No matter where you are in your academic career, knowing how to write an effective cover letter will be critical as you advance, applying for internships, grants, or new jobs.
“Whether it’s a job or a grant, a job in academia or the private sector, almost always, they’re going to want some kind of a cover letter,” says Dr. Philip de Mahy, assistant dean for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Graduate School.
Dr. de Mahy recently offered some tips for making sure your cover letter stands out for the right reasons during the graduate school’s regular Lunch and Learn series.
What is the purpose of a cover letter?
Your cover letter is your first opportunity to make an impression on your potential employer and to offer context for how your experience will benefit her institution or organization.
In order to stand out among the other sheets of paper, you must customize your cover letter for your audience while being mindful of basic structure to avoid small but costly mistakes.
“If an interview is getting your foot in the door, the cover letter is getting your toe in the door,” Dr. de Mahy says.
“You really, really don’t want to get any of the basics wrong. Anyone who’s going through a lot of these applications, whether it’s for a grant or a job, they’ve gotten very good at homing in on glaring mistakes.”
Addressing your letter to the wrong chairperson, department head, hiring manager, or no one in particular — “To Whom It May Concern” — is a sure way to help employers narrow their applicant pool to your detriment.
Research before you write
Before setting to write your cover letter you should do whatever level of research you need to answer:
- Who will this letter be addressed to? What is his or her role and title?
- What are they looking to achieve with this position?
Dr. de Mahy suggests attempting a reverse outline of the job description, stripping the information down to the key components to better identify what the company or department wants.
Identifying those details will prepare you to highlight your most relevant experience and skills and connect them to the position and organization as a whole.
“Perhaps the hardest part of writing a cover letter is you have to do the research to know what to highlight and make sure that you’re connecting to them and showing your knowledge about them as much as you’re telling them about you,” says Dr. Mary Farmer-Kaiser, dean of the graduate school.
Once you’ve identified the person or committee you’re addressing and have taken the time to determine what they’re looking for, it’s time to turn your attention to presentation.
Format your cover letter
Whether you’re creating your own letterhead or working from a template, you should be presenting something that appears clean and professional.
For graduate students applying for grants or academic positions, department or University letterhead may be appropriate. You should discuss this with your professors or chair.
In all cases, follow these guidelines:
- Include your name and address prominently.
In salutation, address person or group of people.
- Example: “Dear Dr. de Mahy”; “Dear Dr. Farmer-Kaiser and Committee”
- Always single space.
- Use black ink on good, white paper.
- Don’t use smaller than a 12-point font.
- Stick to a basic typeface like Times New Roman or Arial.
For digital submissions, keep naming conventions in mind, and always convert word processing documents to PDFs.
- Example: “Last, First Cover.pdf”
Conclude your letter by thanking your reader, adding that you look forward to discussing the opportunity further. Be sure to reference attached materials, including your resume, CV or portfolio.
Your final step is to proofread, then proofread again.
Make sure your cover is free of grammatical mistakes and is customized to the institution, organization, and position to which you’re responding.
To help ensure you’ve positioned yourself strongly, provide a mentor, colleague, or reference with the job description and your completed cover letter, Dr. de Mahy suggests.
Ask them to highlight what jumps out from the letter so you can make sure the points you want to get across actually hit home.
For your references, this has the added benefit of giving them more insight into why you’ll fit this role.
“If you’ve asked someone to be your reference for this position, they want to see it,” Dr. Farmer-Kaiser says. “They want to know your take on the position and why you’re the right fit for it. Asking them to read your cover letter just helps them be a better reference for you.”
While all of these are good general rules, graduate students applying for grants or jobs in academia will adhere to a slightly different set of rules.
Academic Cover Letter
While a typical cover letter should be no more than a page, those applying within academia should strive for completeness above brevity.
- Your cover letter should be around two pages, covering:
- Your credentials and what position you’re applying for
- When you’ll have your degree in hand
- Your research
Your teaching experience
- Note: Prioritize teaching experience or research based on the institution.
- Your academic involvement and service
- How/why you’re the right fit for the position and university
“These are people who are used to dealing with long papers, journals and datasets, so they can handle this more easily than someone in the private sector,” Dr. de Mahy says.
Those writing a grant proposal should adopt this technique, as well.
Dr. de Mahy also encourages students to take advantage of the Office of Career Services, where staff members can assess your resume and cover letter. But students should also look to their graduate coordinators, professors, and advisors to ensure they’re adhering to the standards and customs of their particular disciplines.