Ask an Expert: Cover Letters 101

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Bill Morgan, Experiential Learning & On-Campus Internship Coordinator

Question: I’m applying to a role that asks for both a resume and a cover letter. What’s a cover letter? Does it really matter? How do I write an effective cover letter?

A cover letter is definitely one of the weirder writing assignments you’ll have as a college student (or college graduate).

Imagine the following documents laying on the table in front of you:

  • On the left: A printed job posting describing the work and qualifications
  • On the right: A copy of your resume
  • In the middle: Your cover letter

In a cover letter, your task is to describe to a potential employer how your experience and skills (resume stuff) is compatible with the opportunity they’re recruiting for (job posting stuff). So yes, a cover letter does matter! It’s one of your first chances to highlight relevant strengths and highlight some of your most valuable experience.

You’ll create a document (one-page, single spaced, 4-5 paragraphs) that includes the following:

Header: The same header (your name, contact information) that you use on your resume.

Date: When you wrote the letter.

Recipient: The name and title of the recipient (if known), or name of organization.

Salutation: “Dear [contact’s name],” or “Dear Hiring Committee.”

Intro: State the reason you’re writing, making sure to refer to the role you’re applying for, and highlight the experiences/skills you’re bringing to the table (that you’ll then cover in your body paragraphs).

Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4: Describe the experiences and skills you have to offer that align with the position description, making sure to illustrate your claims through examples from your resume (previous internships, student group engagement, part-time roles, volunteerism, etc.).

Conclusion: Express gratitude for your readers’ time and attention to your candidacy and invite them to stay in touch to continue the conversation.

Closing: “Sincerely,” followed by your signature (if you can print out/sign a copy of your letter or insert a digital signature) and your typed-out name.

Looking back at what you’ve written, you’ll see that you’ve:

(1) Made a compelling argument for why you’re a good candidate worthy of an interview, and

(2) Prepared for the interview by highlighting some key accomplishments.

A few final tips:

  • A cover letter is a demonstration of your writing skills, so carefully proofread everything to make sure it is error-free.
  • Where appropriate, integrate in the same language used in the job posting (for example, “public speaking,” in place of, “group presentation”).
  • You’ll need to customize every cover letter for the specific opportunity and employer. That said, you can use previous cover letters (and content from them) as a guide for crafting new ones.
By Bill Morgan
Bill Morgan Experiential Learning & On-Campus Internship Coordinator, Career Services Network