Cover Letter Workshop - Introduction
The following resources should help you conduct research and compose your cover letter (also known as the job application letter).
What is the purpose of the cover letter?
A cover letter:
- introduces you and your resume to an employer
- explains why you are writing or applying for the job
- details why you are a good match for the organization and the position
- demonstrates your abilities and helps to establish your credibility
- draws your readers' attention to specific qualifications
- provides a sample of your written communications skills
- explains when you plan to contact your prospective employer.
Tailor your cover letter to:
- show specific needs of employers and how you meet them
- persuade that your goals align with the organization's goals (mission) and that your skills align with the position requirements (also see our Effective Workplace Writing resource).
An effective cover letter:
- highlights the qualifications related to the position as laid out in the job criteria
- proves that you align well with the organization and that you meet the job requirements
- provides contact information and a plan for future contact.
Learning about the job
Your ability to learn the needs of your readers will help you write a cover letter effectively. You should learn as much as you can about your audience (your potential employer) before writing your cover letter. Your goal is to learn about the organization, its goals and needs. Then, you should learn about what kind of employee the organization needs and what an employee will be expected to do.
After reading a job advertisement, ask as many questions as you can to learn what your prospective employer wants. Lastly, think about who will be reading your job application documents - human resources, prospective employers, etc. Think about how your document many move through the organization you want to join (also see our Audience Analysis resource).
Some questions to begin with are:
- "What values and skills would a good match have for the prospective organization/job?"
- "What kind of personality do I have?"
- "What level of education do I need?"
- "What kind of work experience do I need?"
Read the job advertisement carefully. Most advertisements are divided into two sections, a qualifications section, and an explanation of what duties the hired candidate will perform.
Contact the organization
Another way to learn about a good match for the organization and job is by contacting someone with "inside information" (insiders).
Insiders include, but are not limited to:
- a professor
- your potential employer
- an expert in your field
- a person who holds the position you want at a different company.
Insiders may be able to tell you what a job entails, and what kind of person an employer is likely to hire.
If you decide to call insiders, it is essential for you to be kind and truthful at all times. Being kind will help you to avoid offending someone with whom you might work in the future. It is best for you to see each contact with a company as an opportunity to make a good impression.
When calling insiders, try to plan the flow of your conversation ahead of time.
- Start by explaining who you are and why you are calling.
- Ask questions that will facilitate an informative, friendly conversation.
- Write questions before calling to avoid a lull in the conversation.
Questions such as the following will help you to start an effective conversation:
- "What are the organization's goals/missions?"
- "What kind of person is your company looking for?"
- "What qualifications are most important for this position?"
- "Is there anyone else I can contact to learn more about your company?"
- "Is there anything you think someone with my experience should do to improve my qualifications?"
Try to keep the conversation rolling, and maintain a pleasant tone at all times. Also remember to thank your contact for speaking with you, even if he or she was unable to provide you with helpful information.
Read the organization's website
Another good way to do your audience analysis is by reading an organization's website.
Corporate/organization websites provide a good idea of what a company/organization values. Look for words that describe the company and its employees. Words repeated throughout the website reveal particularly important values. Some organization websites may even have a "Mission Statement" you can read to learn about what they want to achieve. Use the language on the website and in the missions statement to help guide your language in your cover letter.
Use college career centers
If you are in college, see what information is available at your university's career center. See if the university has any connections to this company. Career centers should have any information concerning upcoming visits of companies to career fairs. At Purdue University, the Center for Career Opportunities (CCO) maintains a number of resources that are helpful for students looking for internships and jobs.
In addition, Purdue University offers a career Wiki here.
Cover Letter Workshop - What to Include
Once you have collected information on the organization and the position, you should think about what to include in your cover letter. This resource should help you do that.
How to relate your experience to the job advertisement
Begin by identifying key words you found during your audience analysis:
- Words that signal what an employer considers important or essential in hiring for a position.
- Words that give you insight into the skills, accomplishments, personality traits, and levels of education and experience your employer desires.
Consider this example:
A company posts the following job description. Can you identify the key words?
"Looking for a highly motivated, customer oriented individual to work full-time at the customer service desk."
Reading this advertisement for key words would help you see that the employer is looking for a person who is highly motivated, with customer service skills.
To help you decide what information to include in your cover letter, you may want to try the following exercise. Create a table with two columns. In the left column, write the mission and/or goals of the organization. In the right column, list values and goals you share with the company that align.
You can do the same thing with the position requirement. In the left column, write the qualifications your potential employer desires, either from your job advertisement or from information you've received from another person. Next, in the right column list examples that support your claim that you have these qualifications.
After you have completed your tables, rank each qualification in order of importance according to the job advertisement. Be sure to include proof of your qualifications you feel are most important to the company in your cover letter.
Deciding which qualifications to include
In order to market your abilities in a cover letter, you must know not only what your prospective employer needs, but also what you have to offer prospective employers. Think carefully about your past. Ask yourself what skills you have used at school or work that can be used at your next place of employment. Try to answer the question, how can I help the organization?
For example, if you have been successful working with people, you can show you have interpersonal skills that may help you at your next job. Some transferable skills, skills that can be used from job to job, include:
- Leadership qualities
- Ability to complete multiple tasks at the same time ("multi-tasking")
- Teamwork skills
- Ability to meet deadlines
- Interpersonal skills
- Initiative to complete projects without supervision ("ability to work independently")
- Written communications skills
- Verbal communications skills
- Computer skills
Important: Be specific when you describe these abilities - just using the terms will not help you. Employers have seen them before. Be specific and try to discuss particular examples where these abilities led to measurable positive results.
For example, if you want to know whether you have strong written communications skills, think about your experiences with writing. Have you done any writing at a previous workplace? If so, what kind of writing? Memos, business letters, manuals, reports? Have you taken writing classes at college? Have you won any writing awards?
Before deciding to highlight specific skills in your cover letter, it is essential for you to learn which skills are most relevant to the job for which you are applying. You should include proof that you have the most important qualifications for a position.
Afraid of not meeting the requirements?
You should apply for any job you want, within reason. Carefully consider your past accomplishments and employment history, with the intention of discovering what skills you have used at a previous place of employment that you can utilize at your next place of employment. It's important to be honest with yourself and with your potential employers. Remember, you're looking for a good match between your situation and the organization's situation.
Cover Letter Workshop - Formatting and Organization
The cover letter is one of the most challenging documents you may ever write: you must write about yourself without sounding selfish and self-centered. The solution to this is to explain how your values and goals align with the prospective organization's and to discuss how your experience will fulfill the job requirements. Before we get to content, however, you need to know how to format your cover letter in a professional manner.
Formatting your cover letter
Your cover letter should convey a professional message. Of course, the particular expectations of a professional format depend on the organization you are looking to join. For example, an accounting position at a legal firm will require a more traditional document format. A position as an Imagineer at Disney might require a completely different approach. Again, a close audience analysis of the company and the position will yield important information about the document expectations. Let the organization's communications guide your work.
For this example, we are using a traditional approach to cover letters:
- Single-space your cover letter
- Leave a space between each paragraph
- Leave three spaces between your closing (such as "Sincerely" or "Sincerely Yours") and typed name
- Leave a space between your heading (contact information) and greeting (such as, "Dear Mr. Roberts")
- Either align all paragraphs to the left of the page, or indent the first line of each paragraph to the right
- Use standard margins for your cover letter, such as one-inch margins on all sides of the document
- Center your letter in the middle of the page; in other words, make sure that the space at the top and bottom of the page is the same
- Sign your name in ink between your salutation and typed name
Organizing your cover letter
A cover letter has four essential parts: heading, introduction, argument, and closing.
In your heading, include your contact information:
- phone number
- email address
The date and company contact information should directly follow your contact information. Use spacing effectively in order to keep this information more organized and readable. Use the link at the top of this resource to view a sample cover letter - please note the letter is double-spaced for readability purposes only.
Addressing your cover letter
Whenever possible, you should address your letter to a specific individual, the person in charge of interviewing and hiring (the hiring authority). Larger companies often have standard procedures for dealing with solicited and unsolicited resumes and cover letters. Sending your employment documents to a specific person increases the chances that they will be seriously reviewed by the company.
When a job advertisement does not provide you with the name of the hiring authority, call the company to ask for more information. Even if your contact cannot tell you the name of the hiring authority, you can use this time to find out more about the company.
If you cannot find out the name of the hiring authority, you may address your letter to "hiring professionals" - e.g., "Dear Hiring Professionals."
The introduction should include a salutation, such as "Dear Mr. Roberts:" If you are uncertain of your contact's gender, avoid using Mr. or Mrs. by simply using the person's full name.
The body of your introduction can be organized in many ways. However, it is important to include, who you are and why you are writing. It can also state how you learned about the position and why you are interested in it. (This might be the right opportunity to briefly relate your education and/or experience to the requirements of the position.)
Many people hear of job openings from contacts associated with the company. If you wish to include a person's name in your cover letter, make certain that your reader has a positive relationship with the person.
In some instances, you may have previously met the reader of your cover letter. In these instances it is acceptable to use your introduction to remind your reader of who you are and briefly discuss a specific topic of your previous conversation(s).
Most important is to briefly overview why your values and goals align with the organization's and how you will help them. You should also touch on how you match the position requirements. By reviewing how you align with the organization and how your skills match what they're looking for, you can forecast the contents of your cover letter before you move into your argument.
Your argument is an important part of your cover letter, because it allows you to persuade your reader why you are a good fit for the company and the job. Carefully choose what to include in your argument. You want your argument to be as powerful as possible, but it shouldn't cloud your main points by including excessive or irrelevant details about your past. In addition, use your resume (and refer to it) as the source of "data" you will use and expand on in your cover letter.
In your argument, you should try to:
- Show your reader you possess the most important skills s/he seeks (you're a good match for the organization's mission/goals and job requirements).
- Convince your reader that the company will benefit from hiring you (how you will help them).
- Include in each paragraph a strong reason why your employer should hire you and how they will benefit from the relationship.
- Maintain an upbeat/personable tone.
- Avoid explaining your entire resume but use your resume as a source of data to support your argument (the two documents should work together).
Reminder: When writing your argument, it is essential for you to learn as much as possible about the company and the job (see the Cover Letter Workshop - Introduction resource).
Your closing restates your main points and reveals what you plan to do after your readers have received your resume and cover letter. We recommend you do the following in your closing:
- Restate why you align with the organization's mission/goals.
- Restate why your skills match the position requirements and how your experience will help the organization.
- Inform your readers when you will contact them.
- Include your phone number and e-mail address.
- Thank your readers for their consideration.
A sample closing:
I believe my coursework and work experience in electrical engineering will help your Baltimore division attain its goals, and I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the job position further. I will contact you before June 5th to discuss my application. If you wish to contact me, I may be reached at 765-555-6473, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Although this closing may seem bold, potential employers will read your documents with more interest if they know you will be calling them in the future. Also, many employment authorities prefer candidates who are willing to take the initiative to follow-up. Additionally, by following up, you are able to inform prospective employers that you're still interested in the position and determine where the company is in the hiring process. When you tell readers you will contact them, it is imperative that you do so. It will not reflect well on you if you forget to call a potential employer when you said you would. It's best to demonstrate your punctuality and interest in the company by calling when you say you will.
If you do not feel comfortable informing your readers when you will contact them, ask your readers to contact you, and thank them for their time. For example:
Please contact me at 765-555-6473, or by e-mail at email@example.com. I look forward to speaking with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Before you send the cover letter
Always proofread your cover letter carefully. After you've finished, put it aside for a couple of days if time allows, and then reread it. More than likely, you will discover sentences that could be improved, or grammatical errors that could otherwise prove to be uncharacteristic of your writing abilities. Furthermore, we recommend giving your cover letter to friends and colleagues. Ask them for ways to improve it; listen to their suggestions and revise your document as you see fit.
If you are a Purdue student, you may go to the Writing Lab or CCO for assistance with your cover letter. You can make an appointment to talk about your letter, whether you need to begin drafting it or want help with revising and editing.
Click on the link at the top of this resource for a sample cover letter. Please note that this sample is double spaced for readability only. Unless requested otherwise, always single space your professional communication.
The following are additional Purdue OWL resources to help you write your cover letter: