Write a Cover Letter

All the time and effort you put into producing a professional/polished résumé should be complemented with a well constructed cover letter. When receiving a letter and résumé, most employers will read the letter first. This means that if you want an employer to give your resume serious consideration, you have to sell yourself in your letter.

Writing effective letters takes considerable thought and effort. You must reflect not only on your personal objectives, but also on the needs and interests of your reader and the requirements of the situation. Ideally your letters should flow from and be linked to the following career development activities:

  • Assessing your abilities, interests, values and motivations
  • Researching and evaluating occupations and employers
  • Defining your work objectives and career goals
  • Writing a professional resume
  • Planning and implementing your job search campaign
  • Interviewing for job opportunities
  • Choosing appropriate employment

Even though letter writing most directly supports the last three tasks, it is important to place this activity in the broader context of career planning and your job search. Should you find yourself struggling with your letters, it may be because you have failed to devote the necessary attention to assessing your strengths, researching occupations and employers, and defining your work objectives and career goals.

Tips to Writing a Cover Letter

General Tips as you Start

Finding employment is, in large part, a function of effective communication. The success of your job search will hinge on your ability to present yourself professionally and demonstrate your value as a prospective employee. You must convince employers that you have something to offer if you are to receive further consideration. Employers are seeking to hire persons whose interests and abilities most closely match requirements of the job. A good fit between an individual's personality, values and philosophy and the organization's culture is also highly desirable.

Producing a Professional Letter

Just as with your resume, your letters should be error free and visually appealing. Although you may be able to send the same resume to a variety of different organizations, each letter you send should be carefully tailored to the situation and the employer being addressed. Never send a form letter.

Employers will view your letter as an indication of your written communication skills, so keep it formal, businesslike, and concise. One page should be sufficient and it should be in print that is sharp and easy to read. Do not use unusual fonts.

Whenever possible, address your letter to a specific person. This may require you to call the organization and ask to whom you should address your cover letter. Last, but not least, proofread carefully. Typos, spelling, grammatical or punctuation errors will prevent you from receiving serious consideration.

Final Tips

  • Write to a specific person.
  • Present your message clearly, concisely, and honestly with consideration for your reader. Desirable length is usually one page.
  • Give specific and pertinent information relative to the position you seek. Generalities are not only confusing, but they imply you are trying to conceal a weakness. Include enough facts to be convincing.
  • Be yourself and be positive. Personnel executives easily recognize letters copied from textbooks, written by employment agencies, or sent out in mass.
  • Make the appearance attractive. Use a standard business letter format and 8 1/2 x 11" bond paper. White, ivory, and light gray colors are desirable. Type the letter with proper margins, indentation and spacing.
  • Proofread your letter. Is it interesting and persuasive? Does it include important aspects of your college experience, a bit of your personality, and all pertinent qualifications and skills? Are the punctuation, grammar, and spelling correct?
  • Drop off a draft, or make an appointment with a Career and Intership Center staff member for an objective critique of your letter.

Addressing Illegal Questions

Various federal, state, and local laws regulate the questions a prospective employer can ask you. Questions must relate to the job for which you are applying!

You have options if you are asked an illegal question

  • Choose to answer the question knowing you are providing information that isn't job related. You take the risk that a "wrong" answer could harm your chances for a position.
  • Refust to answer the question. You will be within your rights, but you may come off as uncooperative or confrontational which could put off potential employers.
  • Examine the intent behind the question and respond with an answer to this. For example, if you are asked if you are married or engaged, you might choose to respond that your personal life allows you to meet all the requirements for the position.

Questions that might be asked - illegally and legally

National Origin / Citizenship

Employers are allowed to ask if you are authorized to work in the US. They are not allowed to ask if you are a US citizen, were born in the US, or your native language.


Employers are allowed to ask if you are over the age of 18. They are not allowed to ask how old you are, your birthdate, or the year your graduated from college if it isn't on your résumé.

Marital / Family Status

Employers need to know if you are able to perform the requirements of the job - including working overtime, relocating, or traveling if necessary. These questions should be asked directly. They are not allowed to ask about your marital status, children, or daycare arrangements so they can make assumptions if you are able to meet these requirements.


The social organizations or clubs you belong to are personal. The employer may aks if your membership in any organization might be relevant to your ability to perform the job.


Your height and weight is personal. The employer's right is restricted to knowing if you can fulfill the physical requirements of the position (e.g., lifting a 50-pound weight).


Employers are not allowed to ask if you are disabled or for your, or your family's, medical history. They may ask if you are able to perform the essential functions of the job and even request you demonstrate job-related functions. Once hired, companies are allowed to have you undergo a physical examination. Results are confidential with the exception that medical/safety personnel may be notified of conditions which could require medical treatment and supervisors regarding the needed accommodations.

For more information on when and how to disclose a disability, check out The National Organization on Disability and National Mental Health Center.

Arrest Record

Employers are not allowed to ask if you have been arrested but may ask if you been convicted of a crime that is resonably related to the performance of the job.


Employers are not allowed to ask if you were honorably discharged from the military. They must limit their questions to the branch of service or training and education received during your time in the military.

How to Ace an Interview

Don’t forget to prepare for one of the most vital pieces of your application – whether for an internship, graduate school, or job. This is your chance to show your professionalism, interest in the position, and answer questions that may arise from your other application materials. Preparation for an interview is vital!

The Career and Internship Center is available to assist you in preparing for an interview. Mock interviews allow you to think on your feet as you face questions, see your body language, and consider annoying habits before you face the interview. Contact us for an appointment.

Get the answers to ace the interview

The Behavioral-Based Interview

Today, Behavioral-Based Interviewing (BBI) is the most commonly used campus interviewing technique. Corporate recruiters spend anywhere from half a day to two days learning to ask questions based on the BBI method. For you, acing the BBI is a matter of planning and understanding what recruiters are looking for.

Why BBI?

It’s simple. The best predictor of future behavior is recent past behavior. For example, you have a friend who is always late to class. What’s the likelihood that she’ll be late to class tomorrow?

That’s the principle of BBI. Interviewers want to get a picture of how you have behaved (recently) in a situation because it will help them determine how you’ll most likely behave in that same situation on the job.

What kinds of questions will be asked?

Questions will always be asked in the past tense. For example:

  • Tell me about a time that you…
  • Think back on a situation where you…
  • Play a little movie in your mind and remember a time when you…

How should I respond?

Let’s say that I asked you to tell me about a time when you were a part of a difficult team and what you did to get the team back on track. Corporate recruiters want your answers to include the following:

  • Situation: Explain the situation. Was it a class team? What was the project? What was difficult about the team?
  • Action: What did YOU do to pull the team together? What specific action did you take? Keep in mind that recruiters want to know what “you” did. Not, what “we” did or “they” did. Talk about your role in the situation.
  • Outcome: Discuss the outcome of the project or team. Did the team succeed? How did you know the team was successful?
  • Learning: Sometimes you’ll be asked to think back on an example when you weren’t successful (or when you failed at something). If the recruiter doesn’t ask you what you learned and how you modified your behavior, be sure that you add this information to your answer. Again, be specific about exactly what you learned and how you’ve incorporated this learning into your daily routine.

Whenever possible, use examples from your internship, class work, professional association, or other work/degree-related experiences. Before going to an interview, stop and think of some of your most important milestones: projects, grades, presentations, work experiences that make you most proud. Build your examples around these when answering questions. Always use your best examples and concisely tell the story to the recruiter.

Caution: Corporate recruiters spend hours being trained to ask legal questions. Keep your answers focused on recent job-related experiences, professional association experiences or classroom examples. Do your very best NOT to use personal or family examples, examples from religious organizations or nondegree related association examples. And, when deciding whether to use an example from something you did when you were in high school vs. college—use the most recent example.

How do I prepare?

To prepare, look at the job description (if one is available—if not, use the ad for the job as a basis) and think of the best example to demonstrate that you have each attribute. In addition, there are some standard attributes that many companies look for, such as the following:

  • Strong communicator
  • Adaptable/flexible
  • Able to work in teams
  • Self-directed/motivated
  • Demonstrates honesty and integrity
  • Goal-oriented
  • Strong follow-through

A corporate recruiter’s advice

Dana Pulliam, senior manager of university relations for Applied Biosystems, offers the following tips:

  • Make sure your response is clear and concise. Watch the interviewer’s body language. If they seem uninterested, wrap up your answer.
  • The worst thing you can do is make up an answer. If you can’t think of an answer, say so. Don’t try to bluff your way through because the interviewer will know it.
  • Before admitting to not having a response, stop and think about class projects, group projects, or even an activity that’s not school-related.
  • Use your career services center to look for sample questions and participate in mock interview classes.
  • If you have to use a personal example to answer a question, that’s okay. Just be sure that you don’t answer every question with a personal example.
  • The best students that I have interviewed have been those who are able to speak to everything on their resume.
By Sue Keever - Career and Internship Center and job-search advice for the new college graduate

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