Cover Letter Guide

For positions in industry, government, and non-profits, a cover letter is a one-page document that typically accompanies a resume. You should send a letter even if it is not requested or listed as optional.  

Formatting Essentials

  1. For most job applications, cover letters should be kept to one page.  In general, a 3-4 paragraph letter is best.  As with resumes or CVs, refrain from disclosing personal data (marital status, weight, race, etc.) that does not support the goal of the cover letter. 
  1. Find out who you should address the letter to.  This may involve emailing or calling the company to ask directly.  Dear Dr. Smithis a much stronger opener than to Whom It May Concern.
  1. Single spacing is standard for cover letters.
  1. As with a CV or resume, use a 10-12 point font.  Use the same font that you plan to use in your resume or CV.
  1. In your heading, include your name, address, and other contact information.  This is followed by the date, and the name and contact information of whom you are addressing the letter.


What to Write

  • In the first paragraph, introduce yourself and answer the reader's question, "Why should I be interested in this candidate?" Name the position you are interested in, and how you learned about the opening. If appropriate, say who referred you. State where you currently work or attend school and why you believe you are a good fit for the position.
  • In the middle paragraph(s), directly link your experience to the needs of the employer. Give specific examples of transferable skills, accomplishments, and results. 
  • Your cover letter should convey confidence in a professional way. Avoid coming on too strong ("You should hire me for this position"). 
  • Create a concluding paragraph that reiterates your interest and qualifications for the position. Refer the reader to your enclosed resume and state you will follow up within a given period of time. Confirm how to contact you (phone and email), and thank the reader for reviewing your application.
  • Research the employer before you write the letter. Use specific examples to demonstrate how you would be a strong candidate for the position.  For example, instead of stating your skills, "Communication and outreach skills," show you're experienced with evidence and provide an example: "I am proficient in communicating scientific concepts to non-scientific audiences, as exemplified by my experiences teaching introductory science courses at Michigan State University and volunteering with grade school students at the annual Science Fest event in East Lansing." 



If you are having difficulty getting the tone of your cover letter right, you’re not alone. Many job seekers struggle with cover letters that sound artificial or too impersonal. If you find yourself in that situation, try this:

  • Write a letter to someone you know well. Tell them about the position you are applying for, how you found it, why you are interested/excited, why you think you would be a good candidate, what parts of the job you would especially enjoy, and what you know and like about the employer.
  • Now that you have a letter that sounds like you, put it into cover letter format, fill in any pieces that are missing, and edit the language to make it a little more professional or formal if needed. It’s much easier to make something informal sound more formal than the other way around.


Need additional assistance? Log in to Handshake and make an appointment with a career advisor; we can help with formatting and give your letter a final review!