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).
Cover Letter Workshop - Formatting and Organization
The cover letter is one of the most challenging documents you may ever write: you must write about yourself without sounding selfish and self-centered. The solution to this is to explain how your values and goals align with the prospective organization's and to discuss how your experience will fulfill the job requirements. Before we get to content, however, you need to know how to format your cover letter in a professional manner.
Formatting your cover letter
Your cover letter should convey a professional message. Of course, the particular expectations of a professional format depend on the organization you are looking to join. For example, an accounting position at a legal firm will require a more traditional document format. A position as an Imagineer at Disney might require a completely different approach. Again, a close audience analysis of the company and the position will yield important information about the document expectations. Let the organization's communications guide your work.
For this example, we are using a traditional approach to cover letters:
- Single-space your cover letter
- Leave a space between each paragraph
- Leave three spaces between your closing (such as "Sincerely" or "Sincerely Yours") and typed name
- Leave a space between your heading (contact information) and greeting (such as, "Dear Mr. Roberts")
- Either align all paragraphs to the left of the page, or indent the first line of each paragraph to the right
- Use standard margins for your cover letter, such as one-inch margins on all sides of the document
- Center your letter in the middle of the page; in other words, make sure that the space at the top and bottom of the page is the same
- Sign your name in ink between your salutation and typed name
Organizing your cover letter
A cover letter has four essential parts: heading, introduction, argument, and closing.
In your heading, include your contact information:
- phone number
- email address
The date and company contact information should directly follow your contact information. Use spacing effectively in order to keep this information more organized and readable. Use the link at the top of this resource to view a sample cover letter - please note the letter is double-spaced for readability purposes only.
Addressing your cover letter
Whenever possible, you should address your letter to a specific individual, the person in charge of interviewing and hiring (the hiring authority). Larger companies often have standard procedures for dealing with solicited and unsolicited resumes and cover letters. Sending your employment documents to a specific person increases the chances that they will be seriously reviewed by the company.
When a job advertisement does not provide you with the name of the hiring authority, call the company to ask for more information. Even if your contact cannot tell you the name of the hiring authority, you can use this time to find out more about the company.
If you cannot find out the name of the hiring authority, you may address your letter to "hiring professionals" - e.g., "Dear Hiring Professionals."
The introduction should include a salutation, such as "Dear Mr. Roberts:" If you are uncertain of your contact's gender, avoid using Mr. or Mrs. by simply using the person's full name.
The body of your introduction can be organized in many ways. However, it is important to include, who you are and why you are writing. It can also state how you learned about the position and why you are interested in it. (This might be the right opportunity to briefly relate your education and/or experience to the requirements of the position.)
Many people hear of job openings from contacts associated with the company. If you wish to include a person's name in your cover letter, make certain that your reader has a positive relationship with the person.
In some instances, you may have previously met the reader of your cover letter. In these instances it is acceptable to use your introduction to remind your reader of who you are and briefly discuss a specific topic of your previous conversation(s).
Most important is to briefly overview why your values and goals align with the organization's and how you will help them. You should also touch on how you match the position requirements. By reviewing how you align with the organization and how your skills match what they're looking for, you can forecast the contents of your cover letter before you move into your argument.
Your argument is an important part of your cover letter, because it allows you to persuade your reader why you are a good fit for the company and the job. Carefully choose what to include in your argument. You want your argument to be as powerful as possible, but it shouldn't cloud your main points by including excessive or irrelevant details about your past. In addition, use your resume (and refer to it) as the source of "data" you will use and expand on in your cover letter.
In your argument, you should try to:
- Show your reader you possess the most important skills s/he seeks (you're a good match for the organization's mission/goals and job requirements).
- Convince your reader that the company will benefit from hiring you (how you will help them).
- Include in each paragraph a strong reason why your employer should hire you and how they will benefit from the relationship.
- Maintain an upbeat/personable tone.
- Avoid explaining your entire resume but use your resume as a source of data to support your argument (the two documents should work together).
Reminder: When writing your argument, it is essential for you to learn as much as possible about the company and the job (see the Cover Letter Workshop - Introduction resource).
Your closing restates your main points and reveals what you plan to do after your readers have received your resume and cover letter. We recommend you do the following in your closing:
- Restate why you align with the organization's mission/goals.
- Restate why your skills match the position requirements and how your experience will help the organization.
- Inform your readers when you will contact them.
- Include your phone number and e-mail address.
- Thank your readers for their consideration.
A sample closing:
I believe my coursework and work experience in electrical engineering will help your Baltimore division attain its goals, and I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the job position further. I will contact you before June 5th to discuss my application. If you wish to contact me, I may be reached at 765-555-6473, or by e-mail at email@example.com. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Although this closing may seem bold, potential employers will read your documents with more interest if they know you will be calling them in the future. Also, many employment authorities prefer candidates who are willing to take the initiative to follow-up. Additionally, by following up, you are able to inform prospective employers that you're still interested in the position and determine where the company is in the hiring process. When you tell readers you will contact them, it is imperative that you do so. It will not reflect well on you if you forget to call a potential employer when you said you would. It's best to demonstrate your punctuality and interest in the company by calling when you say you will.
If you do not feel comfortable informing your readers when you will contact them, ask your readers to contact you, and thank them for their time. For example:
Please contact me at 765-555-6473, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to speaking with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Before you send the cover letter
Always proofread your cover letter carefully. After you've finished, put it aside for a couple of days if time allows, and then reread it. More than likely, you will discover sentences that could be improved, or grammatical errors that could otherwise prove to be uncharacteristic of your writing abilities. Furthermore, we recommend giving your cover letter to friends and colleagues. Ask them for ways to improve it; listen to their suggestions and revise your document as you see fit.
If you are a Purdue student, you may go to the Writing Lab or CCO for assistance with your cover letter. You can make an appointment to talk about your letter, whether you need to begin drafting it or want help with revising and editing.
Click on the link at the top of this resource for a sample cover letter. Please note that this sample is double spaced for readability only. Unless requested otherwise, always single space your professional communication.
The following are additional Purdue OWL resources to help you write your cover letter: