Writing Cover Letters
What is a cover letter?
To be considered for almost any position, you will need to write a letter of application. Such a letter introduces you, explains your purpose for writing, highlights a few of your experiences or skills, and requests an opportunity to meet personally with the potential employer.
Precisely because this letter is your introduction to an employer and because first impressions count, you should take great care to write an impressive and effective letter. Remember that the letter not only tells of your accomplishments but also reveals how effectively you can communicate.
The appropriate content, format, and tone for application letters vary according to the position and the personality of the applicant. Thus you will want to ask several people (if possible) who have had experience in obtaining jobs or in hiring in your field to critique a draft of your letter and to offer suggestions for revision.
Despite the differences in what constitutes a good application letter, the suggestions on these pages apply generally.
What to include in a cover letter
Try to limit your letter to a single page. Be succinct.
Assess the employer's needs and your skills. Then try to match them in the letter in a way that will appeal to the employer's self-interest.
As much as possible, tailor your letter to each job opportunity. Demonstrate, if possible, some knowledge of the organization to which you are applying.
Write in a style that is mature but clear; avoid long and intricate sentences and paragraphs; avoid jargon. Use action verbs and the active voice; convey confidence, optimism, and enthusiasm coupled with respect and professionalism.
Show some personality, but avoid hard-sell, gimmicky, or unorthodox letters. Start fast; attract interest immediately. For more information see Business Letter Format.
Arrange the points in a logical sequence; organize each paragraph around a main point.
How to organize a cover letter
Below is one possible way to arrange the content of your cover letter.
State why you are writing.
Establish a point of contact (advertisement in a specific place for a specific position; a particular person's suggestion that you write): give some brief idea of who you are (a Senior engineering student at UW; a recent Ph.D. in History).
Highlight a few of the most salient points from your enclosed resume.
Arouse your reader's curiosity by mentioning points that are likely to be important for the position you are seeking.
Show how your education and experience suit the requirements of the position, and, by elaborating on a few points from your resume, explain what you could contribute to the organization.
(Your letter should complement, not restate, your resume.)
Stress action. Politely request an interview at the employer's convenience.
Indicate what supplementary material is being sent under separate cover and offer to provide additional information (a portfolio, a writing sample, a sample publication, a dossier, an audition tape), and explain how it can be obtained.
Thank the reader for his/her consideration and indicate that you are looking forward to hearing from him/her.
Questions to guide your writing
Who is my audience?
What is my objective?
What are the objectives and needs of my audience?
How can I best express my objective in relationship to my audience's objectives and needs?
What specific benefits can I offer to my audience and how can I best express them?
What opening sentence and paragraph will grab the attention of my audience in a positive manner and invite them to read further?
How can I maintain and heighten the interest and desire of the reader throughout the letter?
What evidence can I present of my value to my audience?
If a resume is enclosed with the letter, how can I best make the letter advertise the resume?
What closing sentence or paragraph will best assure the reader of my capabilities and persuade him or her to contact me for further information?
Is the letter my best professional effort?
Have I spent sufficient time drafting, revising, and proofreading the letter?
*From Ronald L. Kraunich, William J. Bauis. High Impact Resumes & Letters. Virginia Beach, VA: Impact Publications, 1982.
How to format a cover letter
Type each letter individually, or use a word processor.
Use good quality bond paper.
Whenever possible, address each employer by name and title.
Each letter should be grammatically correct, properly punctuated, and perfectly spelled. It also should be immaculately clean and free of errors. Proofread carefully!
Use conventional business correspondence form. If you are not certain of how to do this, ask for help at the Writing Center.
For further information on cover letters contact the Career Advising and Planning Services and take a look at our workshp on Writing Resumes and Cover Letters (NB: this course not offered during the summer).
Should you always send a cover letter?
Do you always have to submit a cover letter, or can you skip it? We checked in with a panel of career experts to find out.
Cover letters could give you an advantage.
You found an exciting new job posting and are getting ready to submit your resume, but what about a cover letter? Is it always necessary to spend time writing a cover letter, or are there times you can get away without one? We checked in with a panel of career experts to find out.
Pro: Cover letters can set you apart
“Skip the cover letter, and you miss out on an opportunity to sell yourself,” says Evelyn Salvador, author of Step-by-Step Cover Letters: Build a Cover Letter in 10 Easy Steps Using Personal Branding and principal of Creative Image Builders, a resume-development and career-coaching firm in Coram, New York.
Sending a cover letter along with a resume helps you build your brand the same way an advertising company promotes a product’s brand. “A well-defined brand wins interviews, maximizes salary potential and puts job seekers in the top 2 percent of candidates considered for positions,” Salvador says.
Think of your cover letter as another tool in your job search arsenal, says Betty Corrado, owner of career-coaching and resume-writing firm Career Authenticity in Cos Cob, Connecticut. “The cover letter is a key part of your marketing package,” she says. “Use it as an opportunity to convey your brand and value proposition.”
Pro: Cover letters let you reveal your personality and build rapport
A resume tends to be fact-based and somewhat formal, but a cover letter can be infused with personality. “Don’t be afraid to inject personal notes about interests or philosophies that may help employers determine if you will fit into their culture,” says Roleta Fowler Vasquez, professional resume writer and owner of Wordbusters in Fillmore, California. To increase the “wow” factor of their cover letters, she encourages applicants to add a few standout accomplishments that don’t appear on the resume.
Laila Atallah, a Seattle career counselor and owner of Career Counseling with a Twist, agrees that a cover letter can be more revealing than a resume. “The best cover letters are infused with energy, personality and details about the applicant’s skills and achievements,” she says. “I get a sense of the person and what they’ve accomplished, and it’s easier for me to picture them in their next job.”
Job seekers often make the mistake of sending a resume without a cover letter, says Ann Baehr, president of Best Resumes of New York in East Islip, New York. “This is a missed opportunity to establish rapport with employers and provide a sense of who they are beyond their work experience,” she says.
Thinking about skipping the cover letter when applying for an internal position? Don't. Use the cover letter to show how well you understand your employer’s mission and remind management of how much you have already accomplished.
Include a cover letter even if a colleague is submitting your resume for you. The letter is a chance to introduce yourself and mention your contact as a reminder that you are a referral. This is what a cover letter should include, should you decide to send one.
Pro: Cover letters let you tell a story
The cover letter can include information that would be out of place on the resume. “Job seekers can include the name of a mutual contact or referral, state how they would benefit the employer if hired and explain tricky situations such as changing careers, relocating, returning to the workforce and so on,” Baehr says.
Atallah encourages job seekers to learn about the requirements of the job opening and use the cover letter to express how and why they are uniquely qualified. “Use your cover letter to tell a story,” she says. “Studies show that stories are memorable and engaging, and cover letters are a perfect vehicle for expressing your successes in a more storylike format.”
When not to send a cover letter
Given all the reasons to send a cover letter, is it ever a good idea not to? “If the application instructions expressly say not to include a cover letter, or if an online application offers no opportunity, then you can forego the cover letter in these cases,” Atallah says.
Vasquez agrees that you should not send a cover letter when the employer specifically says not to. “This may be a test of your ability to follow directions,” she says.
What if you think the cover letter won’t be read? Corrado says that while some hiring managers say they don’t read cover letters, those who do may dismiss your application if you don’t send one. “Why take this chance when you need every possible advantage in this job market?” she asks.
While writing cover letters is time-consuming, the consensus is that the effort could give you an edge and help you land more interviews.
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