Cover Letter Guide for Graduate Students/Postdocs

Introduction
Additional Cover Letter Resources
Timeline/Getting Started with Your Letter
How Career Services Can Help You
Samples/Anatomy of a Cover Letter



Introduction

The purpose of a cover letter

Sometimes called a "letter of intent" or "letter of interest", a cover letter is an introduction to the rest of your job application materials (e.g., resume/CV, research statement, teaching philosophy, writing samples, etc.). The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly summarize why you are applying to an organization or for a particular position, and what skills and knowledge you bring that make you the most suitable candidate for that position. The cover letter is often the first impression that a prospective employer will have of you, especially if they do not know you, or have not heard about you from their network of contacts. First impressions count, and so getting your cover letter right is a critical step in your job application process. Like all your job application materials, it may take time and focus to write your cover letters well. You will likely have several drafts before you come up with a final version that clearly articulates your skills and your understanding of the employer and the job requirements.

While your CV or resume briefly states your skills, knowledge, experience, and (most importantly) what you have achieved using your abilities, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to create a narrative that shows the path you have taken in your career or education, emphasizing the skills you've used along the way, and explaining why the position you are applying to is the next desirable step on this path. To find out more about the structure of the cover letter, you can see some examples here. Also, it is important to know that there are some differences between cover letters written for faculty positions and those written for non-faculty positions. You can review some of the key differences of cover letters for faculty positions here. For a detailed discussion of academic cover letters, as well as many sample letters provided by successful applicants, see "The Academic Job Search Handbook", available to Penn doctoral students and postdocs for $10 at Career Services.

When you start the process of looking for job opportunities, you will probably read through lots of job advertisements. You will notice that most of the ads for both faculty positions and non-faculty jobs ask for a cover letter of some sort. The exception to this might be when you apply for some jobs through an employer's online job application system, where they may ask you to upload your letter as a document, cut and paste the contents of your letter into specific fields, or they may not ask for a letter at all. For most jobs, and whenever you are submitting a formal application, cover letters are usually expected - even if a letter is not requested in the job ad itself.

Cover Letter Etiquette

You might be tempted to send the same version of your cover letter to multiple employers, especially if you are applying for similar types of positions. Don't. It can be fairly obvious to an employer when they receive a stock letter, and this will make a bad first impression. Tailor your letter to the employer and to the specific job. This may require you to do some background research on the employer's website, or talk to someone you know (or don't yet know) who already works there. Use this information to explain why you want to work at that particular place, doing that particular job. It takes time, but it is worth it. You'll probably have more luck with three tailored cover letters than with 30 stock letters sent out to 30 different employers. Your cover letter will be read by someone as part of a formal job application, so make certain that it is free of spelling mistakes, grammar issues, and typos.

When Not to Use Cover Letters

There are some occasions during the job search process where cover letters might not be used. During career fairs, you would typically only hand out your resume to employers (and a 1-page resume is ideal). Employers want to be able to quickly scan your resume for the key points, and you should be able to verbally communicate some of the ideas that a letter might contain (for example, why this company interests you). 

Other Uses for Cover Letters

Here are some occasions, in addition to applying to job announcements, when writing a cover letter can help you in a job search:

  • When trying to find out if an organization or university is likely to have any openings
  • To offer services teaching as an adjunct when no position has been advertised
  • When seeking internship opportunities
  • When writing to ask for an informal appointment with someone at an organization that interests you

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Timeline: Getting Started with your Cover Letter

First step:

The first step to writing a good cover letter is to first have a good CV or resume. For information on putting these documents together, click here. Your cover letter expands upon some of the information you include within these documents, and describes the role you have played in achieving your academic or non-academic goals (i.e., showing how your experiences have made you the best candidate for the position).

Second step:

The next step is to find an open position that interests you, or at least the type of job to which you want to apply. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cover letter, as each should be tailored to each job you apply to, but there will certainly be parts of the letter that will stay much the same, and be appropriate for multiple jobs. This might mean changing some of the key words in the letter, so that you are describing your experience in the employer's language (using some of their keywords), not your own.

Third step:

Go through the job ad and carefully note all of the requirements and skills the employer is looking for. Based on your background research of the employer and the people you have spoken to who know about this employer (whether a business or a university department), try to identify the two or three most important skills that the employer is looking for. You should then try to create a cover letter that illustrates that you have these skills and have used them effectively. See the anatomy of a cover letter for more information.

Next step:

Use some of the samples and resources we have provided to create a draft version of your cover letter, and then make an appointment with us here at Career Services so that we can review your draft and provide suggestions.

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Cover letter samples

The best place to start when putting together an effective letter is the job ad itself. This ad really contains all the most important information you need to write your letter. Start off by going through the job description and requirements and highlighting the important key words. Employers have spent a long time choosing which words to include in the ad, and they are all important. Look for technical terms used, specific research or teaching areas required for faculty positions, and the more general transferable skills that might be identified.

Examples of key requirements from actual job ads that should be addressed in your application materials
 
Technical requirements
Academic requirements
Business requirements
General requirements

Familiarity with military certification programs such as Mil-Hdbk-516

Previous experience with control algorithms is required

Demonstrated track record of IND applications and product approvals

Demonstrated record of, or commitment to, scholarly achievement and excellence

Able to teach neuroscience courses, and courses in developmental psychology, statistics, and research methods

Ability to work effectively with faculty, staff and students with diverse backgrounds

Significant auditing, review and/or financial statement preparation experience required

Experience with supervisory and financial management responsibility of a regulatory affairs department

Demonstrated skills in complex reasoning, risk management, risk benefit and cost benefit assessments

A proven ability to work in cross functional networks

Solid proficiencies in written and verbal communication

Ability to manage multiple conflicting priorities and varied concurrent tasks

Your cover letter will be stronger if it addresses these requirements and the job duties.  Ensure that you talk about your experiences in the language used by the employer, echoing their words in descriptions you use to illustrate your skills. Write out a list of the keywords that you highlighted from the job ad, and then next to each of these words, write a brief statement that illustrates the fact that you have this skill/ability/knowledge using a specific example. You may not have an experience for all of the requirements, but the more you think about what you have achieved, the more likely it is that you will find something relevant to talk about. When you have all of this information, then you can begin to structure it within the format of a formal cover letter. Some organizations are increasingly using software to scan job application materials for keywords relevant to the advertised position (which they've included in the job ad). The more keywords you can integrate into your materials, the more likely it is that your application will be given a closer look.

Here is a general template for a cover letter:

Your Name
Street Address City, State, Zip
Email and phone number

Today's Date

Mr./Ms./Dr. Name
Title
Organization
Address City, State, Zip

Dear ______:

The opening paragraph should explain why you are writing, giving your specific employment interest. Mention how you found out about the position. If it was advertised, refer to the website or resource in which you saw it. If a contact told you about it, say so. It is also helpful to include an overall summary of the key skills, knowledge areas, or experiences that you are bring to this role right here in the first paragraph. If you start off with these very specific conclusions that confidently state that you have what the employer is looking for, then the reader will also have a lot of confidence that your letter and CV/resume is worth reading. The next paragraphs will then expand on and illustrate what you are summarizing in this first paragraph.

The middle paragraph(s) should summarize the aspects of your background which will interest the employer. The more information you have about the organization and its needs, the better. Likely you will want to mention your graduate program or degree, or current position, such as a postdoc.  Discuss your qualifications in terms of the contributions you can make. While you should not repeat your CV or resume verbatim, don't hesitate to refer to the most important information discussed in it. Ideally, both your cover letter and your CV/resume would be able to stand alone. It is not necessary to describe yourself in superlatives. Rather than saying, "I can make a uniquely valuable contribution to your organization," give the employer enough relevant, targeted information to allow the reader to reach that conclusion independently. Be specific and credible.

The closing paragraph should explain why the position and the particular organization is attractive to you, and should hopefully pave the way for the interview. You may ask for an appointment, or suggest that you will call the employer soon. You can also offer to send any additional information, restate your contact details, and state that you look forward to hearing from them.

Sincerely,

Your Name


Academic and non-academic cover letters differ in style and their length. While a 2-3 page cover letter might be the norm when applying for an English, tenure-track, faculty position (you need to check with your own department to find out what the norms are), this type of lengthy letter would not make a good impression for a consulting firm. Check out these cover letter samples for ideas about how to format your letters, and to see how others have illustrated their skills and achievements. Remember, these are examples only, and every cover letter will be slightly different to reflect your own individuality.

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Anatomy of a Cover Letter

If you are looking for more insight into what to include in your cover letter, and how to tailor what you are saying to each employer, then take a look at the "anatomy of a cover letter" for a strategic perspective on what to write and why. This resource provides a paragraph-by-paragraph explanation of a real cover letter used in a job application that explains why the author provided certain information about skills and experiences in the letter based on the specific job ad, the position and background information about the organization.

Academic cover letters

When applying for faculty positions, especially those that involve both teaching and research, you will be expected to spend some time in your cover letter talking about your research and goals, as well as your teaching - even though you may have covered these in more detail in your research statement and teaching philosophy documents. How much time you need to spend talking about teaching and research will depend on the nature of the position and your field of study. For some humanities and social sciences applications, you will not be asked for a separate research statement, and this information will need to be integrated into the cover letter. Cover letter for scientific positions will generally be shorter as more (but not all) of the information about research will be covered in the research statement. Academic letters also need to cover everything that non-academic cover letters address, however, because you need to show that you are not only a good academic, but that you are a good person to work with who is committed to working at that particular institution. Make sure that you address the requirements of the position as stated in the job ad. Speak to faculty in your department to get a sense of what is expected in cover letters used in faculty job applications for your discipline. See if any faculty you know have been involved in search committees, and find out what they looked for in cover letters. See the list of cover letter resources below for additional information.

A brief note about emailing cover letters
If you are sending a cover letter as a PDF attachment to an email (and always send it as a PDF rather than as a Word document), what do you say in the email itself? Do you repeat the contents of the cover letter again? No. In the email you can just say what position you are applying to, what you have attached, and perhaps mention that the recipient should let you know if they have any trouble opening the attachments.

Make sure your attachments are clearly titled, for example: RJSmith-resume.pdf or RJSmith-coverletter. If you add the employer name into the file name (e.g., RJSmith-PfizerResume), make certain you change the file name before sending this document to another employer!

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

  • Wetfeet's "Insider's Guides" to cover letters and resumes will walk you through what you need to do to write an effective cover letter for business and other non-academic positions. Visit our online subscriptions page to access these resources and see more great examples.

  • You will find all you need to know about the process of applying for academic jobs in the Academic Job Search Handbook, with great examples of actual application materials used to get faculty positions.

  • Spend some time exploring the career advice pages of Science Careers, NatureJobs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education/Vitae for more advice on cover letters (Tip: use the search function on these websites to find useful resources, since new material is added frequently).

  • When you have a draft version of a cover letter for a non-faculty job, use the Cover Letter Checklist to review it, and see if you can identify areas where you need more work, or where you would like help from a career advisor during a one-on-one appointment.

  • Make sure you search through articles on the Career Services blog "Penn & Beyond." You will find plenty of useful information, and new posts are added frequently.

  • There are other types of letters you might use during your job search (e.g., thank you letters, letters to set up informational interviews and letters accepting or declining an offered position). Click here for examples of these types of correspondence.

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How Career Services Can Help

You can make an appointment with a career advisor at any time, but you'll find it more helpful if you have already prepared a draft version of your cover letter (and/or other job search materials) that you want us to critique. To make an appointment, call 215 898 7530 during normal business hours, or use Handshake to schedule appointments online at any time. You can also drop in for walk-ins, but since these slots are only 15 minutes long, it might not be possible to get a complete review of all of your materials during this time.

Take a look at our career programming schedules through Handshake to identify workshops or panel discussions that are helpful. Take every opportunity to network with faculty or company representatives who visit the campus to speak at these programs. Remember, the more you know about a company or organization and what they do, the easier it is to write an effective cover letter.

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