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.
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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.
A cover letter is an important tool to use when applying for a job because it:
- Introduces you to the prospective employer
- Highlights your enthusiasm for the position
- Describes your specific skills and qualifications for the job or internship, and clearly explains why you are a good fit
- Confirms your availability to start a new position
You should always include a cover letter when applying for a job unless you are specifically told not to by the employer. We recommend that you write a cover letter (aka letter of intent) after you have drafted and tailored your resume or curriculum vitae (CV) for a particular job description. For academic faculty and teaching positions, see cover letter instructions in Masters, Ph.D.'s and Postdocs section. When applying online and limited to uploading one document, you can create a single PDF document that includes both your resume and cover letter.
What to Include in a Cover Letter
Use the cover letter template and planner to get started. When drafting your cover letter, keep the following DO’s and DON’Ts in mind:
- Limit the cover letter to one page if possible, unless applying to academic faculty, teaching or research positions.
- Use the same font and formatting in the cover letter as you use in your resume.
- You might also want to use the same header in both a cover letter and resume. See header formatting examples.
- If providing a printed copy, use the same type of paper for both your cover letter and resume. Resume paper can be purchased at the UC Davis Bookstore or at an office supply store.
- Many tech companies prefer the cover letter not be attached, but uploaded as text in an email with the resume attached.
- Use formal, professional language in a cover letter. This is true when sending your cover letter as text in an email (above point).
- Personalize each cover letter to the specific position you are applying to.
- Address your cover letter to a specific person or the hiring manager whenever possible. If you don’t know their name, use one of the following examples:
- "Dear Hiring Manager,"
- "Dear [insert department here] Hiring Team,"
- "Dear Recruiter, "
- “Dear Search Committee Chair and Committee Members:” (used for academic teaching positions)
- "To Whom It May Concern: " Note, this last one uses a “:” not a “,”
- Check for typos, proper grammar and accuracy.
- Use spellcheck, but do not rely on it to catch all errors.
- Have multiple people review your application materials.
- Make an appointment with an ICC adviser to review your application materials before you apply.
- Unless told explicitly not to, you should always include a cover letter in your application.
- Don’t use text abbreviations or emoticons if you are using email.
- Don’t be too wordy or write just to fill the entire page.
- Don’t submit a generic “one size fits all” cover letter; tailor your cover letter to fit each position. Thus, none of your cover letters will be exactly the same, though a lot of content will be similar in each.
- Don’t repeat or summarize your resume in your cover letter. Instead, focus the cover letter on your enthusiasm for the job, excitement about working with that organization, to highlight unique skills that make you qualified for the position and a good fit for the employer.
- Don’t overuse adjectives or superlatives, especially subjective ones (e.g. “You are the best company in the world” or “I am the most hardworking student intern you will ever meet.”).
- Quantify when possible. "I've helped organize three club events, including two successful initiatives attended by 25 people" is a better descriptor then "I've helped organize several club events, including a couple successful initiatives attended by many people."
- Don’t exaggerate your skills or experience.
- Don’t use UC Davis letterhead, logo, or UC seal in your cover letter. [NOTE: For graduate students and postdocs, some departments allow use of department letterhead for tenure-track faculty applications. Check with your department before using.]