The purpose of a cover letter
Sometimes called a “letter of intent” or “letter of interest”, a cover letter is an introduction to the rest of your job application materials (e.g., resume/CV, research statement, teaching philosophy, writing samples, etc.). The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly summarize why you are applying to an organization or for a particular position, and what skills and knowledge you bring that make you the most suitable candidate for that position. The cover letter is often the first impression that a prospective employer will have of you, especially if they do not know you, or have not heard about you from their network of contacts. First impressions count, and so getting your cover letter right is a critical step in your job application process. Like all your job application materials, it may take time and focus to write your cover letters well. You will likely have several drafts before you come up with a final version that clearly articulates your skills and your understanding of the employer and the job requirements.
While your resume briefly states your skills, knowledge, experience, and (most importantly) what you have achieved using your abilities, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to create a narrative that shows the path you have taken in your career or education, emphasizing the skills you’ve used along the way, and explaining why the position you are applying to is the next desirable step on this path. To find out more about the structure of the cover letter, you can see some examples here. Also, it is important to know that there are some differences between cover letters written for faculty positions and those written for non-faculty positions. You can review some of the key differences of cover letters for faculty positions here.
When you start the process of looking for job opportunities, you will probably read through lots of job advertisements. You will notice that most job ads ask for a cover letter of some sort. The exception to this might be when you apply for some jobs through an employer’s online job application system, where they may ask you to upload your letter as a document, cut and paste the contents of your letter into specific fields, or they may not ask for a letter at all. For most jobs, and whenever you are submitting a formal application, cover letters are usually expected – and can be very helpful – even if a letter is not requested in the job ad itself.
Cover Letter Etiquette
You might be tempted to send the same version of your cover letter to multiple employers, especially if you are applying for similar types of positions. Don’t. It can be fairly obvious to an employer when they receive a stock letter, and this will make a bad first impression. Tailor your letter to the employer and to the specific job. This may require you to do some background research on the employer’s website, or talk to someone you know (or don’t yet know) who already works there. Use this information to explain why you want to work at that particular place, doing that particular job. It takes time, but it is worth it. You’ll probably have more luck with three tailored cover letters than with 30 stock letters sent out to 30 different employers. Your cover letter will be read by someone as part of a formal job application, so make certain that it is free of spelling mistakes, grammar issues, and typos. Make sure your cover letter fits onto 1 page (for non-academic position applications), has consistent margins and formatting, and a readable font that is between 10-12pts.
When Not to Use Cover Letters: There are some occasions during the job search process where cover letters shouldn’t be used. During career fairs, you would typically only hand out your resume to employers (and a 1-page resume is ideal). Employers want to be able to quickly scan your resume for the key points, and you should be able to verbally communicate some of the ideas that a letter might contain (for example, why this company interests you). Recruiters won’t have the time to read a letter.
Timeline: Getting Started with your Cover Letter
Step 1: The first step to writing a good cover letter is to first have a good resume. For information on putting these documents together, click here. Your cover letter expands upon some of the information you include within these documents, and describes the role you have played in achieving your academic or non-academic goals (i.e., showing how your experiences have made you the best candidate for the position).
Step 2: The next step is to find an open position that interests you, or at least the type of job to which you want to apply. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cover letter, as each should be tailored to each job you apply to, but there will certainly be parts of the letter that will stay much the same, and be appropriate for multiple jobs. This might mean changing some of the key words in the letter, so that you are describing your experience in the employer’s language (using some of their keywords), not your own.
Step 3: Go through the job ad and carefully note all of the requirements and skills the employer is looking for. Based on your background research of the employer and the people you have spoken to who know about this employer, try to identify the two or three most important skills that the employer is looking for. You should then try to create a cover letter that illustrates that you have these skills and have used them effectively. Your cover letter will be stronger if it addresses these requirements and the job duties. Ensure that you talk about your experiences in the language used by the employer, echoing their words in descriptions you use to illustrate your skills. Write out a list of the keywords that you highlighted from the job ad, and then next to each of these words, write a brief statement that illustrates the fact that you have this skill/ability/knowledge using a specific example. You may not have an experience for all of the requirements, but the more you think about what you have achieved, the more likely it is that you will find something relevant to talk about. When you have all of this information, then you can begin to structure it within the format of a formal cover letter.
Cover letter template
Here is a general template for a cover letter:
Street Address City, State, Zip
Email and phone number
The opening paragraph should explain why you are writing, giving your specific employment interest. Mention how you found out about the position. If it was advertised, refer to the website or resource in which you saw it. If a contact told you about it, say so. It is also helpful to include an overall summary of the key skills, knowledge areas, or experiences that you are bring to this role right here in the first paragraph. If you start off with these very specific conclusions that confidently state that you have what the employer is looking for, then the reader will also have a lot of confidence that your letter and resume are worth reading. The next paragraphs will then expand on and illustrate what you are summarizing in this first paragraph.
The middle paragraph(s) should summarize the aspects of your background which will interest the employer. The more information you have about the organization and its needs, the better. Discuss your qualifications in terms of the contributions you can make. While you should not repeat your resume verbatim, don’t hesitate to refer to the most important information discussed in it. Ideally, both your cover letter and your CV/resume would be able to stand alone. It is not necessary to describe yourself in superlatives. Rather than saying, “I can make a uniquely valuable contribution to your organization,” give the employer enough relevant, targeted information to allow the reader to reach that conclusion independently. Be specific and credible. Tell stories that have a touch of drama, for example: “When I was working as the president of X student group, one of the challenges that we faced was XYZ.” Once you have created a touch of drama, describe how you used your skills to overcome it, for example: “So what I had to do was build relationships with administrators on campus by communicating the critical role our group played in doing ABC.” Once you have told the story, reflect on it in terms of how this is particularly relevant for the reader, for example: “I really enjoyed being placed in a position where I had to reach out to contact and bring them all together by creating a shared vision for everyone to buy into. I think this combination of strong marketing skills and relationship building will be valuable to the role of Advertising Associate.”
The closing paragraph should explain why the position and the particular organization is attractive to you, and should hopefully pave the way for the interview. Provide an authentic reason why you are excited about bringing your skills to the role, and what you will also gain from being in the role. Speaking with former or current employees at the organization as part of your networking will help in this regards. You can also offer to send any additional information, restate your contact details, and state that you look forward to hearing from them.