Cover Letter Content and Format
On This Page:
- Cover Letter Tutorial & Example
- Essential Content Tips for Cover Letters
- Common Cover Letter Mistakes
The body of your cover letter should be three to five brief paragraphs, with the completed letter not exceeding one page.
Your letter should follow the same general formatting as your résumé (i.e., same font style and size). You can use the same header as your résumé or instead opt for a standard business letter format (seen in “A Quick Cover Letter Tutorial” below).
However you approach your letter, always remember your No. 1 goal: to communicate what you can do for the organization.
Include specific examples of your Core Career Competencies, related skills, and accomplishments that are directly relevant to the position you’re applying for.
(Note: If you haven’t already, start using CLA’s RATE [Reflect-Articulate-Translate-Evaluate] tool to carefully document your experiences, in and out of the classroom, and pinpoint how they have helped you build your Core Career Competencies. That way you can more convincingly demonstrate your goals, motivation, enthusiasm, and potential to be a great employee/intern. Learn more about RATE and the Core Career Competencies.
- Tailor your cover letter to each position you apply for; don’t use one generic letter for everything. If you were an employer, which type of cover letter would truly grab your attention—one that is obviously generic, or one that is written specifically with you and your needs in mind?
- Let your personality, creativity, and writing style show! Your cover letter is a way for an employer to get to know you beyond your list of accomplishments (which a resume provides).
- Follow all of the directions provided by the prospective employer. Reread the instructions to be sure (and keep a copy of your letter and related correspondence for future reference).
- Address the letter to a specific person. Be sure to spell the name correctly.
- Research the organization and use industry terminology; the prospective employer will be familiar with this language.
- Don’t use under-confident phrases such as “I believe,” “I feel,” or “I hope.” Instead, use phrases like “I am confident that…” or “I will….”
- If necessary, explain anything about your résumé (e.g., gaps in employment history, changes in your career path, etc.) that need clarification.
- Avoid generalities and clichés, such as “I have always been a strong leader.”
- Check for grammatical errors and awkwardly written statements.
- Proofread. Then proofread again. Some employers will throw away a cover letter with even one spelling error, concluding (albeit unfairly, perhaps) that your error(s) only signifies things to come.
Here are some of the more common mistakes that college students and recent grads (and others!) make where cover letters are concerned.
Not Including a Cover Letter at All
Unless a position description specifically states “no cover letters,” it’s always best to include a cover letter each time you apply for a job or an internship.
Think of it this way: You need to have a very good, very explicit reason not to.
Using the Same Generic Cover Letter for Every Position You Pursue
It’s best to write a different cover letter for each position you pursue. Tailor each letter to the specific position you’re seeking; don’t use one generic cover letter for everything.
Put yourself in the shoes of an employer. You’re trying to fill an internship position or a job opening, and you are reading dozens of cover letters as you evaluate candidates.
Which type of cover letter will truly grab your attention—one that is obviously generic, or one that is written specifically with you and your needs in mind?
Ignoring Directions from the Employer
Be sure that you carefully read the job description and follow the guidelines provided by the employer. Sometimes, for example, employers ask applicants to address specific things in the cover letter.
Make sure you follow such directions when you see them.
Exceeding One Page
Your cover letter should demonstrate concise, polished writing and should therefore not exceed one page.
If you’re having trouble getting to that point, ask for editing help from a peer advisor at CLA Career Services (available without appointment during our frequent drop-in hours) and/or consult another trusted person in your life (e.g., a professor, a parent).
Submitting a Cover Letter with Errors
Proofread your letter carefully, reading it aloud to uncover spelling and grammar errors.
You’d be amazed how often you catch things when you hear them vs. seeing them.
Overuse of “I” Statements
Vary your sentence structure so that you’re not starting each sentence with “I” statements, like “I was in charge of an important project.”
Instead, you could say:
Through my leadership, our team achieved our project goals on time and with great results.
Using Language That Undermines Your Confidence
Instead of writing “I believe I would be a great asset…” or “I think I will make a great team member,” simply delete the less-confident language and instead say:
I will be a great asset…
I will be a great team member...
Making It All About You
It’s great to be energized about how the position you’re pursuing will help you. But remember: The employer is the one who is in the hiring position.
And they want to know what you will do for them.
Using Clichés and Redundancies
Stay away from phrases like “As you can see on my résumé” (e.g., “As you can see on my résumé, I have excellent communication skills.”). If something is already obvious on your résumé, there’s no need to waste cover letter space saying so.
Instead, focus on your key point and rewrite to something like:
My experience as a student organization leader has helped me build excellent communication skills.
Stop by CLA Career Services any weekday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to get your résumé reviewed! (Note: Summer and holiday hours are any weekday between 12 and 4:30 p.m.) Our peer advisors have special training in this area. We also review cover letters.
This is a free, walk-in service available to all students in the College of Liberal Arts. You can just stop by—you don't need an appointment.
Bring a draft if you have one, or print it here. We'll help you develop it and improve it. If you don't have a draft, we'll help you get started!