Writing a Cover letter

Introduction to Writing Cover Letters

The cover letter provides you with an opportunity to identify the position for which you are applying, highlight and expand on relevant experience, discuss skills and strengths that match with the employer's needs, and indicate your interest in the position and in the organization. Each cover letter should be well tailored to the position for which you are applying.

A cover letter is usually three to five paragraphs and no longer than one page.  It is not a reiteration of your resume. It should tell a story of your accomplishments and qualifications as opposed to comprehensively listing them as your resume does. In the cover letter, you should use specific examples from your work and/or internship experience, course work, and volunteer experience to convince your audience of your ability to do the job through demonstrated previous success. 

Cover Letter Formatting

Use standard business format for your letter and keep the formatting consistent throughout. In order to create a visual brand, use the same font, style, and contact heading that you applied to your resume. You may wish to use this Cover Letter Visual Outline as a resource for formatting and organizing your cover letter.


How to Make an Impact

  • Make it personal. Address your letter to the hiring manager by name if at all possible. With a search of the organization’s website or a call to the organization or department’s main line, you should be able to obtain the name (and correct spelling) of the hiring manager. At minimum, you should refer to the organization by name at least twice. You should also include the unabbreviated name of the organization at least once (e.g. Portland State University for PSU). 
  • Your cover letter should allow you to stand out for the right reasons. Although cover letters should be professional and immaculately proofed, that doesn’t mean they must be lacking in personality. Used effectively, the cover letter should demonstrate your writing skills and distinguish you from hundreds of other applicants. Confidently stating a provocative industry theory of your own or sharing a personal anecdote that relates to the field or organization can be effective if used appropriately. (It goes without saying, then, that templates and the verbatim use of other cover letters should be avoided at all costs.)
  • Learn about your audience by looking at the organization’s website, mission statement, LinkedIn account, etc. In better understanding how the organization defines itself and its mission, you can more convincingly express how and what you will meaningfully contribute. 
  • Closely read the position description and highlight words and phrases that best summarize what the employer is looking for in a successful candidate. Whittle these down to two or three major themes or skill sets. You should be able to identify the most important qualities and skills because they will appear more than once, even if only as synonyms. You should use these to shape the content of the middle paragraphs of the cover letter.


Reviewing and Sending Cover Letters

Before you prepare the final version of your cover letter have several people review it to proofread and suggest possible improvements. People may have differing viewpoints on your cover letter. Your cover letter should reflect your professional identity and personality, so only incorporate suggestions that are comfortable for you. We highly encourage you to make an appointment to have your cover letter critiqued at the University Career Center.

Once you have completely and thoroughly proofed your resume and a cover letter, you are ready to submit your application. Remember to always carefully follow the employer’s instructions, but if no preferences or requirements are indicated, use the following rules for submitting application materials.

If you are sending the cover letter as an attachment in an email or uploading onto a website, you should:

  • Carefully consider the format. For resumes and cover letters, .pdf and .doc files are most common. Unless the employer indicates otherwise, we recommend that you choose.pdf files because the formatting is locked and the files can be opened despite software compatibility issues.
  • Make sure all of the file names include your name and the position title. Use the following format: Last Name Position Title resume.pdf and Last Name Position Title cover letter.pdf (i.e. Jane Doe Assistant Teacher resume.pdf and Jane Doe Assistant Teacher cover letter.pdf)
  • Write a short, but professional email to the recipient indicating the position that you are applying for and documents that you have attached. Reiterate your interest in the position and sign off with your first and last name followed by your contact information.
  • Always double-check that all documents are attached before you send your email. 

If sending a physical copy by mail, you should:

  • Print with a laser-jet printer on high-quality, heavy paper purchased at a copy shop or office supply store. White, off-white, or ivory are acceptable paper colors, and the paper should be a standard 8 1/2 by 11 inch size.

Sample Cover Letters

Related Career Services

The University Career Center offers monthly workshops that focus on writing effective resumes and cover letters. You can also make an appointment with a Career Counselor for individualized feedback on your cover letter. Call 503-725-4005 to schedule an appointment.