Career Tips

Back to the Basics: Cover Letters

By Calvin McDaniel and Dave Isbell

In some circumstances, your cover letter may be an employer’s first impression of you. Therefore, your cover letter should be eye catching, to the point, and most of all, memorable.  Unlike a resume which conveys what professional skills you possess, the cover letter is an opportunity to also explain why you are excited about working for the company you are sending it to, what you are passionate about doing for them, and why you are the best fit for the position. 

Cover letters, like resumes, are intended to be a snapshot of who you are professionally with a small dose of who you are personally.  Ideally, an employer should be able to look at this document and determine whether you would be a good fit for the job in about 10 seconds.  So you’ve got a very short amount of time to make a good, lasting impression before even coming face to face with the employer.  This is why it is so important to be concise yet detailed, creative yet professional, and results-oriented but without regurgitating what is already apparent from your resume.

Before you ever get started writing a cover letter, it is extremely important to do your homework. You need to understand more than just what is written in the job posting. For instance, what is the company’s mission and vision? What are the company’s core values? What is the culture of the agency like? What are the core competencies that are expected of every person in the agency as well as in the position you are applying for? How do your own goals, values, character traits, and competencies fit in with what they are trying to accomplish?

Here are some basic tips for getting started on a cover letter:

Header:  The header of your cover letter should mimic that of your resume.  It should have your name, e-mail, current address, contact phone number, and any other relevant contact information.  Even consider including your linkedin page!

Salutation: In this section it’s important to include the name of the person you’re addressing.  Also include their position, the company name, and company address.  This gives the cover letter a touch of personalization and shows that you actually know who you’re sending it to!

Introductory Paragraph: There should be a section that represents some form of introduction.  This is where you state what position you’re applying to, why you think you are the best candidate, and why you are excited to work for them. This could include a listing of your relevant core competencies, an objective, specializations, etc.  Remember, all core competencies should be relevant to the positions being applied to and what they are looking for.

A good rule of thumb for this paragraph is to think about your present situation. Why is it that you want to work with them now? What problem is it that they have that you can bring the solution to? If you want to catch their eye, then your first sentence needs to address the answer to that question! Follow up the introductory sentence with what you are passionate about and why that it is important to them.

Second Paragraph: The focus of this paragraph is on your past. List no more than three relevant work experiences that showcase your knowledge, skills, and abilities. They should be focused on core competencies that this employer is looking for and they must center on what results you have achieved in the past that would be important to what they are trying to accomplish now.

Don’t make the mistake of droning on here, or simply repeating what is already on the resume. This is your chance to give yourself some quick credibility! You get to speak directly to them about how you have already tackled similar problems to the one you said you want to help them to overcome in your last paragraph and also why you are the best person for this job!  If you need to, break this into two separate, short, paragraphs with the most compelling sentences at the beginning and the end. A common mistake is for people to write in huge blocks so that absolutely nothing stands out!

Closing Paragraph: Use this paragraph to focus on the future. Reiterate your excitement, but also tell them straight out what you intend to accomplish in your first 90 days on the job and what types of results they might expect to see from your efforts in your first year. Finally, thank them for the opportunity, tell them the best times to reach you, and let them know you will be following up on a particular time/day (no later than one week, no less than three days) and then do it!  

Follow Up: There are no hard, fast rules on how to follow up. Keep in mind that employers are busy and do not want to be bothered. So, what you are looking for in follow up is simply a quick reiteration of who you are, your interest in what they do, and how you would like to help them do what they do.

Use good judgment, because the last thing you want to do is come off as overly aggressive or annoying! Here is where you use your knowledge of the inside (based on research, especially by talking to people who you already know at the company) pays off! If you have a phone number or email address for a person, then use it. If you think the culture of the agency would be agreeable to in-person visits, then pay them a visit. If it seems better to send a letter (or thank you card) via snail mail, then go for it.

Generally, it is a good idea to stay in contact with a company if you truly have something to offer them and want to work for them (even if you were rejected the first time.) This means you may have to follow up multiple times spaced over (possibly) long time periods. It especially means that you are going to need to find a way to establish yourself as a valuable resource through partnering with them.

Remember that even the best cover letter/resume combination fails in comparison to making a strong, positive, impression in person!


Calvin McDaniel is an Alumni Career Services Assistant in the MSUAA and a graduate student in the Human Resource and Labor Relations program at MSU. He has a passion for helping people to reduce conflict, manage change, and grow toward their potential.

Dave Isbell is the Alumni Career Service Coordinator at Michigan State University. He has been a Career Coach since 1999. He is also pursuing a Master’s in Social Work/Family Studies at MSU.  When he is not working or studying, he is enjoying domestic bliss with his wife and kids, or playing rock music on his bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter (@helpingspartans) and sometimes he writes about compassion, collaboration, and career for this blog, which he owns and begs other Spartans to write for.


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