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).
Writing sample tips for a job application
Many job ads today require candidates to submit writing samples. Don't stress out! Follow these tips instead.
Get your writing samples in order by following these guidelines.
In today’s competitive job market, applicants for many positions—even those not related directly to writing—are required to submit writing samples at some point during the interview process.
Don’t let this request stress you out, even if you’re not a strong writer. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about writing samples for a job that will help you develop and/or select just the right samples.
What kind of writing sample should I submit?
Follow any instructions the employer provides—that’s part of the assessment process, says Diane Samuels, a career coach and image consultant in New York City. “If you have any concerns, it’s best to ask questions,” she says. “It shows that you are proactive in seeking advice before moving too far ahead with an assignment, which in a real-life job situation can save time, money and energy.”
If the company doesn’t say what it’s looking for, whenever possible, send something “drafted specifically for this job opportunity so the subject matter and writing style closely match what you might be asked to write once on board,” says Sally Haver, a former senior vice president at The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, an HR consultancy in New York City.
For instance, if you’re going for a sales job, you might submit sales proposals or customer profiles. If you’re applying for an administrative gig, sample memos would be appropriate. Management applicants might consider submitting samples of competitive analyses, reports or HR plans.
If you have little or no work experience or are applying for an entry-level job, submit a school assignment. It’s also permissible to send schoolwork “if you have applied for a position where the style of writing will be similar to something you would have prepared for school,” Samuels says. A lab report would work for a scientific research gig. An assignment from a business writing class would be appropriate for a management-trainee job.
Are certain types of writing samples inappropriate?
It’s a bad idea to turn in a paper from school if you have been out of school several years. “It says, ‘I haven’t written for years,’” says Thom Singer, a business-development consultant in Austin.
Singer also cautions against sending blog posts (unless your blog is professional and addresses business or industry issues), as well as “creative writing or a letter to grandma.” These forms are ill-advised because they’re not cogent to the type of work you’ll be doing if hired.
How long should a writing sample be?
Most employers seek employees who can synthesize large amounts of information into a short, concise, actionable summary. “Often a one-page memo is a more compelling example than a long term paper,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration. That’s because reviewers generally read just a page or two of a long paper, and are not concerned with the specific content, she says.
Can I submit a sample I co-authored?
A sample written with someone else may be appropriate if writing will be a collaborative effort at the job you’re applying for. Just make sure you list yourself as a co-author. But even then, a team-written piece shouldn’t be the only example you submit.
“The employer is seeking samples of your work, and can’t assume your role in a co-authored piece,” says Nancy DeCrescenzo, director of career services at Eastern Connecticut State University.
What about getting a little help with a writing sample?
It’s considered OK to have someone else review your submission for basic errors and clarity. Beyond that, though, and many employers feel the work is no longer representative of your skills and knowledge.
“If you’re really not much of a writer but your sample is great, that’s what they’ll expect of you when hired,” Haver says. “Unless you can keep your ghostwriter handy, that stratagem can boomerang.”
Should I take any special precautions with my samples?
When submitting a writing sample from a previous job, take extra care to keep confidential information confidential. “Mask or delete names, numbers and any other identifying markers from writing samples so the prospective employer will still be able to see the quality of your writing and thought processes but without learning privy information,” Haver says. Alternatively, you could make up a company name and change the type of business and geographic location, she says.
Sarikas offers one final angst-reducing tip: “Have a couple of samples prepared in advance so you don’t have to scramble to find or create something at the last minute.”
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