Your CV cover letter is both an introduction and a sales pitch. “It should show what sets this individual apart from all others,” advises Jeffrey Stansbury, vice chair of the Department of Craniofacial Biology at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine in Aurora. Like any good sales pitch, your cover letter should motivate the customer to learn more about the product—in this case, you.
A good cover letter, like a good sales pitch, has several characteristics. First, like a good doctor, it does no harm: It avoids making a negative impression. Second, it demonstrates that the product suits the consumer's—your future employer's—specific needs. Third, it assures the customer that the quality of the product (you) is superb. Accomplishing all this is easier said than done. So how do you write a cover letter that will do you justice and earn an interview? First you need a plan.
If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.—Kenton Whitmire
“A successful candidate impresses the committee right off with the cover letter and makes the committee members actually want to dig through the CV and recommendation letters to pull out the details that start to validate the positive claims,” Stansbury says. “It also provides a glimpse into the applicant’s personality and gives some guidance as to whether or not they can communicate in an organized, effective way.”
One of the most important jobs of any good sales pitch is to avoid doing harm. Some cover letters inadvertently convey negative impressions of a candidate, especially if they “look sloppy or indicate an inability to communicate in English,” says H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and has chaired search committees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “These things can kill someone's chances," adds Kenton Whitmire, chemistry professor and former chair of the chemistry department at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Horvitz adds that cover letters “should be neat and professional,” and should fit on one page. Whitmire would allow applicants a bit more room: The letter, he says, should be “no longer than one to two pages.” To keep it short, “the cover letter should not reproduce the information in the CV, publications list, or other documents provided," Whitmire says, "but it should be used as a vehicle to highlight those things that the candidate believes will make him or her a good match for the position at hand.”
An effective cover letter doesn't just emphasize your best qualities; it also shows how well those qualities are likely to mesh with the open position. “Applicants should begin by reading advertisements for faculty positions carefully and be sure that their background and goals are appropriate for the position in question. You lose credibility if you can't make a case that you fit the ad,” Whitmire says. “If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.”
“There's no excuse for not writing a cover letter that shows how your education, experience, and interests fit with what the institution is seeking,” warns Julia Miller Vick, coauthor of the Academic Job Search Handbook, which is now in its fourth edition. “Not doing this would reflect laziness,” Horvitz observes. At best, Vick adds, “a form letter or one that is generic doesn't accomplish much and leaves how the application is reviewed completely up to the reviewing committee." At worst, a generic cover letter can make you seem undesirable.
“While many people applying for academic positions tend to think that the review process is an evaluation of their previous work—how good is it?—the issue that is as important is the match," Whitmire says. "How will this person fit in here? The former is necessary, but the decision to interview will often be made upon research area or some other measure of fit to the department's needs at that moment in time.”
Begin by learning about the department in general and the open position in particular. Department websites are a good starting point, but don't stop there. Go beyond the public information, and seek a sense of perspective. “It is best if candidates speak with their advisers and mentors to get some feel for the institution where they wish to apply,” Whitmire suggests. Close senior colleagues can serve the same purpose. Read beyond the job ad, and figure out what they're really looking for.
Once you've got a fix on the institution, the department, and the open position, ask yourself what abilities or special qualities a candidate needs to excel in that position. Then determine which of your qualifications and accomplishments will particularly interest this department. Think about your research plans, past research accomplishments, special projects, and previous employment.
What evidence can you put forward that your background and plans prepare you well for this opening? How well do your research interests match those described in the advertisement? How well will they complement the work of the current faculty? How will your presence there make the department better? All this information will determine what to emphasize in your cover letter.
Writing the body of the letter
Your research accomplishments and plans should constitute the body of your cover letter for a research university position. At institutions where teaching is the primary emphasis, your primary focus should be your teaching experience, philosophy, and goals—and the suitability of your research program to a teaching-focused environment.
“An outline of plans for teaching and research needs to be specific to be meaningful,” Stansbury says. Focus on your most important two or three examples of proposed research projects and innovative teaching plans, such as developing novel courses. These examples should change from one cover letter to another, as you customize your letters for different jobs.
After the body of your cover letter has been drafted, you come to the most critical step: writing an attention-getting introduction. Salespeople call this "having a handle." Your handle is what you offer that makes you especially well qualified for a particular faculty opening. For example, summarizing how well your research interests match the ones the department advertised provides an effective letter opening.
The opening paragraph should be short but more than one sentence. After you've captured the reader's attention with the handle, clearly but briefly summarize your most important—and relevant—qualifications. Anything less than a sharp focus and your readers will quickly lose interest and move on to the next application.
Closing the letter
End your letter decisively. Don't let it meander to an indefinite or weak close. A decisive close projects an image of you as assertive, confident, and decisive. It never hurts to close by requesting an interview.
Make your cover letter an example of your best writing by editing it carefully. It must be easy to read. Focus and clarity of expression in your letter imply focus and clarity of thought—very desirable qualities in a faculty member.
Then return to the critical issue: whether your research interests, other qualifications, and personality meet the search committee’s requirements. Anything that doesn’t accentuate the match should be deleted ruthlessly.
Now, set your letter aside for a day or two before editing it again. The detachment you gain from this short break will help you see what you've written more clearly. Detachment makes it easier to determine whether your paragraphs flow smoothly from one to the next. The logic that seemed so obvious when you were writing may seem much less so a day or two later. Carefully review both your cover letter and your CV to be sure the information in them is perfectly consistent. Often, a committee won't bother to try to resolve any discrepancies they find; they'll just move on to the next application.
Finally, Whitmire advises, “be sure to have your cover letter reviewed by someone [who] can be trusted and who has experience. Often, getting a second opinion about how something sounds to the reader—i.e., what they got from reading the letter, not what you intended in writing it—can be very valuable.”
This article is an updated version of an article originally published on 10 March 2006.
More from Careers
John K. Borchardt
John K. Borchardt has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He is the author of the book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.
Entry-Level Cover Letter Examples and Writing Tips
When you are applying for an entry-level position, composing a cover letter can be a challenge because you may not have a lot of work experience. However, it's fine to highlight your non-employment related experience in your cover letter if it's relevant to the job. After all, interviewers for entry-level positions are aware that this may be your first position.
Why a Cover Letter is Important
Here's a secret: Writing cover letters is hard for nearly all candidates — not just entry-level applicants.
So, don't be disheartened if you're feeling overwhelmed by the process.
To get the hiring manager excited enough to call you in for an interview, you need to convey not only your skills and qualifications, but also your passion for the organization and your aptitude for the specific role. This means writing a cover letter that complements your resume, and not one that merely duplicates that information.
A good cover letter also shows off your communication and writing skills and proves that you know how to tell a compelling story – a bonus in almost every job, even if the job description doesn’t include writing as a requirement. Finally, taking the time to craft a cover letter proves that you know how things are done in a professional environment and that you’re willing to play by the rules. That might sound obvious, but when you’re applying for an entry-level position, it’s important to show the hiring manager that you’re aware of what’s expected and that you won’t need to be trained in the basics of office life.
New to cover letters? Use this guide to familiarize yourself with the format and best practices for writing a cover letter that helps you get the job interview. It includes the different types of cover letters, the information that needs to be included in your letter, and the proper way to format your final draft and send it to the hiring manager.
What to Include in Your Cover Letter
The good news is that it's basically a level playing field when it comes to applying for entry-level jobs. Your competitors likely won’t have a great deal of work experience, either.
Feel free to mention volunteer experiences, internships, related classes, projects, leadership experience, extracurricular activities, and your skills that pertain to the position. Providing these details about related experience helps differentiate your application from the crowd.
Look for ways to draw connections between your non-work experience and the job and industry at hand. For instance, if you are applying for an entry-level position in publishing, you might point out your strong grades in literature classes, volunteer work at the library or in literacy programs, an internship at a publishing house, your involvement with the school newspaper, etc.
Look at the specific skills mentioned in the job description, too, and think about ways to demonstrate that you possess these abilities. For example, if a job posting calls for someone detail-oriented and organized, your experience managing a fundraiser for your academic club is good evidence that you have those abilities.
Tips for Writing an Entry-Level Cover Letter
Match your qualifications to the job. Research the job requirements thoroughly before beginning to compose your letter. Make a list of the key qualities, areas of knowledge, skills, or experience that the employer is seeking. Review descriptions for similar titles on Indeed.com or another job site if the employer hasn’t provided a good list of requirements with the ad.
Get inside information. Contact the career office at your school, if time permits, and request a list of alumni volunteers in your field of interest. Ask them what they would be looking for if they were hiring for the type of entry-level job which you are targeting.
Make a list of your qualifications. Compile a list of your assets that will enable you to meet the job requirements and excel in the job.
Write a perfect opening sentence. Compose an opening sentence that conveys enthusiasm for the job and summarizes why it is a good fit. Name the precise position if one is mentioned in the job announcement. For example, you might say “I am highly interested in consideration for your sales assistant vacancy since it would tap my strong customer service, organizational, and verbal communication skills.”
Describe your skills. Draft a sentence for each one of the assets on your list that will qualify you for the job. Briefly include a reference point in your background such as course project, leadership role, internship, or personal experience that proves that you possess that strength. You can merge more than one asset into each statement. For example, “I utilized strong persuasive skills and leadership ability to recruit and attract new members to our sorority.” Remember that for many entry-level jobs you will be trained on the job, so eagerness to learn and the ability to learn quickly and well are often assets to emphasize.
Quantify your accomplishments. Whenever possible, frame your statements as accomplishments and quantify results. For example, “Attentiveness to detail and editing skills enabled me to reduce publication errors in the yearbook by 15% over the previous year.”
When to mention following up. If you have identified a contact person and the employer has not conveyed how interviews will be arranged, then you might suggest that you will follow up to determine if they need further information and to discuss the possibility of arranging an interview.
End with a professional closing. In closing your cover letter, reaffirm your keen interest in the job and that you are hopeful that you can meet with them to discuss the exciting opportunity further.
Proofread your letter. Carefully review your letter for spelling and grammatical errors. Read it out loud and place your finger on each word. Have a counselor, teacher, writing tutor, or other trusted person critique your draft.
Review Entry-Level Cover Letter Examples
Review these sample cover letters for entry-level candidates for employment to get ideas for your own letter. You'll find both general examples, as well as sample cover letters for specific fields and positions. Do not copy the text exactly, but rather, use the samples for inspiration when writing your own personalized cover letter.
Basic Entry-Level Cover Letters Examples
College Senior Cover Letter
It can be challenging to write a cover letter when you haven’t graduated yet. Include both your academic accomplishments and work experience, if you have it. Here’s advice on how to structure your letter, what to include to get it to stand out from the crowd of entry-level applicants, as well as a sample to review.
Recent College Graduate Cover Letter
The best way to show an employer you’re well qualified for a job, tips for writing a cover letter when you’re a recent graduate, and a sample letter to review.
Career Office Referral Cover Letter
When you apply for a job that has been listed through your university career center, mention that in the first paragraph of your letter. Review what to write, and examples.
Email Cover Letter
What to include in an email cover letter, an example of an email message sent to a hiring manager, and how to format and send an email applying for a job.
An inquiry letter is sent to an employer who may be hiring, but hasn’t advertised job openings. Review an example, and tips for writing inquiry letters.
Entry-Level Cover Letters Listed by Job
Business Analyst Cover Letter
When you’re applying for an analyst position, focus on the technical business skills you have acquired in college, during internships, or in prior positions.
Cover Letters for Teachers
If you’re looking for an entry-level teaching position, review this guide on how to write a cover letter for a teaching job, with advice on how to prepare your application, and letter examples. Also review the information required to apply for a teaching job, including documents, certifications, and transcripts the employer will request.
Editorial Assistant Cover Letter
When you don’t have a lot of related experience, include information on your college major, relevant volunteer experience, writing and editing you did while a student, and internship experience.
Education Cover Letter
For education-related jobs, learn as much as you can about the school or organization you’ll be working for. Then take the time to match your qualifications to the job description.
Information Technology (IT) Cover Letters
IT jobs are competitive and so you need to be detailed and specific when writing a cover letter for one. It's important to show the employer you have the skills, technologies, and certifications listed in the job posting. The closer a match you are to the ideal candidate, the better your chances of getting selected to interview.
Marketing Cover Letter
In your cover letter, share examples of your related internship or job experience and describe the marketing skills you have acquired through academics or experience. Use examples to highlight the skills and attributes you have that qualify you for the job.
Scientific Research Technician Cover Letter
When applying for a research job, focus on your analytical, research, and writing skills. Also share examples of any laboratory experience you’ve gained, research you've been a part of, and technical research tools you have used.
Summer Assistant Cover Letter
Showcase your related academic experiences along with work experience, if you have it, when writing a cover letter for a summer position.
This cover letter example focuses on the applicant’s academic achievements, as well as the candidate’s skills that are a strong match for the job requirements.
Start Your Cover Letter With a Template
A cover letter template is a helpful way to format and organize your letter. In general, applying for a job is a ritualized process. Some of the cover letter requirements may seem old-fashioned, but it's important to adhere to the expected cover letter style, from the greeting all the way through to your closing sign-off.
Use these templates to help you establish a framework for your cover letter so that you know what information to include and where, but be sure to personalize your letter so it reflects your qualifications and attributes.
Cover Letter Format
How to format a cover letter for a job, font, paragraph and styles choices, guidelines for what to include in each paragraph, and information about how to address and sign the letter, with examples.
Cover Letter Template
A template can make cover letter writing easier, because you simply personalize the template with your own information. Do be sure to customize it though, so you show the employer how you are qualified for the position.
Email Cover Letter Template
The format of an email cover letter is different from a cover letter that you upload or send as an attachment. Review how to format and send a cover letter by email.
Online Template Resources: Google Docs has a variety of templates you can use to write a cover letter or a resume. When you use a template, be sure to change the file name to your name (janedoecoverletter.doc, for example). Double-check to be sure you’ve written over the standard information and changed the date.
If you are Microsoft Office user, you can download Word cover letter templates to use as a starting point for writing your own cover letter
Read More: Top 10 Cover Letter Writing Tips | What to Include in a Cover Letter