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).
Recruitment has gone digital. Many job applications will now require you to fill out an online cover letter, so do the same rules apply?
Essentially, in terms of writing style, length and lucidity, an online cover letter is very similar, which is why it’s a good idea to check out our ‘How to Write a Covering Letter’ article before you plough on with this article. Otherwise, the structure of an online cover letter is a whole different kettle of fish.
Essentially, online cover letters will vary depending on the website through which you are applying; on some, you’ll just be copying and pasting a pre-written cover letter into a text box, and on others you’ll be answering questions that will help you to structure your online cover letter.
In the latter case, make sure you familiarise yourself with all of the instructions relating to name and email fields, character limits and the various boxes you’ll have to fill out.
Draft it first…
Here’s the main thing to remember: online cover letters can expose a multitude of sins, so you’ll need to take your time when filling it out. Don’t write your cover letter directly into the boxes; instead, draft it in a Word document first.
This means you can easily check for mistakes, spend time making it as good as possible, and you won’t have to worry that you might lose it by accidently closing the internet browser.
E is for Effort…
Even if the website asks you to put answers into a template that will automatically rustle up a cover letter, make sure you draft your answers first, and answer the questions fully.
You should spend as much time on an online cover letter as you would do on a traditional cover letter.
If you’re copying and pasting into text boxes, make sure you check the formatting. Sometimes things like styling, bullet points or spaces can get muddled in the transfer. Therefore, once you’ve pasted in the text, go back through it to check that it still reads well.
How long should my online cover letter be?
For online cover letters, the general wisdom is that they should be that little bit shorter than normal covering letters. Why? People have less patience when reading things on a screen. Some people even say that the online cover letter shouldn’t be longer than one screen in length.
Give it some personality…
When confronted with online cover letters, applicants often forget that, no matter how impersonal the application page looks, your application will eventually be read by another human being. Yes, your online cover letter needs to be professional and formal, but you shouldn’t lose your own personal voice.
Don't read that as an excuse to insert smileys and emoticons into the text, but do try to avoid clichéd expressions and formulaic business speak. Think of different ways to structure and formulate your sentences to really show off your writing style.