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A Guide to Writing Strong Cover Letters


By Francine Mahak, Assistant Director of Graduate Student Coaching, Career & Professional Development Center   

Francine Mahak is answering commonly asked students’ questions about writing cover letters.  

What is a cover letter used for?
A cover letter makes the case for your match to a specific job or internship. While the resume summarizes your background and accomplishments, the cover letter pulls together the particular strengths and experiences most relevant to your application, and allows you to illustrate them with more supporting detail than in a resume.

How long should it be?
Most workplaces want one page maximum: it is important to show that you can present a relevant and substantial case concisely.

Do I have to send one with each application?
Not necessarily, and some employers don’t ask for one. However, the cover letter gives you the chance to show more specifically why and how you are the excellent candidate they are seeking, and why you are particularly interested in this employer and their position.

What makes a good cover letter?
Here’s what a cover letter isn’t (but what is often submitted): a chronological narrative of what the candidate has done over time, concluding with “so I am an ideal candidate.” A narrative is not the same as making your case, and is a missed opportunity to tie your skills and accomplishments to what they are seeking.

So instead, plan the letter by carefully choosing key requirements and preferences in their posting, and crafting well-chosen, concise ‘answers’ to them, each followed with illustrative details.

That is the essence of your letter, preceded by an introductory paragraph and followed by a concluding paragraph, as illustrated in the template below.

For example, if one of your strengths was developing a more efficient procedure, say, and that skill is relevant to the job, you could briefly describe why that was a challenge and how you addressed it in a way that saved time and costs for your organization. That enables them to “picture you in action” demonstrating your powerful skills.

How should it be structured?

Below is an illustration of the key elements of a standard cover letter:

Header (same as resume header)

Date

Addressee (You can indicate “ [Job Title] Hiring Manager”)

Company name

Company address

Subject Line (optional): Request to Interview for [Job Title] Position

Dear [Job Title] Hiring Manager:

Part 1: Introductory Paragraph

1.       Introduce yourself in terms of your most relevant qualification, e.g.: “I am completing ____ degree in _________________________, and have x months’/years’ experience in [relevant area, skill].”

2.       Indicate your specific interest in this position with their organization.

Part 2: Your Relevant Strengths

Select and summarize first how you specifically meet main requirements/preferences in the job posting (see bold below), then illustrate with brief details, e.g.:

·       Main point re: requirement a + supporting evidence

·       Main point re: requirement b + supporting evidence

·       Main point re: preference a + supporting evidence. Etc.

Note: In conventional cover letters, these points are often organized in a single long middle paragraph. Since that can make the points challenging to track and remember, it is common in workplace writing to use formatting to show visual organization and to make your most important points easy to identify. So your points can be in individual paragraphs, perhaps indented, bullets, etc. 

Since employers read many resumes and cover letters very quickly, such formatting can help them see your relevant strengths at a glance.

Part 3: Concluding Paragraph

Summarize your case, and express appreciation and interest in discussing the position further.

Sincerely,                    
your signature                

You can find more information on cover letters, other application materials, internship & job searching and networking in our Career Guide.

Are you in need of a resume or a cover letter review for an upcoming opportunity?  Get individualized tips from a career expert on how to improve and make your resume & cover letter stand out. Email your resume to resumereviews@careers.utah.edu.