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).
Strong Cover Letter
December 12, 2001
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521-8299
Dear Portfolio Reader:
In this portfolio I included a variety of pieces in order to display a wide breadth of my abilities and interests. I tried to show the presence of awareness of my audience and rhetorical purpose by providing several different styles of writing. [Comment on paragraph one.]1
I chose to present "Voyeur" first2 because I feel that it provides the reader with an introduction and insight3 into my character and interests in a personable manner. Although I feel this piece stemmed from worthwhile introspection and used vivid descriptionssuch as that of riding through a Mexican border town in a "shiny white rental car smelling of new plastic and a faint tinge of the prior occupant's cigarettes" past ancient grandmothers who "sit listlessly on the dust packed earth with their faces wrinkled by a thousand years of sun, tears, and age,"4 I consider it my weakest piece because I was experimenting with writing a subjective narrative in first person, a style that is new and unfamiliar to me. because I was not writing an objective essay or a research paper, it forced me to abandon writing strategies that I had found adequate and successful for the requirements of previous classes. It forced me to write about emotions as opposed to logic and straight facts. Facts tainted by emotion are harder for me to portray because I often don't trust my writing to convey their meaningfulness. For example, when I wrote, "When I came back, I returned with a sense of confidence,"I did so because I felt I could not even begin to convey the magnitude of my new found sense of self worth and the absence of ostracism from my peers that I felt at that point.5
Because I wasn't comfortable with this paper, I had many people read over it for me as I made my revisions. Some of these people suggested that I name the destinations of my travels. I purposely did not do so because I only sought to convey the incredible impact traveling can have upon me; thus, I felt the locations were irrelevant and possibly distracting.6
Despite my concerns about the strength of "Voyeur" in comparison to the others, I think it enhances my portfolio because it does succeed in telling the reader about me and some of the definitive influences on my character. [Comment on paragraph four.]7
The second piece I chose to include in the portfolio was written in response to the events of September 11th. I wrote a letter to an elected official because I felt its value would be twofold: I could fulfill a class requirement while simultaneously informing an elected official of my opinion on such a serious situation.8 I feel that the latter is highly important because if one believes strongly in something, and she doesn't tell her representatives her opinion, then they cannot be held accountable for their actions or inaction.
Although when I wrote it felt passionately about the situation, I tempered my vocabularybecause if I had used over-emotional language my opinion would have been easier to dismiss or discredit. It was also purposely written to be concise. I wanted to make my point and move on, and not overload it with facts, so that it would actually be read and not just skimmed over.9 I know I made unsubstantiated generalizationslike, "For even as unprincipled as terrorism is, the desperation and craziness of those who commit these crimes stem from real situations of injustice in the world," but for the sake of brevity I did not find this unreasonable.10 I also feel that in a letter to an elected official one need not justify her views but merely state them, for it is not the official's job to evaluate his constituents' views, only to represent them.
Finally, the third piece of writing I included was my research paper11 on the philosophical beliefs of North Coast Earth First!ers. I thought it would be a strong piece to end with as it demonstrates my skills to research a topic at length, analyze it, and also compare it with other topics for clarification. For example, I showed the philosophies of the New Age Movement and Animal Rights proponents to contrast with a deep ecological philosophy.12 This helped to support my assertionsabout their beliefs as well as dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding them.13
The tried and true methods I used to write this paper made it one that I felt quite comfortable including in my portfolio. For example, I outlined this piece by using a method for writing research papers suggested to me by a previous instructor. As I concluded my research, I simply wrote down any relevant points and quotes that I wanted to use on index cards. On the back of these cards I wrote the bibliographic information of my sources in MLA format. Then, when I felt I had enough in formation to begin writing, I laid out the cards in the order in which I wanted to present the information they held which instantly provided me with an outline. Writing my works cited page and bibliography were then a cinch because I didn't have to return to any of my sources or even reach for my MLA handbook. [Comment on paragraph eight.]14
Fortunately, I entered this semester with a strong background in English which allowed many of my revisions to focus on style, purpose, and trying to make my voice heard. And although much of this semester's work validated the effectiveness of strategies that I had used in the past, I learned the areas in which my writing is weakest and needs the most work. I now know that to improve my overall writing abilities I need to continue to practice writing subjectively and also vary the sentence structures I use to add depth to my work. I also learned that it is okay—and ultimately necessary—for one to experiment outside her comfort zone in order to achieve a higher level of success.15
The writer opens with her goals for her portfolio; although this is certainly not the only way to open the cover letter, I respond positively to he sense of purpose.
This author remembers to identify each of her submissions by title--not be genre--and she formats the title appropriately. She also remembers to discuss her rationale for ordering her submissions as she does.
Herein lies an example of one minor concern with this cover letter: it is a bit wordy. I wouldn't use both "introduction" and "insight."
Not only does this author support her assertions about "vivid descriptions" with specific examples, she does so by gracefully integrating (and correctly punctuating) her quotations into the cover letter's text.
This writer makes excellent decisions concerning how many quotations to include. She offers brief, specific examples without making the whole portfolio redundant.
Here the author discusses one of her writing decisions--a very smart strategy. Not only does she reveal her control over her writing, she also casts this section of her paper as a strength rather than as an oversight or mistake.
This paragraph feels redundant to me. I would have deleted it.
I like that this writer exposes her writing motivation; in this way, she reveals her appreciation for the role writing plays in the world, for the power of writing.
Again, the writer highlights in this paragraph her decision-making process; again, she casts this element of her paper as a strength rather than as an error.
The author wisely identifies a generalization--providing a specific example--and explains her decision.
The author slips a bit here by identifying this submission by genre rather than by title.
Again, this author makes her decision-making process transparent, effectively revealing her behind-the-scenes work.
I don't find sufficient support for this generalization. I find myself wondering HOW these comparisons "support [her] assertions about their beliefs as well as dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding them."
As an evaluator, I am reassured by these process revelations. They increase my confidence that this author is in control of her writing, that she has mastered skills that will continue to serve her in her college career and beyond.
I like that this author offers herself advice for continuing to improve her writing. This kind of awareness will most likely result in continuing improvement.