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Your CV cover letter is both an introduction and a sales pitch. “It should show what sets this individual apart from all others,” advises Jeffrey Stansbury, vice chair of the Department of Craniofacial Biology at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine in Aurora. Like any good sales pitch, your cover letter should motivate the customer to learn more about the product—in this case, you.

A good cover letter, like a good sales pitch, has several characteristics. First, like a good doctor, it does no harm: It avoids making a negative impression. Second, it demonstrates that the product suits the consumer's—your future employer's—specific needs. Third, it assures the customer that the quality of the product (you) is superb. Accomplishing all this is easier said than done. So how do you write a cover letter that will do you justice and earn an interview? First you need a plan.

If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.

—Kenton Whitmire

The objective

“A successful candidate impresses the committee right off with the cover letter and makes the committee members actually want to dig through the CV and recommendation letters to pull out the details that start to validate the positive claims,” Stansbury says. “It also provides a glimpse into the applicant’s personality and gives some guidance as to whether or not they can communicate in an organized, effective way.”

One of the most important jobs of any good sales pitch is to avoid doing harm. Some cover letters inadvertently convey negative impressions of a candidate, especially if they “look sloppy or indicate an inability to communicate in English,” says H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and has chaired search committees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “These things can kill someone's chances," adds Kenton Whitmire, chemistry professor and former chair of the chemistry department at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Horvitz adds that cover letters “should be neat and professional,” and should fit on one page. Whitmire would allow applicants a bit more room: The letter, he says, should be “no longer than one to two pages.” To keep it short, “the cover letter should not reproduce the information in the CV, publications list, or other documents provided," Whitmire says, "but it should be used as a vehicle to highlight those things that the candidate believes will make him or her a good match for the position at hand.”

The match

An effective cover letter doesn't just emphasize your best qualities; it also shows how well those qualities are likely to mesh with the open position. “Applicants should begin by reading advertisements for faculty positions carefully and be sure that their background and goals are appropriate for the position in question. You lose credibility if you can't make a case that you fit the ad,” Whitmire says. “If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.”

“There's no excuse for not writing a cover letter that shows how your education, experience, and interests fit with what the institution is seeking,” warns Julia Miller Vick, coauthor of the Academic Job Search Handbook, which is now in its fourth edition. “Not doing this would reflect laziness,” Horvitz observes. At best, Vick adds, “a form letter or one that is generic doesn't accomplish much and leaves how the application is reviewed completely up to the reviewing committee." At worst, a generic cover letter can make you seem undesirable.

“While many people applying for academic positions tend to think that the review process is an evaluation of their previous work—how good is it?—the issue that is as important is the match," Whitmire says. "How will this person fit in here? The former is necessary, but the decision to interview will often be made upon research area or some other measure of fit to the department's needs at that moment in time.”

Planning

Begin by learning about the department in general and the open position in particular. Department websites are a good starting point, but don't stop there. Go beyond the public information, and seek a sense of perspective. “It is best if candidates speak with their advisers and mentors to get some feel for the institution where they wish to apply,” Whitmire suggests. Close senior colleagues can serve the same purpose. Read beyond the job ad, and figure out what they're really looking for.

Once you've got a fix on the institution, the department, and the open position, ask yourself what abilities or special qualities a candidate needs to excel in that position. Then determine which of your qualifications and accomplishments will particularly interest this department. Think about your research plans, past research accomplishments, special projects, and previous employment.

What evidence can you put forward that your background and plans prepare you well for this opening? How well do your research interests match those described in the advertisement? How well will they complement the work of the current faculty? How will your presence there make the department better? All this information will determine what to emphasize in your cover letter.

Writing the body of the letter

Your research accomplishments and plans should constitute the body of your cover letter for a research university position. At institutions where teaching is the primary emphasis, your primary focus should be your teaching experience, philosophy, and goals—and the suitability of your research program to a teaching-focused environment.

“An outline of plans for teaching and research needs to be specific to be meaningful,” Stansbury says. Focus on your most important two or three examples of proposed research projects and innovative teaching plans, such as developing novel courses. These examples should change from one cover letter to another, as you customize your letters for different jobs.

The opening

After the body of your cover letter has been drafted, you come to the most critical step: writing an attention-getting introduction. Salespeople call this "having a handle." Your handle is what you offer that makes you especially well qualified for a particular faculty opening. For example, summarizing how well your research interests match the ones the department advertised provides an effective letter opening.

The opening paragraph should be short but more than one sentence. After you've captured the reader's attention with the handle, clearly but briefly summarize your most important—and relevant—qualifications. Anything less than a sharp focus and your readers will quickly lose interest and move on to the next application.

Closing the letter

End your letter decisively. Don't let it meander to an indefinite or weak close. A decisive close projects an image of you as assertive, confident, and decisive. It never hurts to close by requesting an interview.

Editing

Make your cover letter an example of your best writing by editing it carefully. It must be easy to read. Focus and clarity of expression in your letter imply focus and clarity of thought—very desirable qualities in a faculty member.

Then return to the critical issue: whether your research interests, other qualifications, and personality meet the search committee’s requirements. Anything that doesn’t accentuate the match should be deleted ruthlessly.

Now, set your letter aside for a day or two before editing it again. The detachment you gain from this short break will help you see what you've written more clearly. Detachment makes it easier to determine whether your paragraphs flow smoothly from one to the next. The logic that seemed so obvious when you were writing may seem much less so a day or two later. Carefully review both your cover letter and your CV to be sure the information in them is perfectly consistent. Often, a committee won't bother to try to resolve any discrepancies they find; they'll just move on to the next application.

Finally, Whitmire advises, “be sure to have your cover letter reviewed by someone [who] can be trusted and who has experience. Often, getting a second opinion about how something sounds to the reader—i.e., what they got from reading the letter, not what you intended in writing it—can be very valuable.”

This article is an updated version of an article originally published on 10 March 2006.

doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1400199

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John K. Borchardt

John K. Borchardt has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He is the author of the book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.

Traditional cover letter wisdom tells you to start a cover letter with something to the effect of:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to apply for the position of Marketing Manager with the Thomas Company.

We say: The days of cookie cutter cover letter intros are long gone.

Here’s the thing: Your cover letter is the best way to introduce to the hiring manager who you are, what you have to offer, and why you want the job—but you have an extremely limited amount of time to do all of those things. So, if you really want to get noticed, you’ve got to start right off the bat with something that grabs your reader’s attention.

What do we mean? Well, we won’t just tell you, we’ll show you—with 31 examples of original cover letter introductions. We don’t recommend copying and pasting them because, well, your cover letter should be unique to your stories, background, and interests, but you can most definitely use them to get inspired for your next application.

Don't worry—we've got you covered.

Career Coach to the rescue!

Start With a Passion

Many companies say that they’re looking for people who not only have the skills to do the job, but who are truly passionate about what they’re spending their time on every day. If that’s what your dream company is really looking for (hint: read the job description), try an intro that shows off why you’re so excited to be part of the team.

  1. If truly loving data is wrong, I don’t want to be right. It seems like the rest of the team at Chartbeat feels the same way—and that’s just one of the reasons why I think I’d be the perfect next hire for your sales team.
  2. I’ve been giving my friends and family free style advice since I was 10, and recently decided it’s time I get paid for it. That’s why I couldn’t believe it when I found a personal stylist position at J. Hilburn.

  3. After about three years of trying out different roles at early-stage startups around San Francisco, watching more “find your passion” keynotes than I’d like to admit, and assuring my parents that, yes, I really do have a real job, I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that I’m only really good at two things: writing great content and getting it out into the world.

  4. When I was growing up, all I wanted to be was one of those people who pretend to be statues on the street. Thankfully, my career goals have become a little more aspirational over the years, but I love to draw a crowd and entertain the masses—passions that make me the perfect community manager.

  5. When I graduated from Ohio State last May, my career counselor gave me what I consider to be some pretty bad advice: “Just get any job, and figure the rest out later.” While I think I could have gained good transferrable skills and on-the-job experience anywhere, I wanted to make sure my first step gave me opportunities for professional development, mentorship, and rotations through different departments. Enter: Verizon.

  6. The other day, I took a career assessment, which told me I should be a maritime merchant. I’m not quite sure what that is, but it did get me thinking: A role that combines my skills in business development with my lifelong passion for the ocean would be my absolute dream. Which is how I found this role at Royal Caribbean.

Start With Your Love for the Company

Similarly, many companies want to hire people who already know, love, eat, and sleep their brand. And in these cases, what better to kick off your cover letter than a little flattery? Bonus points if you can tell a story—studies show that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone.

Of course, remember when you’re telling a company why you love it to be specific and genuine. Because, um, no one likes an overly crazed fangirl.

  1. I pretty much spent my childhood in the cheap seats at Cubs games, snacking on popcorn and cheering on the team with my grandfather. It’s that passion that’s shaped my career—from helping to establish the sports marketing major at my university to leading a college baseball team to an undefeated season as assistant coach—and what led me to apply for this position at the Chicago Cubs.
  2. Most candidates are drawn to startups for the free food, bean bag chairs, and loose dress code. And while all of those things sound awesome coming from my all-too-corporate cubicle, what really attracted me to Factual is the collaborative, international team.

  3. It was Rudy, my Golden Retriever, who first found the operations assistant opening (he’s really excited about the prospect of coming to work with me every day). But as I learned more about Zoosk and what it is doing to transform the mobile dating space, I couldn’t help but get excited to be part of the team, too.

  4. When I was seven, I wanted to be the GEICO gecko when I grew up. I eventually realized that wasn’t an option, but you can imagine my excitement when I came across the events manager position, which would have me working side by side with my favorite company mascot.

  5. When I attended Austin Film Festival for the first time last month, I didn’t want to leave. So I decided I shouldn’t—and immediately went to check out job openings at the company.

  6. If I could make the NYC apartment rental process better for just one person, I would feel like the horrors of my recent search would all be worth it. So, a customer service role at RentHop, where I could do it every day? I can’t think of anything more fulfilling.

  7. Having grown up with the Cincinnati Zoo (literally) in my backyard, I understand firsthand how you’ve earned your reputation as one of the most family-friendly venues in the State of Ohio. For 20 years, I’ve been impressed as your customer; now I want to impress visitors in the same way your team has so graciously done for me. (Via @JobJenny)

  8. I was an hour out from my first big dinner party when I realized I had forgotten to pick up the white wine. In a panic, I started Googling grocery delivery services, and that’s when I first stumbled across Instacart. I’ve been hooked ever since, so I couldn’t help but get excited by the idea of bringing the amazingness of Instacart to shoddy planners like me as your next social media and community manager.

  9. Though I’m happily employed as a marketing manager for OHC, seeing the job description for Warby Parker’s PR director stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been a Warby glasses wearer for many years, and have always been impressed by the way the company treats its customers, employees, and the community at large.

Start With an Attribute or Accomplishment

The unfortunate reality of the job hunting process is that, for any given job, you’re going to be competing with a lot of other people—presumably, a lot of other similarly qualified people. So, a great way to stand out in your cover letter is to highlight something about yourself—a character trait, an accomplishment, a really impressive skill—that’ll quickly show how you stand out among other applications.

  1. My last boss once told me that my phone manner could probably diffuse an international hostage situation. I’ve always had a knack for communicating with people—the easygoing and the difficult alike—and I’d love to bring that skill to the office manager position at Shutterstock.
  2. Among my colleagues, I’m known as the one who can pick up the pieces, no matter what amount of you-know-what hits the fan. Which is why I think there’s no one better to fill Birchbox’s customer service leader position.

  3. Last December, I ousted our company’s top salesperson from his spot—and he hasn’t seen it since. Which means, I’m ready for my next big challenge, and the sales manager role at LivingSocial just might be it.

  4. After spending three years managing the internal communications for a 2,000-person company, I could plan a quarterly town hall or draft an inter-office memo in my sleep. What I want to do next? Put that experience to work consulting executives on their communications strategy.

  5. While you won’t find the title “community manager” listed on my resume, I’ve actually been bringing people together online and off for three years while running my own blog and series of Meetups.

  6. If you’re looking for someone who can follow orders to the T and doesn’t like to rock the boat, I’m probably not the right candidate. But if you need someone who can dig in to data, see what’s working (and what’s not), and challenge the status quo, let’s talk.

  7. Ever since my first job at Dairy Queen (yes, they DO let you eat the ice cream!) I’ve been career-focused. I completed my first internship with a professional football team while I was still in college. I was hired full-time as soon as I graduated, and within six months I was promoted into a brand new department. I thought I knew it all. But as I’ve progressed in my career, I finally realized…I absolutely do not. Shocker, right? Enter The Muse. (Via @Kararuns729).

  8. You might be wondering what a 15-year veteran of the accounting world is doing applying to an operations role at a food startup like ZeroCater. While I agree the shift is a little strange, I know you’re looking for someone who’s equal parts foodie and financial guru, and I think that means I’m your guy.

  9. Over the last 10 years, I’ve built my career on one simple principle: Work smarter. I’m the person who looks for inefficient procedures, finds ways to streamline them, and consistently strives to boost the productivity of everyone around me. It’s what’s earned me three promotions in the supply chain department at my current company, and it’s what I know I can do as the new operations analyst for SevOne.

Start With Humor or Creativity

OK, before you read any of these, we feel we have to stamp them with a big disclaimer: Do your homework before trying anything like this—learning everything you can about the company, the hiring manager, and whether or not they’ll appreciate some sass or snark. If they do, it’s a great way to make them smile (then call you). If they don’t? Well, better luck next time.

  1. I’m interested in the freelance writer position. But before I blow you away with all the reasons I’m going to be your next writer, I would like to tell you a little about myself: I didn’t grow hair until I was about five years old, which made everyone who crossed my stroller’s path believe me to be a boy (my name is Casey, which definitely didn’t help). Hope I got your attention. (Via @CaseCav)
  2. Have you ever had your mom call five times a day asking for a status update on how your job search is going, and then sounding incredulous that not more progress has been made since the last phone call? That’s my life right now. But I’m hoping that soon my life will revolve around being your full-time social media manager. The good news is, I bring more to the table than just an overbearing mom. Let me tell you more.

  3. Thank you so much for offering me the marketing manager position at Airbnb! I wholeheartedly accept. OK, I know we’re not quite there yet. But if we were, here are just a few ideas of what I would do once in the role.

  4. You’ve slept on it. You’ve made lists of pros and cons. You’ve talked to your life coach, your hairdresser, and every barista on your block. So why haven’t you made your decision yet? When you’re looking for advice, what you need is not more, but better. If you’re constantly plagued with tough career decisions and presentation-day butterflies, you need an advocate, a listener, and sometimes, a kick in the pants. You need Rachel Elizabeth Maley. (Via @RE_Maley)

  5. I considered submitting my latest credit card statement as proof of just how much I love online shopping, but I thought a safer approach might be writing this cover letter, describing all the reasons why I’m the girl who can take STYLIGHT’s business to the next level.

  6. I never thought that accidentally dropping my iPhone out of a second story window would change my life (it’s a funny story—ask me about it). But thanks to my misfortune, I discovered iCracked—and found my dream job as an expansion associate.

  7. If we were playing “Two Truths and a Lie,” I’d say the following: I’ve exceeded my sales quotas by at least 20% every quarter this year, I once won an international pie-eating contest, and I have an amazing job at Yext. The last, of course, is the lie. For now.



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