Five Tips for Improving Your Cover Letter

Published: Tues., March 21, 2017

Writing strong cover letters to accompany your CV or resume is essential to getting through the initial review of applications. Cover letters also allow you to explain your qualifications or add personality to your job application. For that reason, it is essential that your letter be well written, engaging, and clear about how your experiences prepare you to be successful in that position.

1. Tailor your letter to the position.

First, all cover letters should reference the position and company you are applying to. While you may use a template if you are applying to many similar positions, each letter should be unique to that position. The letter should be addressed to the head of the search committee or hiring manager identified. Do not start cover letters with “To whom it may concern”; this indicates that you have not researched the position and are perhaps just sending the same cover letter and CV/resume to many companies. They are interested in people who know about the position and one of the easiest ways to show your interest is through using proper addresses. The first paragraph should identify the position by name and the company. For example, “I am writing to apply for the Assistant Professor position in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

More often than not, you are writing a cover letter because you saw a job posting for a particular job, therefore, you should already have all the information you need to know what to emphasize. Typically, job announcements will focus on 3-5 skills or experiences they expect that applicant to be have. For faculty positions, this may include areas such as research skills, teaching skills, publications or experience getting grants, and a commitment to serving diverse populations of students. You can easily use one body paragraph to address each of these sections. This will ensure that you address all of the skills they hope you will bring to the position.

2. Show, don’t tell.

Provide evidence to support anything you say in the letter. If you want to demonstrate research abilities, do not just write, “I am a skilled researcher,” instead, think about how you can prove your abilities. Describing how you developed a new instrument for measuring a particular process or oversaw the data collection and analysis process for a grant project would be more descriptive and would help the search committee better understand your abilities. Try to avoid vague statements and generalities. For example, when talking about your teaching, try to go beyond your love of teaching and working with students. What do you do that demonstrates a commitment to teaching and your students? Help them visualize what you look like as a teacher. Throughout your letter, try to be specific whenever you can.

3. Focus on your strengths.

Always keep it positive. If you are not fully confident that you have all the skills necessary for that position, do not try to account for all of your shortcomings. Instead, emphasize what you have done that matches the qualifications they request in the position announcement. The cover letter is your chance to sell the search committee on your qualifications, so you want to focus on the skills you do have and what might set you apart from other candidates. You should also think carefully about applying of any position that is outside of your expertise. Remember, if you cannot reasonably fulfill the majority of qualifications listed on the position announcement it is unlikely that your application will make it past the first round of consideration.

4. Keep it professional.

While this is a chance for you to show your personality, try to avoid using informal language or inappropriate jokes in your letter. Use titles when addressing the letter (e.g. "Dear Dr. Cheng" or "Dear Mr. Douglas"). It's always better to err on the side of caution than to be too informal in your writing. Try to keep it concise and to the point. The letter should be no more than two pages long and it should succinctly summarize your qualifications in that space.

5. Have someone proofread your letter.

Always have someone else read over your letter. They should be able to tell you something does not make sense or if you have any major typos. If you are not a native English speaker, applying for a position in an English-speaking country, it is even more important to have someone else read your letter to make sure it is understandable and clear to an English-speaking audience. Remember, hiring committees may only spend a few minutes looking at your cover letter, so small mistakes can often be enough for them to discard your application altogether. If you would like someone else to look over your cover letter, Graduate Studies does offer job document review services. You could also exchange cover letters with other graduate students, just make sure that you all feel comfortable giving honest and actionable feedback to each other.