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Write good cover letters

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Not all employers require a cover letter (also known as a letter of application) as part of the job application packet, but for those who do, a well-written, grammatically correct letter is crucial. A good cover letter increases the chance that your resume will be read and considered. However, writing a good cover letter can be a difficult task. It is important that your cover letter demonstrate good communication skills and your recognition of what the prospective employer needs—and how you meet those needs. To that end, you are going to have to get used to the idea of modifying your cover letter for every job.

A key consideration is the format of your cover letter. Some employers will ask that you mail them a cover letter and resume on paper; others will want you to submit a cover letter and resume as an attachment to an email message or via a link on a job search website; still others will just ask for a resume sent via email. If you are sending a paper letter or attaching a word-processed file, you should format the letter like a standard business letter. If you’re not familiar with how to produce a business letter, you can find advice online in many different places. I highly recommend the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University, which does an excellent job of explaining the various sections of a basic business letter. You can see samples of cover letters below that also show you what a business letter looks like.

If your cover letter will be an actual email message with an attached resume, then you can ignore the heading and inside address sections of the business letter because the email format includes most of that information. Your email cover letter should start with the greeting. Note that the content remains the same, regardless of medium.

The suggestions for writing a cover letter and the model documents provided below should make this daunting task a bit easier. Keep in mind that these are just models—the actual content for your letter will need to reflect the skills and experiences that the specific employer requires and demonstrate how you meet those requirements.

General suggestions for writing a cover letter (letter of application):

  • Keep the letter as concise as possible. It cannot be longer than one page, and preferably should not fill the page.
  • There is a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. Be sure you don’t cross it. It’s okay to say something like, “Having had experience writing press releases and promotional announcements for two public relations firms, I am confident that I can contribute to your Communications Department.” However, it’s going too far to say, “I have a great deal of experience in public relations, and your client list will grow rapidly once I am on board.”
  • Use the checklist below as you review your letter to ensure that it’s as good as you can make it.
  • Ask someone to proofread every letter before you send it. In today’s job market, you cannot have a single misspelled word or grammatical or punctuation error on the letter if you want your application to be taken seriously.

Suggestions for the inside address and greeting

  • Try to send the letter to a specific individual. In some instances this will not be possible, but do as much research as you can to find the exact name of the person who will receive your application. Use the appropriate title in the greeting; that is, write “Dear Mr. Smith” or “Dear Ms. Jones.”
  • If you found a specific name, but you do not know the gender of the individual (for example, Chris Smith or Pat Jones), use the individual’s full name in the greeting (e.g., “Dear Chris Smith”).
  • If you cannot find the name of a specific individual, address the letter to a specific department (for example, “Dear Human Resources”) or job title (for example, “Dear Personnel Manager”).

Suggestions for the first paragraph

  • In your first paragraph, immediately explain what job you are applying for, how you learned about it, and what your major qualification is.
  • If the job posting includes a job or reference number, include that number.

For example, your first paragraph might say something like this:

I am writing to apply for the position of Software Developer (job # 427-48) that I saw advertised on Indeed.com. I will be graduating in May from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology. I completed two internships while I was in college with major software companies in Research Triangle Park.

Suggestions for the second paragraph

  • In your second paragraph, provide the employer with specific experiences or accomplishments that connect with the job description. Read the description carefully, choosing one or two items (keywords) that you can use to demonstrate how well you match their needs. Talk about those experiences or accomplishments concisely, but with specificity.
  • If you have done an internship or taken a course that is directly relevant to the position, describe what you did. This is the most important paragraph of your letter, and it’s the point at which reviewers often stop reading if it is not persuasive. Make it clear how you can meet their needs or solve a problem for them.

Suggestions for the third paragraph

  • In your third paragraph, tell the employer about another aspect of your life—coursework, extracurricular activities, leadership experiences, volunteer work, an internship, or even your experience with the company’s product or service—that is relevant to the position.
  • You want to demonstrate your knowledge of the organization by suggesting how and why your qualifications are relevant.

Suggestions for the final paragraph

The fourth and final paragraph is your conclusion. Restate your interest in the position, provide them with additional contact information (e.g., email and telephone number), let them know when you would be available for an interview, and tell them when you could start work.

Suggestions for the signature

Sign the letter. This is easy if you are sending the letter on paper. However, if you are submitting it electronically, you will need to take a couple of extra steps. You have several choices. You can print the letter, sign it, and then scan the letter, creating a PDF that you can attach as you would any file. Another option is to sign your name on a blank piece of paper, scan it as an image, crop it so that it is the actual size of your signature without a lot of margin on any side, and then paste it onto your letter below the closing. A third option is to use your software to create a digital signature that you can import into your document.

Checklist for letters of application

Use this checklist to help you write and revise each letter of application. 

My letter
  • uses standard business letter format
  • shows my address (street, city, state, zip) at the top
  • is clear and concise
  • does not contain any misspelled words
  • has no grammatical or punctuation errors
  • is no more than one page long
  • is organized logically in a four-paragraph structure
  • is sincere, confident, and professional, but not arrogant
  • has been proofread by someone with good language skills
My salutation
  • is addressed to a specific person OR addressed to a department (Dear Human Resources:) OR a title (Dear Recruiter:)
  • ends with a colon rather than comma
  • uses the appropriate title (Dear Mr. Smith: or Dear Ms. Jones:)
  • uses recipient’s full name (Dear Chris Smith:) if the recipient’s gender is not known
My first paragraph
  • explains which job I want
  • explains how I learned about the job
  • provides my major qualifications (such as college degree, internship or work experience)
My second paragraph
  • provides specific evidence of my qualifications for the job, using key words from the position description
  • demonstrates how I can meet the employer’s needs
  • connects with the position description as much as possible
My third paragraph
  • provides additional evidence of my qualifications for the job, based on experience other than that used in paragraph two
  • demonstrates my knowledge of the organization by suggesting how and why my qualifications are relevant
My final paragraph
  • restates my interest in the position
  • provides contact information: e-mail  and telephone number(s)
  • explains when I would be available for an interview
  • is followed by a closing such as “Yours truly” and my signature.

Model Cover Letters

Sample 1
Sample 2

Sources

Purdue Online Writing Lab. “Writing the Basic Business Letter.” https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/653/01/.