A cover letter usually accompanies a job application beyond academe. If no cover letter is requested, send one anyway unless the employer explicitly instructs you not to do so. The role of the cover letter (a.k.a. “letter of interest” or “letter of application”) is to interpret your qualifications for the reader to convince him or her of your suitability for an advertised position or a potential employment opportunity. Your cover letter is not analogous to a fax cover sheet. Instead think of it as a mini-thesis in the sense that it allows you to make an argument for your fit for the job or line of work. Written in the first person, the cover letter also gives you the opportunity to express your voice and to show your interest, professionalism, and gift for the written word. GSAS Career Services offers programs every semester on preparing cover letters. Check our Current Events for a schedule of upcoming programs.
Even though good cover letters follow a similar structure, you should tailor each letter to the particular employer that will receive it. Review the job announcement carefully and design your letter according to the information it contains as well as other information you gain by researching the employer. Pay close attention to language. Are there key words, phrases, or concepts that recur? If so, you should use them, too. Often employers will scan applications for key words, so it is imperative that you identify those words and use them.
Address your letter to a named individual, if possible, using the person’s formal title (e.g. Janet Jones, Vice President; John Smith, Director). If you are sending an unsolicited letter of interest and resume, contact the employer and ask for the name, title, and correct spelling of the head of the division in which you seek employment. Avoid using the generic "Dear Sir or Madam" or “To Whom It May Concern.” If you do not have the name of an addressee, it is acceptable to leave off the salutation altogether.
Your opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of your letter. It should be brief and should pique the reader’s interest. Begin with a statement of purpose, mentioning the position for which you are applying by title. (Employers often conduct multiple searches simultaneously.) Tell how you learned of the opening. If someone referred you, mention the person’s name. Identify yourself briefly and indicate when you expect to complete your degree at U.Va., or when you will be available to begin work. You may also introduce your interest in the position or make a claim for your candidacy (which you will elaborate on in the body of your letter).
The next one or two paragraphs should be meaty discussions of your qualifications as they directly match the position. Use the language of the announcement and the employer’s website to guide you. The cover letter allows you to elaborate on information in your resume (e.g. you took the lead on your research team, you implemented a new program). Be sure to emphasize outcomes and the role you played in achieving results. If you can quantify those results, all the better (e.g. your marketing initiatives led to a 200% increase in attendance). Reassess your skills and ask yourself what contributions you have made that are relevant to the job you seek. If applying for a research position, discuss your research and research interests first. Provide context for your work and show that you are forward-thinking.
Avoid jargon unless it is the employer’s jargon. Use crisp, clear prose that will make your audience want to know more. Do not neglect to discuss any “soft skills” the employer expresses interest in, such as problem solving, leadership and project management, teamwork, communication skills, working under pressure, and so on.
Nor should you shy away from self-promotion. Draw attention to the strengths and qualifications that make you distinctly suited to perform the job (doing so is crucial, not repetitive). As the saying goes, there is a time and place for everything, and your job search is no time to be modest. You can avoid sounding (and feeling) arrogant by making objective, verifiable statements (e.g. “I have fully defined the first complete model…,” “I have won nationally competitive awards for my work”) rather than subjective statements (e.g. “I have been successful.”).
Address any other requirements or particulars that may support your candidacy. If you anticipate the employer raising a certain question, address that question upfront in your cover letter. Discuss your fit with the position/employer and any special reasons for your interest.
Conclude your letter by restating you interest in the position and in an interview. You may indicate that you will contact the employer by a particular date to follow up on your letter. In this case, allow time for your application to make its way through the proper channels. As applicable, indicate how other required materials will be submitted under separate cover (e.g. transcripts, references—only if required), and direct readers to any supporting material online. Mention any specifics about your availability for an interview. For example, if you are seeking a job in San Francisco and you plan to spend a few weeks there in the summer, be sure to provide the specific dates. Thank the employer for considering your application. Sign your letter, with your name typed below, followed by “Enclosure” or “Enclosures” on the next line.
Generally speaking, sending unsolicited materials is discouraged. In your conclusion you can offer to send additional materials if the employer would like to see them.
Cover letters for jobs beyond academe are typically no longer than one page. The length of cover letters for advertised positions may vary slightly, depending on the job announcements and what you are asked to address in your letter. For example, cover letters for independent school teaching positions usually exceed one page. It is difficult to discuss thoroughly your academic background, teaching experience, service/community involvement, and interest in private school teaching in one page, so the specifics of the position impact the length of your letter—but not by more than a paragraph or two.
The text of your letter should be single-spaced with 2 spaces between paragraphs. If submitting hard copies, use the same high-quality paper you use for your resume or CV. Using the same heading for your resume and cover letter to create a stationery effect can help to unify your documents in an attractive way. Use the same font throughout.
Keep in mind that employers consider the cover letter to be a sample of a job candidate's communication skills, so be sure that it is written well. Also express your voice; a cover letter is not a scholarly article. Have others proofread your letter for any errors or other problems. Be positive—say nothing negative.
Sample Cover Letter - Finance (.pdf, 46KB)
Sample Cover Letter - Industry Postdoc (.pdf, 48KB)
"What You Don't Know About Cover Letters," Mary Dillon Johnson, Chronicle of Higher Education (2002)
“Writing a Winning Cover Letter,” John K. Borchardt, Science Careers (2006)