4.5 Cover Letters

This chapter focuses on the cover letter (sometimes called an application letter), which typically accompanies your resume in an employment package. In fact, your cover letter is often the potential employer’s first introduction to you.

The purpose of the cover letter is to draw a clear connection between the job you are seeking and your qualifications listed on the resume. Put another way, your cover letter should match the requirements of the job with your qualifications, emphasizing how you are right for that job.

*NOTE: The cover letter is not simply a lengthier or narrative version of your resume. The cover letter should selectively illustrate how the information contained in the resume is relevant to the position.

Common Types of Cover Letters

To begin planning your letter, decide which type of letter you need. This decision is, in part, based on the employers’ requirements and, in part, based on what your background and employment needs are. Here are the two most common cover letter types:

      • Objective letters: This type of letter says very little: it identifies the position being sought, indicates an interest in having an interview, and calls attention to the fact that the resume is attached. It also mentions any other special matters that are not included on the resume, such as dates and times when you are available to come in for an interview. This letter does no salesmanship and is very brief (the true meaning of a “cover” letter.)
      • Highlight letters: This type of letter (the type you would do in most technical writing courses), tries to summarize the key information from the resume, key information that will emphasize how you are a good candidate for the job. In other words, it selects the best information from your resume and summarizes it in the letter—this type of letter is especially designed to make the connection with the specific job.

Common Sections in Cover Letters

As for the actual content and organization of the paragraphs within the application letter (specifically for the highlight type of application letter), consider the following common approaches.

      • Introductory paragraph: That first paragraph of the application letter is the most important; it sets everything up—the tone, focus, as well as your most important qualification. A typical problem in the introductory paragraph involves diving directly into your work and educational experience. A better idea is to do some combination of the following in the space of a very short paragraph (some introductory paragraphs are a single sentence):
        • State the purpose of the letter—to apply for an employment opportunity.
        • Indicate the source of your information about the job—a website posting, a newspaper ad, a personal contact, or other.
        • State one attention-getting thing about yourself in relation to the job or to the employer that will cause the reader to want to continue.
      • Main body paragraphs: In the main parts of the application letter, you present your work experience, education, and training—whatever makes that connection between you and the job you are seeking. Remember that this is the most important job you have to do in this letter—to enable the reader to see the match between your qualifications and the requirements for the job.

Author Steven Graber in his article “The Basics of A Cover Letter” suggests the following points for developing your cover letter’s body paragraphs:

      • First (Introductory): “State the position for which you’re applying. If you’re responding to an ad or listing, mention the source.”
      • Second: “Indicate what you could contribute to this company and show how your qualifications will benefit them. …discuss how your skills relate to the job’s requirements. Don’t talk about what you can’t do.”
      • Third: “Show how you not only meet but exceed their requirements—why you’re not just an average candidate but a superior one.”
      • Fourth: “Close by saying you look forward to hearing from them” and “… thank them for their consideration. Don’t ask for an interview. Don’t tell them you’ll call them.”
      • Closing: “Keep it simple—‘Sincerely’ followed by a comma suffices.”

There are two common ways to present this information:

      • Functional approach: This one presents education in one section, and work experience in the other. If there were military experience, that might go in another section. Whichever of these sections contains your “best stuff” should come first, after the introduction.
      • Thematic approach: This one divides experience and education into groups such as “management,” “technical,” “financial,” and so on and then discusses your work and education related to them in separate paragraphs.

Of course, the letter should not be an exhaustive or complete summary of your background—it should highlight just those aspects of your background or experience that make the connection with the job you are seeking.

Check out this video, “Tips for Creating a Great Cover Letter,” from GCF Global:

General Guidelines for Writing Successful Cover Letters

      • Explain how/where you learned of the position;
      • Specify what it is you want (to apply for the position, inquire about a summer internship, etc.);
      • Highlight key areas of your education and professional experience (volunteer work counts!);
      • Be as specific as possible, using examples when appropriate;
      • Use language that is professional and polite;
      • Demonstrate your enthusiasm and energy with an appropriate tone;
      • Use simple and direct language whenever possible, using clear subject-verb-structured sentences;
      • Appeal to the employer’s self-interest by showing that you have researched the company or organization;
      • State how you (and perhaps only you) can fulfill their needs, telling them why you’re the best candidate;
      • Give positive, truthful accounts of accomplishments and skills that relate directly to the field or company
      • Stress what you have done rather than what you haven’t and what you do have rather than what you don’t (in other words, don’t apologize for your lack of experience, expertise, or education).
      • Emphasize what you can and will do rather than what you cannot or will not.
      • Highlight what you can do specifically for the company/organization rather than why you want the job.

A cover letter can be fairly short (usually a single page, but this is not a rule). It should be long enough to provide a detailed overview of who you are and what you bring to the company.

Accentuate the positive

Your cover letters will be more successful if you focus on positive wording rather than negative, simply because most people respond more favorably to positive ideas than to negative ones. Words that affect your reader positively are more likely to produce the response you want. A positive emphasis helps persuade readers and create goodwill.

In contrast, negative words may generate resistance and other unfavorable reactions. You should therefore be careful to avoid words with negative connotations. These words either deny—for example, nodo notrefuse, and stop—or convey unhappy or unpleasant associations—for example, unfortunatelyunable tocannotmistakeproblemerrordamageloss, and failure. Be careful in your cover and/or inquiry letters of saying things like, “I know I do not have the experience or credentials you are looking for in this position…” These kinds of statements focus too much on what you don’t have rather than what you do. Also, don’t call attention to gaps in employment—let that come up in the interview.


*NOTE: Just because your resume will be attached, don’t make the all-too-common mistake of thinking that your resume should or will do all the work; if something is important, be sure to discuss it in your cover letter because there’s no guarantee that your reader will even look at your resume. Part of your task in crafting a cover letter is to keep your reader interested and engaged.

Cover Letter Examples

Early Career Cover Letter Sample

Later Career Cover Letter Sample


Additional Resources

"Job Application Letters." Online Technical Writing. [License: CC BY 4.0]
"Tips for Creating A Great Cover Letter." Uploaded by GCFLearnFree.org, 29 May 2018, Youtube.com.

Graber, Steven. "The Basics of A Cover Letter." Strategies for Business and Technical Writing, 
edited by Kevin Harty, Pearson, 2011.



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