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How to Write a Cover Letter

This section covers various aspects of writing cover (and other types of) letters.

Get Organized

Before you begin sending any letters, it is important that you devise some way of keeping track of who you send letters to and when. For instance, if you send a letter to Mr. X asking for an interview and offer to call him during the week of June 6th, you need to have that date on record so you can be sure to meet that commitment. Also, if you are sending out 40 letters to various employers, it becomes very important to know what you have said in a particular letter so that you can accurately follow up on your correspondence.

One method you might use to track your letter campaign is to create a table in a word processor with these columns:

  • Prospective employer's name
  • Person contacted
  • Date sent
  • Commitments you made in the letter
  • Follow-up

Then make another table to record the responses you receive from each letter with the following column headings:

  • Prospective employer's name
  • Person who replied
  • Date of reply
  • Action taken

Keep these tables up-to-date and hold on to the letters you receive.

Do's and Don'ts


  • Follow the rules of layout and format for a standard business letter.
  • Address the letter to an individual and use their correct title, when possible.
  • Write from the perspective of what you can offer the employer, not what you think they should be offering you.
  • Write in your own words and in conversational language.
  • Be brief, concise, and to the point.
  • Use spelling, punctuation, and paragraphs correctly.
  • Close with a direct request for some sort of action, such as an appointment for an interview.
  • Use any link to the employer that can give you an edge over the competition.
  • Type or print on good quality paper.
  • Hand-sign your letter rather than typing your signature.


  • Use stiff language or phrasing.
  • Be gimmicky in an attempt to be original or clever
  • Use the word "I" constantly.
  • Be lofty in tone or indicate you will do the employer a great service by "considering" a position.
  • Be excessively emphatic about your reliability, capacity for hard work, or intelligence.

Cover Letter Formats

There are two basic formats which may aid you in writing your individualized letter of application:  the "shotgun letter" and the "rifle letter."

Shotgun Letter

The shotgun format letter is used to broadcast your availability to many employers in your field without composing a separate letter for each one. Although it is not usually used to pursue a specific job lead, it is wise to personalize it.


  • "I am writing to present you with my qualifications for a position as a Guidance Counselor at...."
  • "I am very aware of the changing role of the nurse in today's (hospital, clinic, etc.)."

By inserting the appropriate word or phrase, you can tailor each correspondence with much less effort than individually composed letters.

To use a shotgun letter, you would first prepare a list of organizations offering the position you are seeking, as well as those pertinent to your interests and training. The next step is to write a letter of inquiry in which you approach the company requesting employment information. It is important to research the organization as much as possible so as to lend credibility and insight to your inquiry. When writing the letter, be sure to do the following:

  • Determine and state your exact interest in the organization and explain why they, in turn, should be interested in you. The more you know about the employers, the easier it will be for you to tailor your letter to their needs and interests.
  • Emphasize your positive assets and skills. Be as specific as possible about the type of position you are seeking and tie this to your knowledge of the organization and its business, service, or product.
  • Identify the correct contact person in the organization. As a general rule, letters sent to larger organizations should be addressed to the Personnel Department, Manager of Employment, Recruitment, or Personnel. Also, directing your letter to the key executive or manager in charge of the department to which you are applying is advisable.
  • State when you would be available to meet for an interview and include a phone number where you can most often be reached.

Rifle Letter

The rifle letter is used to investigate a specific job lead. You may be answering an ad or following up on a suggestion offered by your placement office, a relative, friend, etc. Since the nature of the opening is known to you, construct your letter to show how your abilities can be applied to meet the employer's needs. You can also make reference to specific information you discovered through conversations or by doing research about the organization.


  • "My academic background, together with my work experience, has prepared me to function especially well as a Marketing Specialist for IBM."
  • "I am impressed by your continual growth through grant funded activities."

You would also use a rifle letter to respond to a classified advertisement in a newspaper or a job listing on the Internet. When working with this kind of job posting, consider the following guidelines:

  • Thoroughly read and re-read the advertisement to make sure you completely understand what the potential employer is looking for. Try to speak to the "need" of the organization as evidenced through their ad.  Some reading between the lines may be necessary in tailoring your response.
  • Answer the ad as soon as possible after it appears. But make sure that you allow yourself enough time to prepare adequately.
  • Be innovative and make your letter stand out amidst the wave of response letters the company is sure to receive.
  • Carefully follow the instructions in the advertisement regarding where to send the response and what to include (i.e., a resume, a statement of geographic preference, etc.). Answer all questions except a request for salary requirements. It is generally advisable to avoid that question and simply indicate that it is open or negotiable.
  • Be brief! Letters should be individualized, concise, and factual.
  • Always consider an employer's reaction by putting yourself in their place. Try to determine the accomplishments and skills that would be most attractive to a particular employer.
  • Be straight forward, professional, and businesslike.  Remember that you are selling yourself.  As with the resume, stick to the facts.
  • Remember that the primary purpose of a letter is to get you in the door for the interview.  So make sure the letter has impact.

Cover Letter Outline

Your Present AddressCity, State, Zip Code

Date of Writing

Ms. Jane BlankTitleCompanyStreet AddressCity, State, Zip Code

Dear Ms. Blank:

First Paragraph: Tell why you are writing; name the position, or field, or general career area about which you are asking. Tell how you heard of the opening or organization.

Second Paragraph: Mention one or two of your qualifications you think would be of greatest interest to the organization, slanting your remarks to their point of view. Tell why you are particularly interested in the employer, location or type of work. If you have had related experience or specialized training, be sure to point it out.

Third Paragraph: Refer the reader to the enclosed application form, resume or the fact that a placement office has or will send full credentials to provide additional information concerning your background and interests.

Fourth Paragraph: Close by making a request for an interview, suggesting date and time and indicate that you will phone the day before (when you reach the city, for instance) for a confirmation of the appointment unless you hear beforehand that the reader does not wish an interview. If, instead of wanting an interview, your request is for further information concerning the opening, it would be polite to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Make sure your closing is not vague, but makes a specific action from the reader likely.


(Your Handwritten Signature)

Type Your Name

Other Kinds of Letters

You will also have to write other letters while conducting a job search. These may include an interview appreciation letter, a letter of acknowledgement, a letter of acceptance, or a letter of declination. 

Interview Appreciation Letter

Your interview should always be followed up with a "thank you" letter expressing appreciation of the interviewer's time. Not only is this an accepted courtesy, but your letter can also serve to refresh your session in the mind of the interviewer. If a trip to the organization is required, the appreciation letter may accompany your expense account for the visit. When writing an appreciation letter be sure to:

  • State the date of the interview and the name of the company.
  • Express your appreciation to the interviewer for their consideration and for arranging the meeting.
  • Repeat your interest in the position by mentioning new points or assets you may have forgotten to address in the original interview.
  • Ask any questions you may have which were not answered in the original interview.
  • Express your anticipation of receiving word regarding their decision.

Letter Of Acknowledgment

Once you have received an offer from an organization, it is important to respond as soon as possible. While an immediate "yes" or "no" is not essential, acknowledgment of the offer is expected. When writing this kind of letter, be sure to:

  • Acknowledge receipt of the offer.
  • Express your appreciation for the offer.
  • Notify the company of the date by which they can expect your decision.

Letter of Acceptance

Once you have decided to accept an offer, the employer should be notified immediately. It is not necessary to wait until the offer's expiration date before contacting the recruiter and hiring officer of the organization. An employer will appreciate your promptness as it will allow them the opportunity to assess the status of their personnel selection process. When writing a letter of acceptance be sure to:

  • Acknowledge the company's offer of employment.
  • Be as specific as possible, mentioning starting salary and supervisor's name.
  • State when you will be able to report to work.
  • Acknowledge if initiation is contingent upon any special events such as the awarding of a degree, the passing of a physical examination, etc.
  • Express your appreciation to the contact person and anyone else who has been particularly helpful.
  • Ask if any other information is required or if additional details should be attended to prior to reporting for work.

Letter Of Declination

As a matter of courtesy, a letter of declination is due to those organizations whose offers you are rejecting. Despite the negative nature of such correspondence, it is vital that you inform those firms of your decision. Such a letter will often accompany a telephone call, making your decision a matter of record and avoiding any confusion that may arise from verbal communication.

  • Express appreciation for the offer.
  • Mention the name of your potential supervisor.
  • State the exact position for which you were being considered.
  • Decline graciously.
  • Briefly explain the reason for your declination, sticking to the facts.
  • Do not apologize profusely.  Express your appreciation.