The Nitty-Gritty on How to Write a Cover Letter

The Nitty-Gritty on How to Write a Cover Letter

Alexandar Iotzov /

I’m fairly certain that I speak for everyone when I say that applying for jobs is a pain. All of the résumé-editing and cover letter-writing takes up too much time and half the applications you submit don’t get a response anyway. Plus, it never seems like the job market is great, especially for college students and recent college grads, which is super disheartening. The good news is that Student Caffé offers plenty of résumé advice; see:

Student Caffé also offers sample résumés; see

However, we’re currently lacking on cover letter advice. This post intends to rectify that.

While you can see a sample college cover letter here, we haven’t yet guided you through the process of writing a cover letter, or even told you why cover letters are important and how writing them is a skill that you will use time and time again as you age and find new jobs. So, what exactly is a cover letter? A cover letter complements your résumé but doesn’t cover all of the same material. It is a way to introduce yourself to a company and personalize the application process. In a cover letter, you can highlight the skills and experience that you would bring to an advertised position and explain what you can offer the company.

The format of all cover letters is generally the same: You list your contact information and the company’s contact information; introduce yourself; state what position you are applying for and where you learned about the job (if you were referred to the position by another company or individual, mention who); talk about your qualifications and what you can bring to the company; and thank the reader for taking the time to review your application materials. The total length should be one typed page. While the format of all cover letters is similar, you should never submit identical cover letters to more than one job opening. Hiring managers will see right through you and discard your application. Plus, job postings for different companies usually have significantly different requirements for their prospective hirees. You don’t have to start from scratch each time; starting with an old cover letter is fine, but make sure you tell the reader what makes you a perfect fit for their job, not someone else’s.

Some job postings do not ask you to submit a cover letter or do not give you the option to do so. Others will let you submit extra materials. It never hurts to submit a cover letter if you’re given the opportunity, but if you’re applying for a job online and you’re unable to attach anything besides your résumé, don’t worry about it. If a recruiter or hiring manager really wants a cover letter, it will be mentioned in the job posting as a requirement.

How to Write a Cover Letter:

At the top of your cover letter, you should include your contact information, the date, and the contact information for the company to which you are applying. If you are submitting your cover letter via email, your contact information should instead be located after your signature at the bottom of the message. Below is an example for a written (not emailed) cover letter:

Header for Cover Letter

Immediately following the contact information, you should begin your letter. All good cover letters begin with a greeting. If you know who you are addressing, you can start with “Dear (name of person).” You can use their full name (e.g., “Dear Blake Lively”), their title and last name (e.g., “Dear Ms. Lively”), or their title and full name (e.g., “Dear Ms. Blake Lively”).

  • Do not assume that a married woman goes by “Mrs.”
  • Do not refer to someone as “Mr.” or “Ms.” when they have a Ph.D.; use the title “Dr.”
  • Do not assume the gender of someone with a gender-neutral name. Someone named Alex Smith could go by “Mr.” or “Ms.” In cases such as this, use “Dear Alex Smith.”
  • Do not greet the addressee informally; “hey,” “hi,” and “what’s up?” are likely to get you thrown straight into the trash bin.

If you don’t know the name of the person to whom you are writing, you could elect to use “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Hiring Manager.” Follow any greeting with a colon or a comma.

The first paragraph of your cover letter should mention the job to which you are applying and where you heard about it. It should cover your background and interests without regurgitating your résumé. Instead of saying “My name is Jane Doe. I want to be a student trainee. I graduated from The University of Louisiana in 2017. I majored in biology. I took a lot of classes on soil science,” try something more like the paragraph below. You don’t want to sound like you’re reading a list of qualifications, that’s what your résumé is for, but like you’re actively engaging with the job opportunity in front of you:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to apply for the position of biological science trainee with the Agriculture Research Center in Louisiana, to which I was referred by my former soil science professor, Dr. John James. Dr. James instructed me in many of the classes required for my major: biology. He also oversaw my work on the campus farm, where a group of students works together to grow crops each season to be served by campus food services. As summer farm manager, I was responsible for choosing the crops to be planted, monitoring their growth and water intake, and administering fertilizer and insecticide as needed. My work during the school year as a research assistant for the biology department further prepared me to take detailed notes, work as part of a collaborative team, and think critically. I am interested in the Agriculture Research Center’s focus on sustainability, farm management, and soil health, but particularly how the three interconnect.

The second paragraph of a cover letter is generally a continuation of the first, but you can delve into more detail. You also need to prove that you know something about the organization to which you are applying. Take some time to read their website and really try to understand what exactly you would be doing if you were hired. While the title “office assistant” implies secretarial work, you may realize that the position actually entails being a personal assistant to the CEO of a company. Pay attention to the details of the job posting and do your research before submitting your application. The paragraph below shows that the applicant has researched the company. She also mentions more experience that has prepared her for the position:

I further understand that the interaction between the human race, the climate, and the food we survive on is complicated, but I want to know more. As the world’s population continues to grow, we need to develop more sustainable and efficient farming techniques to ensure that there is enough food to go around. While there is currently a reliance on animals as a source of food, the Agriculture Research Center is actively working to change the future. I firmly believe that your mission to provide the entirety of the North American continent with sustainably produced fruits, grains, and vegetables by 2035 is attainable. I would like to contribute my knowledge of farming and soil science to your cause. Having spent the summer after graduation working as part of the “weeds crew” at Yellowstone National Park, I am well prepared to work as a trainee, a position that would require identifying crops versus weeds and non-native species, harvesting crops, and studying the effect of fertilizers on particular plants.

The final paragraph of a cover letter is easy: wrap it up. Sometimes a final paragraph may be as simple as “I am confident that my past experience has prepared me for this position and I look forward to meeting with you to discuss my experience further. I am happy to submit more materials should they be necessary.” However, you should write your final paragraph in the same tone as your whole letter; the sample in this paragraph would make no sense with the letter written by Jane Doe. The following closing paragraph slips in just enough information to keep the reader interested, share what Jane Doe hopes to bring to the job, and express an interest in hearing back:

I’ve been an avid vegetarian since I was young and learned about the differences in the sustainability of omnivorous versus vegetarian diets. Growing up in a community of farmers has also enlightened me as to the trials that farmers face due to a changing climate. I would like to gain experience not only by working both the fields and the lab, but by getting to know the sustainable farming community and performing outreach tasks. I am confident that my background in soil biology and my experience working on farms and in prairie ecosystems are a fit for this position. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Jane Doe

After you’ve completed a draft of your cover letter, send it to your mom, dad, brother, best friend, uncle, and favorite professor (but maybe not all at once). Having another set of eyes on your writing can ensure that you’ve caught all grammatical mistakes and that your writing makes sense. You don’t want to send a rambly, typo-ridden letter to a prospective employer—after that it’s practically guaranteed that they’ll no longer be a prospective employer. Double-check, too, the name and address of the person or company to whom you’re addressing the letter. A hiring manager doesn’t want to see their own name spelled wrong. Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead from your “editors,” feel free to print off your cover letter or save it as a PDF to email to the hiring manager. If you print it off, physically sign the letter above your name before delivering it to the addressee. After that, what happens is out of your hands!

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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