Skip to main content

Cover Letter Best Practices

A cover letter introduces you to a potential employer and should accompany your résumé, unless the employer requests otherwise. If there is an option to include a cover letter, we always recommend doing so. While a résumé provides a summary of your relevant skills, experiences, and achievements, a cover letter allows you to develop a narrative for your career, demonstrating the skills you have honed, and articulating your enthusiasm for the role.

If you think of your résumé as a map to a new city that the hiring manager has not visited before, the cover letter would be the guidebook. It will not cover everything on the map, but it will highlight the most relevant stops along the way and provide additional context. Cover letters and résumés work together and should be in conversation with the job posting.

  • Give a clear indication of the skills and experiences that make the applicant a good fit. Your cover letter should translate how your experiences have developed both technical and non-technical skills necessary for the role.
  • Provide evidence of the skills in action. Show, do not tell—provide concrete examples that craft a compelling narrative.
  • Make an explicit connection between applicant and job. A cover letter should articulate your understanding of the organization you are applying to and how you fit in.

Use a business-letter format and stick to one page of 3-5 paragraphs. Like a résumé, each cover letter you write should be tailored to the specific position and employer to align with the organization’s culture and the requirements of the role.

  • Use the same header on both your cover letter and résumé for a cohesive and polished look.
  • When available, include the name, title, company, and address of the person you are writing.
  • If you do not know the recruiter or hiring manager’s name, address your letter to “Recruiting Team” or “Hiring Manager.” Avoid using “To whom it may concern.”
  • Use the opening paragraph to introduce yourself. State why you are writing and how you learned about the position. If someone referred you or you have established a contact through networking, include the person’s name and affiliation with the employer.
  • The first paragraph should also articulate what you know about the organization and what draws you to a role. Be sure to review the job posting and carefully research the company to identify the most important skills to highlight as well as why you want to join the team. Conveying genuine enthusiasm is essential! It is often helpful to conclude the opening paragraph with a clear assertion of your skills, much like a thesis statement for your cover letter. This last sentence also helps structure your body paragraphs.
  • The body paragraphs should emphasize and elaborate on your strongest qualifications and key relevant experiences. Address qualifications specified in the job description and give concrete examples of when you have demonstrated the skills the employer is seeking. Do not repeat all the content from your résumé; instead, select 2-3 experiences that showcase the positive impact of your relevant skills.
  • The final paragraph reiterates what draws you to the organization and the skillsets and experiences you bring to the table. You should also use the closing paragraph to express thanks for consideration and to request an opportunity to discuss the position.
  • If you are using the header from your résumé, do not repeat your contact information in the signature.

Once you have a draft, get feedback! Graduate students can make career advising appointments at NCA through Handshake to receive individualized feedback from our dedicated PhD advisers on application materials. They can also pop into our virtual drop-in hours for quick questions. Postdoctoral fellows can contact the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for feedback on their materials. The Graduate Writing Place is another wonderful resource for both grad students and postdocs, and their fellows provide feedback on academic and non-academic application materials.