Preparing an effective job-seeking cover letter…

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(Note – you might also want to check out my related post of tips for preparing your resume.)

I often get asked to provide advice and feedback for engineering students (BSc, MSc and PhD) applying for jobs and though the application contents can vary widely, especially between industry and academia, one thing that all employers have in common is the requirement for a cover letter. It’s probably the most important part of the application package, yet it seems to be the part most people do poorly. In this post, I’ll try to help you out by presenting some of the tips I generally suggest to my own students based on: a) what I’ve learned from others, b) what has worked for me when I’ve applied for jobs, and c) what I like to see when I am looking to hire someone.  

The single most important objective of the cover letter is to convince the company, agency or university that you are applying to that they cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to hire you. You do this by illustrating what a tremendous asset you will be to them. In that context – they don’t care what sort of career you want or what experience they can offer you – they want to hear what you can offer them. The time to see what they can do for you is later on – once they realize they cannot get by without you and you begin negotiating the details of your employment. Here below are my top ten tips for writing a compelling cover letter…

  1. Research the company, agency, or university. Find out as much as you can about the people you will be working with and the type of work they do. Keep this knowledge in mind as you write the letter and try to find ways to illustrate that you’ve done this. There is usually lots of info on the internet and companies expect you to research them before applying. In fact, they’re usually insulted when you don’t.
  2. Provide your name, mailing address, phone number and email address in a letterhead or return address header.
  3. Use a Subject Line and cite a specific position title and number if available.
  4. Address your letter to a specific person, if possible. Employ a proper salutation (i.e. “Dear Ms. Jones”) and do not use first names, even if you know the person. If you don’t have a specific person to address, open with “Dear Sir or Madam”. Never assume the gender of the reader – I can’t tell you how many grad student applications I ignore each year because they’ve addressed the cover letter to “Dear Sir” – probably hundreds. (This goes back to Hint # 1.)
  5. Use the cover letter to explain and highlight things in your resume that are relevant to them. That is, customize your cover letter to their particular company and/or job advertisement. (The really sharp applicant actually customizes their resume to the particular job, as well!)
  6. Remember, employers use cover letters to assess your writing skills and your attention to detail. So write in proper paragraphs (i.e. with topic sentences and supporting facts). Don’t write in point form – it makes it look like a resume not a letter. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms (especially undefined ones) and don’t use casual phrases, slang or an overly familiar tone. Finally, proofread the letter carefully; make sure there are no spelling or grammar errors.
  7. Try to keep it to about 1 page. You can push things a bit by using Times 11 and 0.75 inch borders, or you can go up to about a page and a quarter – but two full pages is too much. People usually have a lot to read and two pages of tightly packed prose is a real put-off. Also, don’t use fonts smaller than Times 11 – most of the people in charge (i.e. the ones who decide on the hiring) are old enough to need reading glasses and small fonts are extremely frustrating to them.
  8. If you have experience or preferences to do a particular type of work, don’t list them as the type of projects you want, or expect, to work on. Instead, give them as examples of the types of projects you could take on right away with minimal guidance and supervision. (Again, it’s all about what you can do for them, not vice versa.) Also, don’t suggest things they don’t do… (That’s one sure way to demonstrate that you’ve ignored Hint #1.)
  9. Highlight your communications skills. Have you written any reports or papers? Have you presented papers or posters at conferences? Give specific examples of your oral and written communications skills.
  10. Close the letter by stating specifically when you could start work and when exactly you are available for an interview. Ask explicitly for the interview. Don’t forget a proper closing salutation (“Yours truly,” or “Sincerely,” are the most common and appropriate) and type your name in below where you will sign.

Once you’ve written the draft – leave it for a day, then go back and give it a critical inspection. Are you effectively presenting the “you attitude” instead of the “me attitude”? Are you effectively demonstrating your technical writing skills (i.e. proper paragraphing) and meticulous attention to detail (e.g. spelling and grammar)? Have you effectively illustrated you suitability for this particular job? It’s always a good idea to get a friend or mentor (e.g. your professor) to read the letter and provide feedback.

Finally SIGN YOU LETTER! Yes, get an actual pen and sign the letter!

Good luck! Let me know if you get the job!


23 thoughts on “Preparing an effective job-seeking cover letter…

    […] to your resume and your letter to a prospective supervisor is equivalent to the corresponding cover letter.  Like those who write a good cover letter when applying for a job, students who write good […]

    Aladdin said:
    January 30, 2013 at 2:19 am

    Very important tips. Thanks Prof.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      January 31, 2013 at 10:32 am

      Thanks! Glad you found them useful!

        Anny Shah said:
        June 2, 2013 at 9:00 am

        Dear Prof Faye,
        I am still trying to figure out to ask a graduate faculty advisor willing to accept me as a student. Would you me help with the correct verbiage as to how address the professor?

        Faye Hicks responded:
        June 6, 2013 at 7:47 pm

        Hi there – I am not exactly sure what you are asking – but if it’s how to name them – then the correct salutation would typically be, “Dear Dr. Xxxxxx:” where Xxxxxx would be the last name of the professor. For example in my case, it would be “Dear Dr. Hicks:”.
        Hope that helps! Good luck!

    […] I’ve already posted some tips for preparing the job-seeking cover letter, I thought that it was about time that I posted some tips on tweaking your résumé, as well.  […]

    SeungHwan Oh said:
    February 6, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Thank you so much for your tips. I find it useful for my prospective cover letter. However, I already wrote cover letters to some prospective PhD supervisors before visiting your webpage. Please let me know if it was serious mistake in my cover letter or not because I just close it by sentences ” I am always looking forward to your reply. Thank you so much Sir/ Madam” without my name and my signature

      Faye Hicks responded:
      February 8, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      Hi there – thanks for the nice comments – I am glad you found the info useful.
      Regarding your question, I would say that they likely found it odd that you didn’t put your name at the bottom of the letter. They might not have responded simply because they didn’t know who to respond to, so you might want to follow up with a second (or updated) letter that is complete. Also, I strongly suggest you look up the typical components of a standard business letter and make sure you have them all.

    SeungHwan Oh said:
    February 6, 2013 at 12:33 am

    One more thing is that I did not mention about communication skills in cover letter. However, it was made a list in CV. What do you think about my applicaiton? Thank you so much, Madam.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      February 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      That’s a difficult question – it’s so situation specific. I can only suggest that you improve your future letters and (as I mentioned in reply to your previous comment) you might want to follow up on the earlier applications with an improved/updated letter. Good luck! 🙂

    Divya Shiroor said:
    September 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Dear professor Hicks, thank you so much for sharing such useful tips. It has helped me find a lot of clarity as regards the entire procedure for approaching professors goes. I had a question i was hoping you could help me with. If i am interested in 2 or 3 professor’s research from the same university, would it be okay to approach all of them? with individual personalized cover letters of course. Or should i approach one professor, wait for him/her to get back to me before proceeding to the others? the university i am interested in requires a prospective student to identify 2 or 3 advisers prior to application but i am unsure as to how i should go about it and also really afraid of inadvertently offending a professor.
    Thank you so much for your time.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      September 8, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Hi Divya – I would start early and communicate with one professor at a time. If you contact them all at once and tell them you are doing so, then each will leave it to the other to respond and possibly you will be forgotten altogether. If you contact them all at once and don’t tell them you are doing so, then when they figure it out (which typically won’t take too long), they likely won’t be too impressed by it. I suggest you think carefully and determine who you want to work with most, and why – and start with that person. Best of luck!

        Divya Shiroor said:
        September 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm

        Thank you so much 🙂

        Faye Hicks responded:
        September 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm

        You’re welcome! That’s for visiting my blog! 🙂

    Aparna said:
    November 14, 2013 at 2:17 am

    Dear Dr Faye,this blog indeed has been one of the really comprehensive and insightful one which has given me almost a clear picture about how to go ahead with initiating and developing a good communication with professors if one wishes to go for a PhD!
    I am a prospective student who will be applying soon for Masters. The University I am applying to requires that one must contact a professor for supervision for Masters thesis while my online application is in process otherwise there is no scope for admission. Considering the limited time frame in which my application will be processed and forwarded, to what depth should the communication be established in the first email to ensure that the professor doesn’t find it neither too lengthy nor too short to consider it worth giving time ?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      November 16, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Aparna – I really can’t provide you with case specific suggestions since I know nothing about that particular program and university. However, in the absence of any prescribed content for the first contact, I would aim to keep it to a couple of paragraphs – hitting on the specific points I suggest in the post on writing to a prospective PhD (or Masters) supervisor, and including attachments as I’ve described in that post. Good luck!

    Yimy Sarkis said:
    March 26, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    You say that it’s important to demonstrate an interest in their (supervisor) research projects, not simply to dictate your own research interests to them. But how do I now what is the specific project that he is working on or wants to work with?

    And what do you recommend for an international students to improve his chances to get notice in the letter?

    Hope you can help me in this query.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      March 31, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      The best way to get a general idea is to check out their recent publications. To get specifics of upcoming projects the best way is to tell them in your first email that you’d be interested in working on any of their upcoming project and ask them if they could tell you a bit about them.
      As for particular advice for international students – I don’t have any specific suggestions beyond those noted in this post. I think it pretty much covers it.
      Good luck!

      Faye Hicks responded:
      March 31, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      Hi there – check my answer to this in the other post where you asked the same question.

    Aniruddha said:
    October 25, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Dear Dr. Faye, I have gone through the entire post. If you kindly post a example of Cover letter with format for citation, I will better understand how exactly I can write a cover letter for PhD.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      October 29, 2014 at 3:09 am

      Hi there – I’ll try to add that as soon as possible.

    Afrin said:
    May 12, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Dear Dr. Faye, thanks for the useful information in your post. I just wanted to know what I should write when a professor gives a positive response. How can I show my interest and gratitude towards him/her? How he/she will be motivated with my writing? what should be the lines?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      May 15, 2015 at 4:59 am

      Hi – glad you found it useful. As for how to go from here – it’s pretty case specific. The most basic thing to do would be to send a brief thank-you back and ask what the next steps are. Also, be sure to respond quickly to any future emails from the professor (you’d be surprised how many people don’t). Finally, continue to keep your communications brief. Anything more that a paragraph (or two if you’re providing requested information) is probably too much. Good luck!

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