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The Cover Letter Format

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Write Your Resume

A resume and cover letter are your tools to make an impact on a potential employer and secure an interview. There are literally hundreds of books on the market with good advice about how to write effective resumes and cover letters, each with a different opinion on style and content. The USC Career Center believes that writing a quality resume and cover letter for internship and full-time job opportunities begins with a targeted, one-page summary of your skills and experiences that convinces the employer you would be successful in that position. The goal is to make your materials so engaging that the reader cannot wait to meet you.

To view the Career Center’s Guide to Effective Resumes, Cover Letters and LinkedIn Profiles, log onto your connectSC account. You will find it under the Resources tab.

Resume Format

The most acceptable and readily used format for college students is the chronological resume, in which your most recent experience is listed first. How you choose to construct your resume, in terms of style, is up to you. For example, placing dates on the left or right or whether your contact information should be centered or on the left hand column is entirely your choice. The one rule to remember is that consistency is the name of the game. Always maintain the same style throughout your resume.

  • Contact Information: Put your contact information at the top of your resume. It should include your name, address, phone number, and email address. If you plan to relocate soon it is acceptable to list a permanent address.
  • Objective: For most college students seeking internships or entering the professional job market, stating an objective on your resume is not necessary. Instead, bring out your interests in a cover letter that is customized for the specific job to which you are applying.
  • Education: List your degrees in reverse chronological order, with the most recent degree first as well as any study abroad experiences you may have. You may also include relevant coursework to highlight specific skills and knowledge. If your GPA is 3.0 or above, go ahead and list it in this section.
  • Experience: List your most recent experience first and do not overlook internships, volunteer positions, and part-time employment. Use action verbs to highlight accomplishments and skills.
  • Academic Projects: If you have specific academic projects that qualify you for the position, include them in their own section with detail on what you accomplished through the project that the person reading your resume should know.
  • Additional Information: This section may stand alone under the “Additional Information” heading and highlight relevant information that may include computer and language skills, professional associations, university and community activities (including any offices held), and interests.
  • Other Headings: Choosing to break out information such as interests and professional associations as separate headings is acceptable if relevant to the position.  Sharing personal information (i.e. birthday) or attaching a headshot is not acceptable unless relevant to the position.
  • References: Do not list your references on your resume. A prepared list of 2-4 references should be printed on a separate sheet of paper that matches your resume format. Bring a hard copy (or multiple copies, if needed) of your resume and references with you to the interview.
International students: when applying to positions within the U.S., one-page resumes are standard practice. In the U.S., a curriculum vitae (CV) refers to a summary of qualifications and education that is usually more than one page and is used when applying to academic/faculty or research-related positions. Employers prefer resume formats which are minimal and easy-to-read. Personal information like birthdate are omitted to protect candidates from job discrimination as prohibited by federal laws.

Resume guidelines that differ from non-U.S. resumes/CVs:

  • Avoid colorful fonts or use of tables
  • Minimal personal info (no birthdate, picture, height, country of origin)
  • Omit pronouns
  • Include industry terms when appropriate
  • Share only relevant information (be able to justify content to an employer)

My Resume Checklist

  • No spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors
  • Makes clear, concise, and positive impression in 30 seconds or less
  • One page (more if writing a curriculum vitae/CV for an academic or research position)
  • Organized, easy to read, and has balance between content and white space
  • Uses standard fonts including Times New Roman, Arial, Century, Helvetica, or Verdana in sizes 10, 11 or 12; do not use a font size smaller than size 10.
  • Highlights skills and accomplishments that match key words found in the job description
  • Quantifies accomplishments, if possible (e.g., how much $ raised, # of people served and % of time saved)
  • Utilizes accomplishment statements
    • Action verb stating what you did
    • How you did it
    • Result (quantify when possible)
  • Cites relevant publications and presentations using the bibliographic style of your field
  • NO GENERIC RESUMES!

Samples

 

If your school (Marshall, Annenberg, Viterbi) has a career center, please check their website for potential industry-specific resumes.

Create Your Cover Letter

Your resume is your marketing brochure. Your cover letter is your introduction or ‘executive summary’ to your resume. The main point of a cover letter is to tie your experience directly to the job description. Look at the description and be sure the words relate directly to those in your cover letter and resume. If the employer is looking for teamwork, highlight a team experience in your resume and be sure to include a team-related accomplishment in your cover letter. Your cover letter should be:

  • Concise: Your cover letter should be three to four paragraphs. Any longer might lose the interest of the reader. We suggest the following format:
    • Opening paragraph: Four or five sentences maximum. Mention the position you are applying to/interested in, briefly introduce yourself, and indicate where you learned of the opportunity.
    • Body of letter: Usually one or two paragraphs. Share detailed examples of your qualifications for the position’s specific requirements. Many students choose to use one paragraph to discuss previous work experiences and another one to discuss academic experiences or leadership experience, etc. Choose whatever combination communicates your most relevant qualifications most effectively.
    • Closing: Three to four sentences maximum. Summarize your qualifications, restate your enthusiasm for the position, and include your preferred contact information for the employer to follow-up with you.
  • Clear: Articulate your qualifications in words that mirror what the employer provided in the job description. Do not try to impress with a long list of accomplishments. This is the executive summary, not the resume.
  • Convincing: An employer will make a decision on your candidacy based on the combined letter and resume package. You have to articulate the connection to the job description and sell your skills. This is a competition. Why should the employer hire you?

My Cover Letter Checklist

  • The words and action verbs in your cover letter should be reflective of the job description.
  • Always be professional.
  • Use proper grammar.
  • Check for spelling and punctuation errors.
  • Know to whom the resume/cover letter package is going. Call the organization to see if they can provide you the correct name and title of the person to whom you should be addressing the letter. Do not use “To Whom It May Concern.” If no name is available, address letter to the Recruiter or Hiring Manager.
  • Use paragraph form, not bullet points.
  • Do not copy and paste content directly from your resume to your cover letter.
  • Do not be forward in requesting an interview.
  • Keep to one page (no more than 3-4 paragraphs).
  • When emailing a recruiter or hiring manager directly, use the body of the email to write two to three sentences that introduce yourself and mention to what position you are applying. Include your cover letter and resume as attachments. Do not cut and paste your cover letter into the body of the email.
  • Submit cover letter in PDF format.

Know When to Use a Curriculum Vitae (CV)

If you are considering positions in academia (teaching and research), you are generally asked to provide a curriculum vitae (CV) in lieu of a resume.

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Cover Letter Workshop - Formatting and Organization

The cover letter is one of the most challenging documents you may ever write: you must write about yourself without sounding selfish and self-centered. The solution to this is to explain how your values and goals align with the prospective organization's and to discuss how your experience will fulfill the job requirements. Before we get to content, however, you need to know how to format your cover letter in a professional manner.

Formatting your cover letter

Your cover letter should convey a professional message. Of course, the particular expectations of a professional format depend on the organization you are looking to join. For example, an accounting position at a legal firm will require a more traditional document format. A position as an Imagineer at Disney might require a completely different approach. Again, a close audience analysis of the company and the position will yield important information about the document expectations. Let the organization's communications guide your work.

For this example, we are using a traditional approach to cover letters:

  • Single-space your cover letter
  • Leave a space between each paragraph
  • Leave three spaces between your closing (such as "Sincerely" or "Sincerely Yours") and typed name
  • Leave a space between your heading (contact information) and greeting (such as, "Dear Mr. Roberts")
  • Either align all paragraphs to the left of the page, or indent the first line of each paragraph to the right
  • Use standard margins for your cover letter, such as one-inch margins on all sides of the document
  • Center your letter in the middle of the page; in other words, make sure that the space at the top and bottom of the page is the same
  • Sign your name in ink between your salutation and typed name

Organizing your cover letter

A cover letter has four essential parts: heading, introduction, argument, and closing.

The heading

In your heading, include your contact information:

  • name
  • address
  • phone number
  • email address

The date and company contact information should directly follow your contact information. Use spacing effectively in order to keep this information more organized and readable. Use the link at the top of this resource to view a sample cover letter - please note the letter is double-spaced for readability purposes only.

Addressing your cover letter

Whenever possible, you should address your letter to a specific individual, the person in charge of interviewing and hiring (the hiring authority). Larger companies often have standard procedures for dealing with solicited and unsolicited resumes and cover letters. Sending your employment documents to a specific person increases the chances that they will be seriously reviewed by the company.

When a job advertisement does not provide you with the name of the hiring authority, call the company to ask for more information. Even if your contact cannot tell you the name of the hiring authority, you can use this time to find out more about the company.

If you cannot find out the name of the hiring authority, you may address your letter to "hiring professionals" - e.g., "Dear Hiring Professionals."

The introduction

The introduction should include a salutation, such as "Dear Mr. Roberts:" If you are uncertain of your contact's gender, avoid using Mr. or Mrs. by simply using the person's full name.

The body of your introduction can be organized in many ways. However, it is important to include, who you are and why you are writing. It can also state how you learned about the position and why you are interested in it. (This might be the right opportunity to briefly relate your education and/or experience to the requirements of the position.)

Many people hear of job openings from contacts associated with the company. If you wish to include a person's name in your cover letter, make certain that your reader has a positive relationship with the person.

In some instances, you may have previously met the reader of your cover letter. In these instances it is acceptable to use your introduction to remind your reader of who you are and briefly discuss a specific topic of your previous conversation(s).

Most important is to briefly overview why your values and goals align with the organization's and how you will help them. You should also touch on how you match the position requirements. By reviewing how you align with the organization and how your skills match what they're looking for, you can forecast the contents of your cover letter before you move into your argument.

The argument

Your argument is an important part of your cover letter, because it allows you to persuade your reader why you are a good fit for the company and the job. Carefully choose what to include in your argument. You want your argument to be as powerful as possible, but it shouldn't cloud your main points by including excessive or irrelevant details about your past. In addition, use your resume (and refer to it) as the source of "data" you will use and expand on in your cover letter.

In your argument, you should try to:

  • Show your reader you possess the most important skills s/he seeks (you're a good match for the organization's mission/goals and job requirements).
  • Convince your reader that the company will benefit from hiring you (how you will help them).
  • Include in each paragraph a strong reason why your employer should hire you and how they will benefit from the relationship.
  • Maintain an upbeat/personable tone.
  • Avoid explaining your entire resume but use your resume as a source of data to support your argument (the two documents should work together).

Reminder: When writing your argument, it is essential for you to learn as much as possible about the company and the job (see the Cover Letter Workshop - Introduction resource).

The closing

Your closing restates your main points and reveals what you plan to do after your readers have received your resume and cover letter. We recommend you do the following in your closing:

  • Restate why you align with the organization's mission/goals.
  • Restate why your skills match the position requirements and how your experience will help the organization.
  • Inform your readers when you will contact them.
  • Include your phone number and e-mail address.
  • Thank your readers for their consideration.

A sample closing:

I believe my coursework and work experience in electrical engineering will help your Baltimore division attain its goals, and I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the job position further. I will contact you before June 5th to discuss my application. If you wish to contact me, I may be reached at 765-555-6473, or by e-mail at jwillis3@e-mail-link.com. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Although this closing may seem bold, potential employers will read your documents with more interest if they know you will be calling them in the future. Also, many employment authorities prefer candidates who are willing to take the initiative to follow-up. Additionally, by following up, you are able to inform prospective employers that you're still interested in the position and determine where the company is in the hiring process. When you tell readers you will contact them, it is imperative that you do so. It will not reflect well on you if you forget to call a potential employer when you said you would. It's best to demonstrate your punctuality and interest in the company by calling when you say you will.

If you do not feel comfortable informing your readers when you will contact them, ask your readers to contact you, and thank them for their time. For example:

Please contact me at 765-555-6473, or by e-mail at jwillis3@e-mail-link.com. I look forward to speaking with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Before you send the cover letter

Always proofread your cover letter carefully. After you've finished, put it aside for a couple of days if time allows, and then reread it. More than likely, you will discover sentences that could be improved, or grammatical errors that could otherwise prove to be uncharacteristic of your writing abilities. Furthermore, we recommend giving your cover letter to friends and colleagues. Ask them for ways to improve it; listen to their suggestions and revise your document as you see fit.

If you are a Purdue student, you may go to the Writing Lab or CCO for assistance with your cover letter. You can make an appointment to talk about your letter, whether you need to begin drafting it or want help with revising and editing.

Click on the link at the top of this resource for a sample cover letter. Please note that this sample is double spaced for readability only. Unless requested otherwise, always single space your professional communication.

The following are additional Purdue OWL resources to help you write your cover letter:

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