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.
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.
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.
Looking at examples of strong cover letters is a great way to understand how this advice can become implemented. We’ve compiled and annotated a range of different kinds of cover letters from different kinds of student applicants. We encourage you to look through these letters and see some of what we’ve highlighted as working particularly well in these real world examples.
- Cover Letter Example 1.
Undergraduate student applying for a restaurant hosting position.
- Cover Letter Example 2.
Undergraduate sophomore applying for an internship with a non-profit, political organization.
- Cover Letter Example 3.
Graduate student applying for a Project Assistant position at UW-Madison. The original job posting for this position can be found here.
- Cover Letter Example 4.
A graduated student with an English literature and Spanish language double major applying to work as a law firm legal assistant.
In addition to these sample cover letters, you can find a range of other, often discipline-specific cover letter examples through these UW-Madison resources:
- SuccessWorks has developed a useful resource that features an overview of cover letters. It provides a breakdown of this genre’s main parts as well as an example cover letter and resume, all in response to an included job posting for a position with Americas Society Council of the Americas. All of this is located here.
- UW-Madison’s Law School has several wonderful examples of cover letters for law-related jobs here. These are organized according how far the applicants were into their law school careers (i.e., L1, L2, and L3).
- The Career Center for the School of Education has information about cover letters as well as sample cover letter for someone applying to be an elementary school teacher here.
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