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How To Write A Cover Letter For College

Quick Tips for Cover Letters

For more information, dowload our Cover Letter Packet 

View Cover Letter Samples

The Basics

Why do you need a cover letter? Cover letters are used as a means of introduction. Your cover letter allows you to briefly present yourself as the perfect candidate by highlighting your most impressive and relevant experience.

Cover letters are typically used when required as part of the application OR when you are emailing an employer directly (then it is used as the body of your email).

You should write a different cover letter for EACH position to which you apply. Incorporate information based on your company research, the job description, your knowledge of the individual receiving the letter, and your personal experiences that most relate to the job.


  • One page
  • 3-5 paragraphs, including
    1) Introduction
    2) 1-3 paragraphs demonstrating your qualifications

Business Format

  • Use the same header as your resume OR include your address, city, state and zip code at top of the page.
  • Skip a line and include the date
  • Include the recipient's name, title, department/division, company name and business address
  • Include a Salutation:
    ° Good morning/afternoon/evening
    ° Dear Human Resources Director
    ° Dear Hiring Manager
    ° Dear Ms. Blanchette (Mr. or Dr. are also appropriate - always use last name)
  • Each paragraph should be separated by one blank line

Cover Letter Dos and Don'ts

DO use spell check - misspelled words on a cover letter will almost certainly send your application packet straight to the bottom of the pile, if not the trash.

DO proofread your letter several times.  Spell check can't always catch "there" vs. "their" and may not notice that you typed "Rolling" instead of "Rollins."

DO ask someone else to proofread your cover letter.  It's always a good idea to have fresh eyes review your work to catch any small mistakes you may have missed.  Don't forget, Career & Life Planning can help!  Drop off your cover letter in the office and pick it up the next day with plenty of tips and suggestions written in the margins.  

DO keep your cover letter brief.  Busy employers do not want to read detailed, lengthy descriptions of your entire work history from age 12-present.  Stick to the highlights and keep your cover letter on one page.

DO use professional language.  Remember, this is an employer's first impression of you as a potential employee

DON'T hide your reasons for writing the letter down in the last paragraph.  Begin your letter by telling the reader why you are writing.

DON'T begin your letter with something like, "Hi, My name is Sam Smith and..."  The employer can read your name at the bottom in the signature.

DON'T overuse the thesaurus.  Speak in everyday language that is clear, easy to understand, and professional.  If you don't really know the meaning of a word, don't use it in your letter!

DON'T use the same cover letter every time you submit a resume.  Tailor your letter to be specific to the job for which you are applying. 

Academic Cover Letters

When you're applying for a faculty position with a college or university, the cover letter is your first chance to make a strong impression as a promising researcher and teacher. Below you'll find some strategies for presenting your qualifications effectively in an academic context.

Distinctions between Academic and Business Cover Letters

A cover letter for an academic job has a function similar to one for a business job, but the content differs significantly in quantity and kind. While the general advice for business cover letters—such as tailoring your letter for the specific job and selling your strengths—still applies, a cover letter for an academic position should be long enough to highlight in some detail your accomplishments during your graduate education in research, teaching, departmental service, and so on. The typical letter is thus usually one and a half to two pages long, but not more than two—roughly five to eight paragraphs.

The First Paragraph

In the opening of your letter you need to convey some basic information, such as what specific position you are applying for (using the title given in the job notice) and where you learned of the opening. Since a cover letter is a kind of persuasive writing (persuading a hiring committee to include you on a list of candidates for further review), the first paragraph of your letter should also make the initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position.

Tailoring for Your Audience

In an academic context knowing your audience means reading the job notice carefully and knowing the type of institution to which you are applying. Most graduate students have studied a broad range of material within their discipline before specializing in a narrow field for the dissertation project. Since it is rare to find a job notice specifying your exact qualifications, you need to emphasize those aspects of your graduate training that seem particularly relevant to the position advertised.

  • Job notice: If you've written a political science dissertation on populism in early twentieth-century US national politics, you probably won't respond to a notice seeking a specialist in international politics during the Cold War. But you may wish to apply for a position teaching twentieth-century US political parties and movements. In this case you would want to stress the relevance of your dissertation to the broad context of twentieth-century US politics, even though the study focuses narrowly on the pre-World War I period. You might also highlight courses taken, presentations given, or other evidence of your expertise that corresponds to the job notice.
  • Type of institution: Often the job notice will provide a brief description of the college or university, indicating such factors as size, ownership (public, private), affiliation (religious, nonsectarian), geography (urban, suburban, rural), and so on. These factors will influence the kind of information emphasized in your letter. For example, for a job at a small liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate teaching, you would emphasize your teaching experience and pedagogical philosophy early in the letter before mentioning your dissertation. On the other hand, for a job at a large research university you would provide at least one detailed paragraph describing your dissertation early in the letter, even indicating your plans for future research, before mentioning your teaching and other experience.

Other Advice

If you're still working on your dissertation, you should mention somewhere in the letter when you expect to be awarded the Ph.D., even being as specific as to mention how many chapters have been completed and accepted, how many are in draft version, and what your schedule for completion is. Last-paragraph tips include the following:

  • Mention your contact information, including a phone number where you can be reached if you will be away during a holiday break.
  • If you will be attending an upcoming major professional conference in your field, such as the MLA convention for language and literature professionals, indicate that you will be available for an interview there. Be sure to mention that you are available for telephone or campus-visit interviews as well.
  • If you have some special connection to the school, type of institution, or region, such as having attended the school as an undergraduate or having grown up in the area, you may wish to mention that information briefly at some point.
  • Mention your willingness to forward upon request additional materials such as writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation.

Job seekers at Purdue University may find value in the Purdue Career Wiki.

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