Helpful Hints for Creating a Strong Application

Start With the Basics

Follow all instructions. We recommend that you print these guidelines for the application and cover letter so that as you craft the content of your application, you have a touchstone to make sure you’ve addressed the points requested.

  • Be concise—this is a most important aspect. Your application should address only key points such as your scientific studies and the specific research opportunity. If you do not have research experience, talk about the skills you have that are transferrable to a research setting.
  • Compose your application in a plain text editor or save as “Rich Text Format.” This will keep your formatting from accidentally turning into useless and odd characters that shouldn’t be on your application.
  • Tailor your application towards the specific research position you hope to get. Further, tailor each email that you send to a researcher to the specific topic of study in which you would like to participate.
  • Medical school recommendations usually cannot do double duty as a recommendation when applying for a biomedical research internship position. They do not address the technical experience you have gained.
  • Review your application for accuracy. After checking grammar and spelling, ask a trusted source to review your application.

Elements of a Strong Cover Letter

When crafting a cover letter, pay close attention to

  • Purpose. Your primary goal is to start a discussion with an NIAID principal investigator about your suitability and skills. Your cover letter should address your goals of obtaining an interview with a principal investigator and ultimately a position in their lab. Be sure to include realistic expectations about what you would like to achieve during your internship.
  • Audience. Each cover letter gives you an opportunity to emphasize how your skills in that lab’s specific area of study will be an asset to the principal investigator’s team.
  • Content. You should highlight the most important and relevant accomplishments, skills, and experiences listed in your resume or CV in a concise manner.
  • Format. Your cover letter should have a conversational yet formal tone. State the program to which you are applying, the position you are seeking, and your general qualifications.

The body of your cover letter should be no more than three paragraphs. Keep it concise—equating your skills, history, and experience with the specific research opportunity.


The closing of your cover letter gives the reviewer the easiest ways to reach you.

  • State when and where you can be reached.
  • If using a personal email address or cell phone number, be sure these methods of contact are professional.
    • Your email address should be “in good taste.”
    • Your cell phone voicemail message should be businesslike.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are often the first independent assessment of your capabilities, performance, and potential that is seen by a principal investigator or lab chief. They should mention all your positive qualities not demonstrated by objective data such as grades. You should never ask a relative to write a recommendation letter for you.

Your letter should touch on the following points of potential interest to reviewers:

  • How good are your research skills (of great interest to most research programs)?
  • Do you contribute to class discussions?
  • Do you exhibit strong leadership skills?
  • Have you contributed to extracurricular activities available in the Department?
  • What is your potential for success in a biomedical research?

By addressing these points, letters of recommendation can provide the "big picture" of your overall promise and potential.

Also helpful are letters from faculty with whom you have taken several courses, or who simply know you well and are advocates for your admission to this program. You can assist these individuals in creating a strong letter of recommendation by providing them with a breakdown of your personal information. This will allow them to write a stronger and more specific letter of recommendation.

The most helpful and easiest way to provide this insight is to give them your resume or CV which includes

  • Your overall GPA
  • A list of science courses you have taken and grades earned
  • Your minor, if applicable
  • Memberships in honor societies, clubs, and professional associations
  • Awards you have won and recognition you have received
  • Activities in which you have participated (and any offices held)
  • Service activities such as volunteer work
  • A description of your professional goals
  • A description of the training program and/or links to the appropriate NIAID Student Internship Program

Check with your references periodically because they may not be able to complete their letters of recommendation without asking you a few questions. Also, they probably have received many requests for letters of recommendation and following up will help them and you meet the deadlines.