program. 


Writing the best grad school letter of intent can be challenging even when you have excellent communication skills because there has to be a balance between humility and marketability. But with ample time, careful choice of words, and sufficient editing, you can make it! 

Letter of Intent as Proof of Your Self-advocacy 

Your letter of intent should follow its form and function conventions while also being proof of your self-advocacy, a document that contains an argument in your favor. You must express your suitability for the program in clear yet concise terms, including your intention of upholding its academic excellence and research relevance through your achievements in these areas. 

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Tips for Writing the Best Grad School Letter of Intent

Keep in mind that the best letter of intent is the one you’re writing on your behalf as a form of self-advocacy! While there are plenty of templates and writing services, the best place to start is within yourself!

Your letter of intent for graduate school should reflect your in-depth knowledge of the graduate programs, academic achievements, professional skills, research skills, and future interests, a successful previous research project, and future goals concerning the program’s curriculum, career goals, mission, and status. 

Begin Through Genuine Self-reflection

Embarking on a personal reflection means taking the time to think about specific motivations, goals, and attitudes that will impact your future. This is critical in writing your letter of intent because you have a clear idea of what you can contribute to the program and what the program can do for your career goals.

Your final letter of intent becomes a clear, concise, and compelling argument for your 100% compatibility with the program. 

With your comprehensive list, you have a sound basis for writing your letter of intent, particularly the part where your achievements are highlighted to increase your chances of acceptance. 

Do Your Homework About the Program

Perhaps a fail-proof tip is customizing your letter of intent for each program. Admissions officers know a generic letter of intent when they see one, and if you give a similar letter of intent to several programs, it doesn’t speak well of your character and academic intentions. 

Don’t even think about just changing the program director’s name, date and details of the program while letting the rest of your letter of intent remain unchanged! Every program has its unique vision, mission and learning outcomes, and, thus, it’s crucial to tailor your letter to these aspects. 

Not only will the information you gathered influence your decision to apply for the program, but it’s valuable intel for your letter of intent! You will be able to make notes about the program’s components that align with your strengths and aspirations, which should be stated in your letter.  

Follow the Rules of Form

Now that you have done your self-reflection and conducted thorough research about the graduate school program, your next step is to determine the recommended format for the letter of intent.

Many programs provide guidelines for the letter of intent, including the specific format, minimum and maximum word count, and other stylistic suggestions. The letter of intent may also include academic citations and links to your published research papers, as the program requires. 

These specific format requirements must be followed to the letter because they demonstrate your ability to follow instructions. However, you can be more creative and expressive when presenting your academic and research achievements and suitability for the program. 

But when there are no specific guidelines for the format, you must keep these rules of form in mind. 

Most importantly, keep your letter of intent for graduate school between one and two typed pages only or between 400 and 800 words! This can include a brief reference list on the second page. Limit your letter to 4-5 paragraphs in the body, too, since readability is crucial. 

Make It a Letter for Self-advocacy

Again, your letter of intent is a self-advocacy letter that contains your strong arguments in favor of your admission into the program. Create an excellent first impression and put your best foot – or words – forward! Here are useful tips that will transform your long list of accomplishments into a set of compelling arguments in a clear and concise format. 

But avoid being too technical in your letter of intent, too, with nothing in it but a dry summary of facts. You have a certain creative leeway by using an engaging narrative of your experiences and achievements for graduate school. Tell your story in a professional, on-point manner and complement it with proof of your skills.  

You must also use a professional, polite, and positive tone in the entirety of your letter of intent! Use upbeat words, such as “excited” or “pleased,” to show enthusiasm. Avoid casual phrases, slang and other unprofessional words. It’s better to be too formal than casual in a professional document! Thank your readers, too, but make it only once to avoid wasting valuable space on your letter. 

Finding the right balance between marketability and humility is a challenge, but it’s possible! While highlighting your achievements, you can temper them by sticking to the facts and their relevance to your application. 

Write, Proofread, and Edit – and Sit on It For a While 

With the above-mentioned tips in mind, you can start writing your letter of intent for graduate school! Start with a general outline of your most impactful achievements and their examples and your central points, including your reasons for applying and suitability. Avoid being stressed about the initial outline since you’re still in the process of arranging your central points logically. 

Tip: Read through your resume first and note the achievements that you’ve already mentioned and detailed in it. You can either write a brief description or completely remove the achievements described in your resume from your letter of intent. You’re not just avoiding redundancy in these documents, but you’re also giving more space in your letter of intent for other matters. 

Stick to short and simple sentences. While lengthy and complicated sentences are acceptable in research papers, these are inappropriate for a letter of intent since readability is key. 

In your initial outline, use your genuine voice while also using a neutral tone. Follow the rules of grammar, context, and construction while also checking the spelling, coherence, and clarity of thought. You’re less likely to make mistakes in the first and final drafts if you’re already conscious of these aspects. 

Then, write your first draft. It doesn’t have to be application-ready, but it should have your initial ideas on paper and more emphasis on substance and content, not yet on style. It doesn’t need to be within the recommended word count since you’re still cutting it down with every revision. 

Afterward, you can start on your initial edits, perhaps 2-3 edits, until you’re satisfied. Be sure that these central points are stated in your letter of intent early on: 

With every edit, you must go over the form and substance of your letter of intent. Use an app, if necessary, to check for grammar, spelling and composition errors. 

With your workable draft, you can start asking for feedback from your family, friends, and even mentors, and the more input you gather, the better your letter of intent will be. If several people give similar feedback, you’re well-advised to consider it during your final edits. 

You can start making final edits to your letter of intent from the multiple feedback. You may want to get more feedback afterward since you may miss some things. 

But don’t be too pressured about the feedback, either! You must own your letter because it’s your self-advocacy letter! While a second opinion is helpful, it shouldn’t be the reason for rewriting several times, much less for letting others write it for you. Besides, you must be ready to answer the questions during the admissions interview. These questions will be based on the letter of intent. 

With the lengthy process from self-reflection to the final edit, you have to start working on your letter of intent as early as possible! You should also allot about six months for your application since it will involve gathering your application documents and meeting the deadline. Your letter of intent should read like it’s part of an entire package and a summary of your story so far, not a disparate document. 

Purpose of a Letter of Intent for Graduate School

Aside from being the cover letter of your application packet, your graduate letter of intent demonstrates crucial attributes to your possible success as a graduate student. 

With this purpose in mind, your letter of intent should zoom in on these three types of information in the summarized form: 

Be as specific as possible when highlighting these components! You don’t want the admissions officers to second-guess your choices, so a brief explanation may be necessary for your critical information. 

Standard Contents of a Letter of Intent 

Again, if the program you’re applying to has a recommended format, follow its guidelines! However, since it’s rare for a graduate school program to provide specific guidelines, you should follow the standard format for a letter of intent for aspiring graduate students. 


The header contains the following information: 

Your full name 

Mailing address 

Contact information (Phone number and active email address) 

Be sure to use a line break between each element in the header. 

Date Stamp

With a single blank space after the header, enter the date when you’re planning on submitting or mailing the letter of intent as part of your application packet. You can use either the month-day-year format (e.g., April 16, 2022) or the day-month-year format (e.g., 16 April 2022). 

Addressee Information

Leave a single blank space after the date stamp before typing the addressee’s information, as follows: 

Full name of the recipient, complete with their official title within the university or program 

Address of the university or department 

This is where your thorough research before writing your letter of intent comes in. You must have a specific name, title, and address on your letter of intent – unless, of course, the instructions provided on the program’s website say otherwise. You’re well-advised to ask for these details since it means you’re mindful of hierarchy and respect the process. 

Note that for graduate school admission, the common recipient is either the head of the department, the head of the program, or the head of the admissions committee. Again, ask! 

Opening Salutation 

Start the body of your letter of intent with a brief, formal greeting to your recipient. Keep it simple, too, such as “Dear Dr. John Smith,” followed by either a colon or a comma. (A colon is considered more formal, but a comma is also acceptable) 

Opening Paragraph

Your opening statement should be direct to the point, including a statement of the program where you’re seeking admission and your specific reasons for applying. You can also briefly introduce yourself and your motivations for applying in a couple of sentences. 

Main Paragraphs 

In 2-3 paragraphs, you must make your case for admission into the program, and it’s the best way to showcase your ability for self-advocacy. There are two primary ways that the main paragraphs can be constructed depending on your goal: 

Within these 2-3 paragraphs, you should include the following elements: 

Think of a business-oriented cover letter as a guide for your graduate letter of intent, and you’re set! 

But what if your accomplishments aren’t as stellar as you want them to be in the eyes of the admissions committee? This is where the second approach will work in your favor! You can provide a personal story – but keep it brief and to the point, not a sob story – and other elements that will give your accomplishments more context. You may highlight your keen interest in your research interest, too.  

Closing Paragraphs

In the closing paragraph, you can summarize your suitability for the graduate school program, including your relevant skills, experiences, and interests. But don’t repeat what you’ve already said in the main paragraphs since redundancy is a red flag! Stick to a couple of sentences, and you will be just fine. 

Then, thank your reader for their time. This can be followed by a list of the enclosed documents in the application packet. This list can be separated by commas or in bulleted form. Be sure to organize the enclosed documents in the order these were listed, and these can include your resume, statement of purpose, official transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Better yet, check the required order of documents provided by the program. 

Closing Greeting

The last part is a polite and professional closing salutation, and it’s best to keep it simple. We suggest “Respectfully yours “since it evokes professional respect. 

Then, insert a blank space after the closing salutation before typing your full name. You may also use 3-4 blank spaces between the closing greeting and your name to make way for your signature. But if you’re short on space, a single blank space will do but make sure your signature doesn’t cover the closing salutation. 

What’s The Difference Between a Letter of Intent and a Statement of Purpose?

The main difference is that a letter of intent is a general outline in essay form, while a statement of purpose provides more detailed information. The former is a sales pitch that the applicant uses to showcase their skills and potential that, in turn, the admissions committee will use to determine suitability for the next phase of the process. The latter creates a stronger connection between your past achievements and your plans in the program. 

There’s also the word count difference. While a letter of intent is usually under 1,000 words in length, a statement of purpose can be longer. But in both documents, clarity of intent or purpose, professional and positive tone, and self-advocacy must run through every paragraph. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Should you include a letter of intent for a graduate program even when it isn’t required? 

Generally speaking, there’s no need to submit a grad school letter of intent with your application packet unless it’s expressly required for your application to be considered. This is true for programs that use an online application system where your personal information must be provided in the required fields. Some programs require a statement of purpose, meaning a letter of intent isn’t necessary. 

But if you’re submitting your application packet for a graduate program by mail, you should consider including a letter of intent as an introduction and a cover letter in one. You can also keep it shorter than usual if you already have a statement of purpose in your application packet. 

What are the qualities that graduate schools look for in graduate program applicants? 

While there’s no standard mold for the ideal graduate student, the strongest applicants have the following qualities highlighted in the letter of intent. These traits are in addition to the above-mentioned traits discussed in the Purpose of Graduate Letter of Intent section. 

What are the common documents requested in applications? 

First, the official transcripts from all colleges and universities attended for undergraduate studies and graduate programs are a common requirement. These documents contain information about the major field of study and minor, academic performance, and prerequisites are taken. 

Second, standardized test scores like GRE and GMAT with specific minimum requirements for section scores are also common tools for evaluating academic performance in graduate school. Many programs make these scores optional, meaning you can submit them to boost your chances for admission in case of average GPAs. 

Your current resume must contain detailed information about your background, career goals, work experiences, volunteer and community activities, and organization membership. Your letters of recommendation should be from professionals who have first-hand experience with your academic performance and work ethic. You may need to submit a professional portfolio of work, usually when applying to an arts-centric program.

When should you send your application packet? 

On or before the deadline, of course! Allow ample time for the components of your application packet. Thus, the minimum 6-month recommendation before the deadline. You may even extend it to 12 months, so you don’t have to panic about transcripts or letters of recommendation getting lost in the mail. 

What to do if you’re rejected for admission? 

Don’t take it as a personal affront, for starters! Remember that the graduate program admissions committee has a difficult task – choosing the most suitable students from a large pool of applicants for a limited number of slots. You can always apply for the next admission cycle and hope for the best! 

But before that, you should consider taking these steps: 

And take heart – this is a temporary setback! You have plenty of opportunities ahead, whether in the same graduate program or another. 

Key Takeaways

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