Cover Letters

PREPs IUPUI School of Science Cover LettersAfter laboring over your resume it's tempting to want to skimp on the cover letter. However, your cover letter truly is an important part of the application process.

The purpose of your cover letter is to persuade your reader that you are a good fit for the job before they even glance at your resume. The cover letter will help them get a feel for who you are, and whether or not you may be a good fit with their organization. It's also a way to connect with the search committee or employer on a more personal level then just sending in a list of your accomplishments (i.e. your resume). 

You'll refer to your resume as the source of "data" and in your cover letter you'll expand on (but not repeat) the information in your resume.

Writing Your Cover Letter

Research the company. It is essential for you to learn as much as possible about the company and the job. Make sure you have read the job advertisement carefully. Research the corporate website, read the mission statement, and look up employees on LinkedIn. Hiring managers want candidates who know about their company. Try to include a current event, or mention a project that you have the expertise to be of assistance.

Address your letter with care. You may be a perfect fit for the job, but if your salutation is offensive (example “Dear Sirs”) it is less likely that anyone will read it. Try to find the name of the person who will be your boss, and address the letter to them personally (Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Mr. Davidson). If you can’t find this information use a non-offensive generic greeting such as "Dear Hiring Professionals" or "Dear Selection Committee."

Tone matters. The tone of your letter will project your attitude to the reader. Although you can't hear it, the tone in your letter will have the same effect as it has when you speak to someone. If the tone of your letter is cold or unprofessional readers will probably put down the letter. Maintain an upbeat, personable, and professional tone.

Err on the side of formality. Nowadays, cover letters are almost always electronic and are often simply the body of your email to which you attached your resume. Just because you are emailing your cover letter does not mean that it should be any less formal. Print your resume in black ink on regular, white paper. Spell out contractions. Avoid the passive voice. Do not switch verb tenses. Avoid beginning sentences with "there is" or "there are" whenever possible. Do not split infinitives. Spell out acronyms the first time you use them. Refrain from using jargon. 

Briefly summarize your career in one to two sentences. Avoid giving the employer a history lesson of your work experience. The letter should be more focused on the future and what you can offer this new employer. Definitely include a few sentences, but be brief with your past. 

Tell a story if you can. This part is a little tricky, but the best cover letters lead the reader through an interesting narrative. Explain your experiences in a story-like format that works with the information provided in your resume.

Show (don’t just tell) your reader that you possess the most important skills he seeks. Go in-depth about important experiences/skills and relate them to job requirements. Convince your reader that the company will benefit from hiring you. Illustrate your qualifications with examples. 

Include in each paragraph a strong reason why your employer should hire you and how they will benefit from the relationship. This only has to be a sentence, but your letter should make it very clear that the employer would benefit from having you as an employee. 

Conclude by saying when and how you’ll get in touch.

Formatting and Organizing Your Cover Letter

Formatting Your Cover Letter

Because your cover letter is a formal, professional document, the following traditional approach is appropriate:

  • Single-space your text and leave a space between each paragraph
  • Leave three spaces between your closing (such as "Sincerely" or "Sincerely Yours") and typed name
  • Leave one space between your heading (contact information) and greeting (such as, "Dear Mrs. Robertson")
  • Justify your paragraphs for a clean look
  • Use one-inch margins on all sides
  • Center your letter in the middle of the page; in other words, make sure the space at the top & bottom of the page is the same
  • Sign your name in ink between your salutation and typed name
Here are two cover letter examples:
In addition, you can also utilize the T-Style cover letter format. This design includes a two-column table in the center of the letter. The left column is titled "Position Requirements" and the right column is titled "My Qualifications." The advantages of the T-Style cover letter is that it is visually arresting, and gets the point across quickly: you are the perfect candidate for the job.

Organizing Your Cover Letter

There are four basic parts to a cover letter:

1. Heading

  • Provide your contact information:
    • Name
    • Email
    • Address
    • Phone number
    • Customized LinkedIn URL (optional)
  • Include the date you are writing the letter
  • Include the address of the company
    • Make the extra effort to look up this information, even though you will probably be emailing the company

2. Introduction

  • Greet the specific person with whom you are corresponding.
    • Again, make the effort to look up who will most likely be reading your cover letter. Don't just give a generic greeting like "Dear Sirs and Madams" or "Dear Search Committee" unless you absolutely cannot get a specific person.
  • State the position you are applying for and where you heard about it.
  • If you have a good connection with the company, be sure to name that connection.
  • State why you believe you are a good match for the position and the organization, including 2-3 key qualifications that you will address in the rest of the letter (these items should match up with your resume).

3. Argument/Body

  • Tailor cover letter for each job application. Yes, it requires extra work, but this is absolutely necessary. 
  • Focus each paragraph on one qualification that shows you are a good match for the job and organization.
  • Give specific examples to prove where you got these skills and how you have used them before.
  • This one is tricky, but if you can, tell a story; do not just list your skills.
  • Refer to your resume as a "data source"; do not repeat it, elaborate on it!
  • If you are using a T-Style, this is where it would belong.

4. Closing

  • Close with a strong reminder of why you are a good match for the job and the organization.
  • Request an interview by being proactive, but not pushy. For example, state that you will contact the organization within the next week, then follow up with a polite phone call. 
  • Thank the person for reading your material.
  • Sign your name and print it underneath. 

Editing Your Cover Letter

Always have someone proofread your resume before submitting it. PREPs is a great resource for IUPUI Science students, as well as the University Writing Center and the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

While writing your resume, be aware of these formal writing tips:

Try to avoid ambiguous references.

When speaking with friends, it's common to overuse ambiguous words like "this", "these", "his", "it", "they", etc. These words have no meaning in themselves, but in conversation the meaning is usually clear from the context. In written text, however, the intended meaning is often not evident to the reader, because there are many possible interpretations of "it" and "this". Even if the item to which you refer is explicitly mentioned in your paper, ask yourself whether there is any chance that the reader might not know to which of several items you might be referring. E.g. for the word "he", were there two or three people being discussed? If so then state the actual name of each; "he" would be ambiguous.

Watch out for homonyms.

Spell checker is awesome, but it rarely catches homonyms. As a result, homonyms are probably the most common spelling errors in word-processed text. Even if you are lazy and let the spell check fix all of your other words, make certain that you know the differences between words like:
it'sits
theirthere, they're
whetherweather
totootwo
sitecitesight
wastewaist
wholehole
farefair
greatgrate
affecteffect
discretediscreet
forthfourth
pastpassed
rollrole
leadled
lielye
throughout, through out
seemseam
newknew
illicitelicit
complement, compliment
extentextend
obtainattain
pairpare
personalpersonnel
suitsuite
principalprinciple
bearbare

"But" and "however" are not interchangeable.

The words "but" and "however" have similar meanings, but they are not interchangeable. If you take a grammatically correct sentence containing "but" and replace it with "however", or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect, mainly because of comma punctuation. Here are correct examples of how to use but and however:
  • "I like oranges, but I do not like tangerines."
  • "I like oranges. However, I do not like tangerines."
  • "I like oranges; however, I do not like tangerines."
  • "I, however, do not like grapefruits."
  • "I like oranges however they have been prepared."

Use caution with capitalization.

Capitalization is appropriate only for specific, named, individual items or people. For example, capitalize school subjects only when you are referring to a specific course at a specific school: math is a general subject, but Math 301 is a particular course. Similarly: Department of Computer Sciences vs. a computer science department, the president vs. President Bush. When in doubt, use lower case.

The above Writing Guidelines were excerpts taken from Dr. James A. Bednar's article, Tips for Academic Writing and Other Formal Writing.