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Cover Letter Basics

What it is the purpose of a cover letter?

It is a one page document used to introduce yourself and augment other application materials, like a resume and/or writing sample. It should quickly summarize for the reader the position you’re applying to, who you are, and the skills and qualifications you bring that make you the best candidate.

Cover letters take time, preparation, and thought to write, including research of the company you’re applying to. They also are often the first impression of you and your ability to express yourself, so proofreading is critically important.

Resumes and cover letters are often paired together. Where the resume lists your education and experience highlighting skills, knowledge, and experience with bullet points emphasizing action verbs that show core career readiness competencies (problem solving, teamwork, leadership, etc.), the cover letter allows you to create a narrative that provides context. The cover letter is an opportunity to tell YOUR STORY. That’s why they are so useful and important.

A cover letter follows business etiquette and there is a set structure: one page with 3-4 paragraphs, no more than four.

Let’s dive into the structure more:

Heading – includes your address, the current date, and the name (if you have it) and address of the person to whom it’s addressed. If you do not have a name, you can substitute the job function title, such as Hiring Manager or Internship Coordinator

Salutation. The salutation (Dear So-and so: is always followed by a colon (:) and not a comma. If you do not have a specific name to address it to, you can use “Dear Hiring Manager:” or “Dear Internship Coordinator:”

Paragraph 1 introduces you to the employer and states why you’re writing. It tells the reader who you are and can also be where you can share a referral with the reader if someone suggested you reach out. Be concise and purposeful. Show your understanding of the organization and why you’re interested in working there.

  • Example: I am applying for the Summer Media Fellowship position at the Partnership for Public Service. As current junior at Bucknell University majoring in Political Science and Education, my academic training, as well as past work and volunteer experiences in outreach for the nonprofit sector, make me an ideal candidate for the Summer Media Fellowship position. I recently spoke with Sarah Smith, who works within your research and development division, who suggested I reach out to you to learn more about your internship opportunity. As an organization that was founded on bringing reform to government service in order to attract a talented and high-quality workforce, the Partnership’s values align with my own and it would be an honor to work there as a Media Fellow and contribute to its mission.

Paragraph(s) 2 (and maybe 3) are where you provide the detail of specific skills and experiences relevant to the opportunity.  Provide detail to show your impact and past performance. You can also elaborate on additional characteristics that reflect qualities you bring, such as the ability to work with people of all different backgrounds, organization and time management skills gained through working part-time and being a full-time student, leading a team through a tough season, etc.

Focus on showing what you can do for the organization, not what the organization can do for you.

Final Paragraph. Show your interest in an interview (don’t mention a specific time or date) and offer to send additional materials. Summarize briefly your strengths and interests. Thank the hiring manager for their time and consideration.

Cover letters are hard but worthwhile. Remember, you have access to resources like our office and the Writing Center to help you craft the perfect one.

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