A cover letter describes an applicant’s qualification for a position or opportunity, such as a job, grant, young artist program, fellowship, internship, scholarship, award, etc. Typically, it accompanies a resume (or CV) as part of an application package. The strongest cover letter will convey an applicant’s genuine interest in an opportunity and illustrate how their experience and qualifications satisfy the requirements of the position.

One paragraph to one page is common.

• Generally, cover letters are shorter in electronic formats (e.g., email) and circumstances in which a successful outcome depends mainly on a performance audition (e.g., young artist program).
• Generally, cover letters for academic positions are longer and may extend to a second printed page.
• Avoid cover letters longer than 2 pages. Consider moving content to other parts of an application, if necessary.

In a heading, list the applicant’s name and contact info; date of application; and the recipient’s name, title, and organization. A heading may be omitted in a cover letter sent as an email.

Address a specific individual, if possible. Otherwise, “Dear Hiring Manager,” “Dear Admissions Committee,” or something similarly specific is acceptable. Avoid “To Whom it May Concern,” which is dated, and “Dear Sir or Madam,” which is not appropriate.

The opening of a cover letter should include a sentence (or paragraph) that states the purpose of the application (i.e., to submit an application for a specific position) and a brief statement of the applicant’s interest in and qualifications for the position.

In the body of the letter – 2–3 sentences (or paragraphs) – elaborate on ways the applicant’s interest and qualifications make them a strong applicant.

As a conclusion, the final sentence (or paragraph) should summarize the applicant’s qualifications and restate their interest.

Include a closing, such as “Sincerely, [applicant’s full name].”

Prioritize clarity, concrete detail, and a professional, engaging tone. Avoid lengthy paragraphs, complex sentence structures, drawn-out introductory clauses, and long lists.

In the body of the cover letter, illustrate how an applicant’s experience and qualifications satisfy the requirements of the position. Elaborate on resume content using specific and concrete details. Additionally, tailor the content of the cover letter for each opportunity; do not use a single generic letter.

For example, a cover letter for a young artist program should focus on performing activity whereas one for a teaching position could discuss an applicant’s teaching philosophy and notable achievements of their former students. A cover letter suitable for both circumstances will not be not persuasive in either.

To achieve a more closely tailored cover letter, consider incorporating info gleaned from additional research such as reviewing the organization’s website, consulting with individuals familiar with the position or organization, and similar efforts to understand the position or opportunity more fully.

STEP 1. Use guidelines from above to determine the length, format, and tone.

STEP 2. Use guidelines from above, the position requirements, and info gleaned from additional research to determine the resume content you’ll elaborate on.

STEP 3. Write the letter using formatting guidelines from Section 1 (i.e., heading, address, opening, body, conclusion, closing) and content decisions from the previous step.

STEP 4. After a short break – at least 2 days, if possible – revise the letter using guidelines in Section 4 and the “How to Revise” section of my post on revision.

STEP 5. Ask trusted mentors and colleagues “How can I improve this?” Review their feedback and revise if necessary.

Write a letter. Many applicants won’t write a cover letter, unless it’s required, and they’ll feel as though they’ve been relieved of a chore. Use this is as an opportunity to set yourself apart by writing a letter – it doesn’t need to be long – that expresses your interest in (and suitability for) the position.

Invest in the opening. You’ll never have the reader’s attention more fully than the opening. Use the first sentence or two to state your interest in and qualifications for this specific position. In this way, you encourage the reader to continue reading and, by extension, continue considering your application.

Be genuine. Incorporate into the cover letter – usually at the opening or conclusion or both – a mention of specific aspects of the position that genuinely appeal to you. In this way, the reader senses your familiarity with and appreciation for the position, which is preferable to them perceiving either an air of disinterest (“I’ll take whatever.”) or an air of desperation (“I really need a job.”).

Elaborate, don’t repeat. Take advantage of the cover letter’s potential for detail by elaborating on your most relevant activities and achievements. This will complement the summary nature of the resume, and it’s considerably more effective than either repeating resume content in the letter or using the letter to instruct the reader to refer to the resume.

Show don’t tell. “Show” the reader, rather than simply “telling” them about, your qualifications. Cite specific achievements from past experiences as concrete evidence you can meet the requirements of the present position.

For example, “I’ve performed the role of Hamlet seventy-five times in five recent productions” is more persuasive than “My teacher says I’m ready for Hamlet.”