Part 5: Message types

5.10 Cover letters

Traditionally, the application letter or cover letter is a formal letter that accompanies your resume when you apply for a position. Its purpose is to support your resume, providing more specific details, and to explain in writing why you are a strong candidate for the specific position to which you are applying. It should not simply reiterate your resume; it’s an opportunity for you to make a case for your candidacy in complete sentences and phrases, which gives the reader a better sense of your “voice.”

It can be helpful to start by first thinking about the audience and purpose for the application letter. What information does your reader need to glean from your letter? At what point in the hiring process will they be reading it?

As you draft the letter, consider what you would want to say if you were sitting across the desk from your reader. It should be written in a formal, professional tone, but you still want it to flow like natural speech—this will make it easier for your reader to absorb the information quickly.

What to include

It can be helpful to think about writing your application letter in sections or “blocks.” This provides a basic structure for the letter; once you have an understanding of this foundation, you can customize, update, and personalize the letter for different applications and employers.

Introductory paragraph

Open your letter with a concise, functional, and personable introduction to you as a job candidate. This is your chance to establish the essential basics of your qualifications and to set the themes and tone for the rest of the letter.

  • Name the position you’re interested in (by exact name and number, if available)
  • Clearly state that you are applying for the position—remember that you are requesting (not demanding) that they consider you as a candidate for the position
  • Summarize your best qualification and how it’s relevant to the position
  • Indicate you’ve enclosed your resume for additional information

Optionally, you might also take the opportunity at the beginning of the letter to express your interest in working for this particular company and/or your passion for and interest in the field—I am particularly interested in this position because… This sets a nice tone and shows that you are engaged and enthusiastic. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge about the employer and what they do (developed through your research).

Education & academics paragraph(s)

The purpose of this paragraph is to paint a detailed picture of your training and credentials and how this is relevant to the position. Your opportunity in this paragraph is to explain the activities and knowledge you have gained and/or are developing that most matter for this position and employer. Carefully consider what the employer will value most about your educational experiences. If you have a lot of project experience or several key experiences that you want to highlight, this information may be written in multiple paragraphs.

This content should NOT be a laundry list of course titles. Instead, describe how your academics/training have shaped your understanding of the field you are entering and significant skills you are developing, but always tie it back to what the employer is looking for—stay focused on the information your audience needs and what they will care about.

Employment paragraph (if applicable)

It is important for employers to feel that they are hiring responsible, reliable people who know how to hold down a job. If you do have work experience in this field such as a previous internship, this is a perfect time to discuss that. If you have previous work experience, even if it’s not related to your field, this is your opportunity to describe the value of that experience—the value for you, but, more importantly, to your reader. Describe your previous work experience that shows your a good employee and explain how this is relevant to the position. Be specific about the company, the time frame, your responsibilities, and the outcomes/results. Focus on your relevant and transferable skills.

Other qualifications (if applicable)

Awards you’ve received; publications you’ve achieved; and your activities and involvement in things outside of your coursework and work experiences, such as student organizations, clubs, and volunteer work, are great pieces of information to include that show you are a well-rounded, motivated person with good time management skills. Personal, human connections are an important part of the job application process, and describing some of these activities and interests can help your reader start to feel a more personal connection. Describe your specific actions and involvement honestly, while still trying to connect to transferable skills and the keywords in the job posting.

Concluding Paragraph

As you conclude the letter, tie everything together, politely express interest in an interview, and end on a positive note. Don’t ask for the job here; you’re requesting–and not demanding–an interview.

Letter formatting

Your application letter should use formal letter formatting.

In today’s job market, where many applications are online, the letter might be delivered in a variety of different formats. For example, it might be a PDF file uploaded to an online application system or if might be simply sent in the body of an email. Make sure you submit your cover letter in the file format and way the job advertisement specifies.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Preparing job application materials” in A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications L. Hall and L. Wahlin and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.

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