Writing Cover Letters
WHAT IS A COVER LETTER? A cover letter is a one-page document that accompanies your resume. Cover letters are an opportunity for you to take three steps:
- Introduce yourself to the employer
- Express interest in a position
- Demonstrate that you are an ideal candidate
Think of a cover letter as a marketing tool, one that allows you to market yourself as the ideal candidate using persuasive information, background, and details that may not appear in your resume. The prose of a cover letter (in contrast to the bullet points of a resume) provides the employer with an impression of your personality, encouraging the employer to look at and consider your resume further. In addition to acting as a marketing tool, cover letters also provide a writing sample.
There are two types of cover letters:
- A letter of application: Write a letter of application to express interest in a particular position. This kind of letter explains why you are a good candidate for that particular job and requests an interview for that job.
- A letter of inquiry: Write a letter of inquiry to contact an employer when no known opening exists. This kind of letter expresses interest in the company and requests an opportunity to interview for a position appropriate for your interests and skills.
HOW DO I WRITE AN EFFECTIVE COVER LETTER?
An effective cover letter should answer the following questions:
- Why do you want this job at this company, specifically?
An effective cover letter should express the answers to these questions efficiently (in no more than one page) using specific evidence. Effective cover letters are written in a professional and personable style. Make sure your writing is polished and respectful, but don’t be afraid to let your voice shrine through.
Questions to Ask
Before writing, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you know about the company? Research the company’s mission statement, products, services, or other past work.
- What kind of skills does the position you are applying for require? (Find this info in the job ad or in an ad for a similar position.)
- What experience do you have that shows you have those skills? Consider past work, volunteer, or extracurricular experiences; projects from coursework; or accomplishments. Provide specific examples (evidence) to support your claims.
The answers to these questions should help you identify your audience, the claims you wish to make about your qualifications, and the evidence you can provide to support those claims. As a brainstorming exercise, try using the table below to identify and align the skills the company is looking for with your own skills and experience.
Skills or character traits the job/company requires or values
Your applicable skills, qualifications, experience, etc.
Evidence (anecdotes, recommendations, accomplishments) that demonstrates skill
Strategies to Use
Below are 5 strategies for writing an effective cover letter.
- Tailor your cover letter to the company and position. Cover letters should be tailored to the company and position you are writing for.
- Research the company’s mission statement and review its past work. How do your work values, skills, and past experience align with the company’s? What kind of writing style and conventions does the company operate in? Should you write your cover letter in a similar style?
- Tie your skills and qualifications back to the job posting. Use examples that demonstrate you have the required skills as outlined by the job posting.
- Address your salutation to the specific person who will be doing the hiring. This may require you to research online or call the department. Avoid the generic and stuffy, “To whom it may concern.”
Not only does tailoring your cover letter help you present yourself as the ideal candidate, it also demonstrates that you are an invested and enthusiastic candidate.
- Show, don’t tell. When discussing your skills, do not simply say you have them, show that you have them. Use examples of your experiences or accomplishments that demonstrate specific skills or qualifications. In other words, if you make a claim about yourself, provide evidence to support that claim. In general, it’s better to show character traits like enthusiasm, passion, and work ethic rather than to make explicit claims about possessing them.
- Do not merely duplicate your resume. Cover letters are an opportunity to interpret your resume to show how your experience is relevant to the position. Use the letter to describe a particular experience in depth or to gather all of your experience that demonstrates a single skill into one paragraph. The letter also illustrates your personality, writing skills, and, perhaps, other information that may not be in your resume. Cover letters should complement your resume—not repeat (or replace) it.
- Focus on what you can do for the company. Don’t focus on what you want from the company; focus on what you can do for the company.
- Consult Career Services (or another industry expert). Career Services is an on-campus resource that provides guidance for students exploring and pursuing career paths. Career Services offers samples and guides, as well as walk-ins for students to have their cover letter reviewed by an industry expert. These experts can provide insight into the values and conventions of the industry you are entering, which you can use to further tailor your cover letter and demonstrate an understanding of your industry.
Sample to Examine
Attached below is an example of a strong cover letter. Reading samples is a useful strategy for familiarizing yourself with the genre of cover letters and gaining inspiration. The comments in the margins of this sample point out some writing choices the writer makes, discussing how they function and why they are effective.