I have asked a question like this before in Workplace, but this time is only about diagrams specifically, and on formal work generally. Some answers in there say that I can use the Venn diagram if I make it less childish (drawing by a program, not by hand).

I really like to increasing productivity and efficiency. In his book The Back of The Napkin, Dan Roam argues that to pictures is a power tool to solving problems and selling ideas. I have seen pictures used in solving problem works (e.g. research papers), but never seen them in formal selling idea works (e.g. cover letter, SOP). I want to know if adding them in any formal writing is good or not.

For example, when talking in a cover letter about how relevant the field I study and the skills the job require, I think using this Venn diagram is effective (imagine this is drawn by a program): image description

And now, in the personal statement I will use to apply to a grad school, when I talking about how I work smart, not work hard, it is best to illustrating the point with this: image description

Let alone the space they require, what do you think?

2 Answers 2


In addition to what Monica Cellio said, whose answer I'd take to heart given that it is rife with solid reasoning, if you decide to include charts or diagrams in school applications and/or cover letters, be very careful how large you make them and the amount of visual prominence you give them.

Don't Let the Graphic Replace Your Writing...

If you make the diagrams cover too much of the page, then it will appear as if you're not taking the writing task seriously and are supplanting the necessary task of writing with a gimmick.

Don't Let the Graphic Distract From your Writing...

The same result will easily be created if you give too much visual prominence to the included graphic. If you make the graphic a header element or occupying the full width of the page then the information in the graphic had better be 20x more interesting than the text that would have gone there. Why? When you change the accepted format and force people to review that change, then you are automatically relying on the reviewer to go along with your ideas. But, this is often a very poor assumption and people can be reticent to change or too tired or distracted. So, if you're going to force a change, then what you present has to compensate for the irritation engendered when the reviewer has to now accommodate your new rules of the cover letter or application.

Consider Your Audience...

Lastly, and along the lines of the logic above, your graphic has to undoubtedly prove or forward your goals. It has the be presented in such a way that anyone looking at it will understand why it was included and subsequently agree with your decision. This is a difficult litmus test, but an important one because once you send out your written material you have no control over who looks at it and what mood or state they're in.

If you haven't considered how your audience will respond to the graphics... don't do it.

  • I accept this because of the "if you're going to force a change, then what you present has to compensate for the irritation engendered when the reviewer has to now accommodate your new rules of the cover letter or application". I realize that if I just throw out the diagram, no one will understand it. They are there to sum up the idea, and I need to well cover it by words beforehand. The cover letter or the SOP are just for introducing myself and what I've done, not fully explain.
    – Ooker
    Nov 5, 2015 at 5:52

There are a few relevant factors:

Use diagrams when they add value

I see plenty of formal writing that includes diagrams -- technical flow diagrams, trend graphs, timelines, resource-allocation charts, and more. The main question you should be asking yourself is: does this diagram add value? Does it make my point more clearly, compactly, or persuasively than words would? If so, consider adding the diagram. (I don't think your proposed diagrams add value, though. More on this later.)

But follow conventions

If you're writing an analysis piece on recent elections for the press (for example), charts showing voter breakdowns in the sectors or demographics you're talking about are probably normal, maybe even expected. If you're writing a journal article, conventions vary but you can easily find out what the norm is -- look at other published examples and see what kinds and quantities of diagrams are used. And if you're writing for your own blog, you can of course do whatever you want.

You mentioned cover letters and school applications. In my experience, diagrams are extremely rare in these contexts. (I don't see a lot of school applications these days, but I see a lot of cover letters and I've never, ever seen a diagram in one.)

Know when you should blaze a new path anyway

Based on what I've said thus far, you should be very, very reluctant to use diagrams in cover letters and school applications. But that doesn't mean never; there could be exceptions. If the diagram really is the best way to present relevant information, and doing so demonstrates a quality being sought (maybe you're applying for a design or marketing position), then you could consider adding diagrams anyway. Your application will stand out; you want it to stand out for a good reason and not a bad one.

Finally: about your diagrams

In the case of the examples you've shown here, I personally wouldn't include them. Your diagrams don't convey meaningful information; you seem to want to use them as decorations. The second one supplements what will presumably be text explaining how you work smart (so the diagram doesn't add anything); the first one is actually a bit of a mystery to me and I can't tell what point you're trying to make, but even if I could, you'd probably be better off making that point in words like other cover letters do.

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