Career Advice

Writing a Winning Cover Letter: Advice for Recent Graduates

Dr. Daniel J. Eustace

Have you heard of the 10–5 rule? No, it is not something happening on October 5. It is an initiative some organizations use to create better interactions among their staff and with their customers. According to this rule, you should smile and make eye contact when you encounter someone coming toward you and they are ten feet away. Then, when you are five feet away from each other, you say hello.

Well, a cover letter is like the 10–5 rule and more! Just as the 10–5 rule allows you to extend a warm greeting while showing that you respect and value the other person, your cover letter begins by introducing you. The “more” part comes when you add information that turns your letter into an influential marketing tool. A cover letter gives you the opportunity to ask for a job interview, ask an editor to read a manuscript for publication, or ask for your proposal to be considered for funding.

In workshops, cover letters for technical professionals seeking positions are often covered along with resumes and curricula vitae near the end of the presentation. Giving them such short shrift is a curious practice, as a good cover letter can make all the difference to your application’s success. When written properly, cover letters should each be unique and specifically tailored to the audience and purpose.

This article discusses the salient features of cover letters geared for applying to (a) academic positions, (b) academic postdoctoral appointments, and (c) industrial and government positions.

Formality in Cover Letters

Despite the current trends in society toward sending texts, emoticons, and short posts—all containing few characters and laden with acronyms like “BTW” and “lol”—these brief communications can in fact sabotage your application. Being informal may trivialize your application.

Using a business letter format—whether center, left, or right justifying your name—is generally acceptable. The heading gives the recipient’s formal address, beginning with the correct spelling of the name. The reference line identifies the job description. A proper salutation uses the person’s name, but if you only know the title, you can use that instead (e.g., “Dear Director of Human Resources”). Always use black ink and a common font (for example, Times New Roman, Arial, or Verdana).

Cover Letter Content

Generally, either applicant tracking system software, recruiters, or human resource or hiring managers will initially review your cover letter. Although a software system will usually identify keywords or phrases, the people will be looking for good communication skills that grab their attention and then introduce you and your abilities, skills, interests, and experiences.

Here are some questions to address:

Who are you?  Include your mailing and e-mail addresses, phone number, LinkedIn contact information, webpage link, and affiliation.

What do you seek?  Make a clear, concise statement consistent with your resume’s objective (if it contains one).

What can you do for the organization?  Match the needs of the position, using keywords and phrases.

What sets you apart from other applicants?  Mention your affiliations, connections, expertise, and accomplishments.

What profit or benefit can the organization gain by hiring you? Show how your skills match what they need to enhance their bottom line or mission.

Letters for Academic Positions

Richard Bretz, a professor at Miami University (Oxford, OH) and leading ACS academic career consultant, says the opening paragraph should indicate the position you seek and where you learned about it. It also needs to clearly point out why you are a strong, well-qualified candidate to fill the position.

The following paragraphs should describe what attracts you to being a faculty member at that institution. Cover your areas of expertise and how they fit into the department, what specific courses you are prepared to teach, and your mentoring and research experience.

This is also a nice place to share special commendations you have received. Be sure to include any affiliations you might have with the institution.

Either in the last paragraph or after a blank line following your signature, it is important to list all of the documents in the application package. These usually include: teaching philosophy, CV, teaching portfolio, research proposals (consider listing titles), and start-up equipment and funds.

Letters for Academic Postdoctoral Appointments

Prominent professors receive many unsolicited application letters from people seeking work in their laboratories. Their time is quite limited, so making a very strong first impression is of primary importance, along with knowing what items will identify you as an outstanding candidate for the position.

Professors Martin Zanni (University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Brenton deBoef (University of Rhode Island) have shared their thoughts on bad, good, and best-ever cover letters in ACS workshops. Topping the list of things professors look for are evidence that you have read and appreciated their papers or attended their talks. Then, Zanni and deBoef both pointed out that you should show how your own original ideas can build on or blend in with their work.

The cover letter is a good place to indicate your willingness to author research proposals and seek fellowships independently. Zanni and deBoef both believe it is useful to present your personal professional plans and demonstrate how the postdoctoral position fits in with them. It may also be helpful to include one of your recent publications and indicate that you would like an opportunity to meet at an upcoming conference.

Letters for Industrial and Government Positions

Where cover letters for academic and postdoctoral positions can be longer than one page, those for industry and government must be brief, clear, and easy to read. A wide and varied array of people read nonacademic cover letters. However, they all agree that they expect a brief, one page cover letter containing keywords and specific detail.

Louise Kursmark and Wendy Enelow, authors of Cover Letter Magic, have described the approaches cover letters use for business, industrial, and government positions. One is using a “RE:” or reference line in the formal letter format mentioned above. Another important approach, often referred to as a “T-shaped” cover letter, is now commonly used. The “T” usually occurs in the middle paragraph of the letter, so it is described in detail farther below.

The introductory paragraph resembles the ones described previously in terms of content, but when you gear it for an industrial or government position, you also need to recognize that it is serving as a marketing tool. To address this aspect of its function, you need to attract the reviewers’ attention so they want to continue through the letter and then read your resume (Bait the hook). Mentioning a recent award, a new product or service you have produced or helped develop, or an announcement about you that is significant to their business or mission might fit well here.

As we mentioned, the middle paragraph’s format suggests a “T.” A heading sentence runs across the top, and below that, you have two columns of bullet points (The space below the heading and between the columns forms your “T”). Put the major qualifications sought in the job description in one column. Adjacent to each point, in the opposite column, show how you fulfill that requirement.

The final paragraph asks for a chance to meet or have a Skype conversation. It can be appropriate to indicate that you will telephone within two weeks to confirm that they have all the information they need to determine whether to bring you in for an interview. Provide your phone, e-mail, and Skype information for potential follow-up. Thank the recipient for considering your application.

At the end of the letter, below your signature and a blank line, you can list all the documents enclosed in the application package following “enc:” and a space. If you are sending the cover letter with an e-mail, it is appropriate to put the letter with all your other “public relations” (supporting) documents in one “resume file.”

Finally, at least one cover letter consultant suggests adding a “P.S.” (postscript) line at the end. (It would appear below the signature and above an enclosure list.) This line would ask for the opportunity to interview with the organization.

Big “DONT’S” for Cover Letters

DON’T:

  • Send your letter before thoroughly proofreading it and correcting errors.
  • Address the wrong person or spell the name incorrectly.
  • Use “boiler plate” language, such as that found in generic cover letter packages or outplacement firm wording.
  • Reveal ignorance about the company.
  • Show unprofessional informality.
  • Exhibit unprofessional cockiness.
  • Ramble in an unfocused way that appears disorganized; don’t include any paragraphs that lack a topic sentence.
  • Make an unskilled presentation using underlining, bolding, or “I” too much.
  • Use unappealingly long sentences or paragraphs.
  • Send photocopies or handwritten letters.
  • Forget to include your “public relations” documents.
  • Include a photo.
  • Neglect asking for what you seek.
  • Improperly use “the” and “an.”
  • Neglect to use commas or use them incorrectly.