- Name the exact position. Reference the requisition number if available.
- State why you are interested in the position.
- Show how you think you and the organization are a good match.
- Make it clear that you expect to hear back.
- Keep the cover letter to 1 page, with an optional second page for a list of publications/presentations or a list of references.
- Make sure the cover letter has no spelling or grammatical mistakes.
Ideally, a cover letter is the cherry on top of a long process of networking and research about the job opportunity. In the best case scenario:
- you know exactly who will read the letter,
- you know what they are excited to see in candidates, and
- you are acquainted with the person who will be reading your letter (or you know someone who knows that person) so that the reader knows to pay special attention to your letter.
Your cover letter and resume are the first parts of your job application that will be evaluated. Your cover letter may be the only part anyone reads. If the hiring manager (or selection committee or whatever) doesn’t like what they see in your cover letter, your application might go directly into the “no” pile. You need to quickly assure your reader that the rest of your application is worth looking at.
If you make it over this first hurdle, the cover letter can serve as an overview for your resume. The cover letter and resume are closely related in terms of their purpose and tone, so you might also want to read our guide to writing a resume.
Analyze Your Audience
Get a feeling for the personality of your target employer or organization. Read the job posting and the rest of the employer’s website carefully. A group that describes itself as “a young and dynamic startup” will be looking for a different applicant than “an established industry leader”. Customize the formality and content of your application to match the employer’s self-image. The more you know about your potential employer, the stronger your cover letter can be.
We have demonstrated how to analyze a job posting in the Authentic Annotated Example (AAE) section. We have provided an example job posting, and highlighted the key traits the employer desires to see in an ideal candidate.
Write a different cover letter for every application
A cover letter should show a match between you and the position for which you are applying. To be a fit for a position, you need to also be a fit for the organization. Do your homework! What goals and opportunities excite you about the organization? What makes it a good place for you to work and advance your career? Which of your skills and accomplishments match those requested in the job posting?
You’ll be a more exciting candidate if you demonstrate that you understand and are enthusiastic about the organization’s mission. Find specific words or phrases that the organization uses to describe its own values (e.g, “transforming the landscape of renewable energy,” “fast-moving and dynamic”). Echo these ideas in your letter. Highlight experiences and interests of yours that correspond to these values.
In the AAE section, we have provided an example cover letter that was tailored to the example job posting, and was written to demonstrate how the candidate matches the employer’s desired traits.
Structure of a Cover Letter
Cover letters follow a very specific structure which helps the reader quickly ascertain the candidate’s contact information, interest, and qualifications. Most readers have well-defined expectations for a cover letter. They are reading many cover letters at once and want to quickly decide if you go in the “yes” or “no” pile. A cover letter is not a place for creative structure or excessive flair. See the example structure of a cover letter, below.
Letterhead. Give your name and contact information. List the date and the organization to which you are sending the cover letter.
- Don’t make your name too big. This isn’t a Steven King novel.
- Your telephone number and email are enough. Use your professional or collegiate email address. Include your address if you are local and you think they are looking for local job candidates.
Salutation. Greet the reader of the cover letter.
- If you are addressing a specific person, make sure to spell their name correctly.
- If you don’t know to whom to address the cover letter, use a generic greeting such as, “To Whom it May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” etc.
Brief Introduction. Name the position. Include job numbers or job posting locations. This paragraph is one or maybe two sentences. Explain why the position interests you, in the context of previous work or education, or other skills that demonstrate your familiarity with the topic.
- “I am writing to express interest in position X…”
- “I am interested in the position because…”
Make it clear that you know what this job will entail. Reference specific examples, such as mentioning certain protocols, software tools, or soft skills such as project management.
Scientific Achievements. Briefly list the organizations and advisors with whom you received your degrees. Describe your overall training.
- “I earned my Ph.D. in ______ at University X…”
Motivation and Impact. Show why you and this organization are a good match for each other.
- “I think I would be a great match for this position because…”
- Why do they need you and exactly you? List specific examples of what you can add to the position
Wrap Up. Make it clear that you expect to hear back.
- “I look forward to hearing your response.”
- Also make sure to thank them for their consideration of your application.
Make concrete claims
Back up any claims about your abilities or qualifications with concrete accomplishments. If possible, quantify your accomplishments. For example, to show that you have “independence and an innovative research spirit”, describe the scope and outcomes of research projects you’ve led or carried out on your own.
Start a conversation
Your cover letter is designed to get you an interview, and successful interviews usually turn into conversations. Start the conversation early. Be humble and curious. A claim like “I know I’m a perfect match because XYZ” can make you sound naive: how would you know that this is true? A claim like “I’m excited to explore this opportunity because XYZ” is more professional and more likely to initiate a conversation.
Make no mistakes
A single spelling or grammar error can be enough to make a recruiter think you’re sloppy. Don’t let a little mistake keep you from this job.
If you’ve found a specific person to whom to address your letter, be absolutely sure you’ve spelled their name correctly. A misspelled name comes across as annoying and unprofessional.