Cover letters are the bridge from your résumé to the job for which you are applying. They allow you as an applicant to show why you think you are a good candidate for the job and demonstrate your fit for the advertised position.
This personal letter acts as a tool for persuading the reviewer to find out the details of your experience and to get to know you better. It gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the organization and convey motivation and the desire to be part of it. If you are applying for a job that is nonacademic and not related to research or your immediate expertise or education, then it is the cover letter that gives you space to explain your transferable skills and quick learning abilities and demonstrate that you are a suitable candidate.
If your letter is not customized and tailored to the organization to which you are applying, or has typos or grammatically incorrect sentences, then it leaves a poor impression on the employer -- to the extent that your application may not be reviewed. A cover letter should first do no harm!
Making It Work for You
Even if the job advertisement does not specifically ask for a cover letter, it is still a good idea to include information in a manner that resembles a cover letter. It should start off the way a standard business letter does: the header should list your name and contact information. (If the cover letter is being sent as an email, then the header can be avoided.)
Typically, cover letters for nonacademic jobs run up to one page. If the letter is more than a page, then a footer with name and page number is a good idea. Make sure that the title, name and address of a person or the company in salutations are accurate.
A cover begins with a greeting, addressed to the hiring committee or a specific individual if the name is mentioned in the job advertisement. Then the body of the letter should start by stating the job title and job number you are applying to. You can also include information on where you saw the posting and the name of the person who referred the job to you, if you have their permission to do so. Introduce yourself by stating your current employment or education status. If you are a master's or Ph.D. student who is soon to graduate, then let the reviewer know the graduation or defense date.
The next paragraph should include information on why you think you are a good fit for the position. Elaborate on the top two or three experiences in your training and education that would be of interest and relevance. Make the connections between what the organization says it is looking for in the candidate for the position and your training and experiences. You can also mention some of the skills you have that the employer is specifically seeking. For example, organizations usually ask for the individuals to be proficient in written and oral communication skills. You can address this by saying something along the lines of, “Presented talks at various national and international conferences” or “Authored or co-authored publications and articles in peer-reviewed journals.”
For a research-based position, elaborate on your skills and experience mentoring others or collaborating or supervising research projects. For other positions, cover letters allow you to explain the transferable skills you have acquired through your various educational and research experiences. If you have served in a leadership role for a committee or a society, or initiated specific projects or activities within your program, department or professional organization, then you should draw attention to those in your résumé through the cover letter. You can describe any important contributions to the field, significant achievements or strong reasons for moving from academic to a nonacademic position in a cover letter.
Above all, your letter should clearly state how your education, skills and experience will help meet the needs of the specific organization. Tailoring a cover letter to every job is extremely important -- even if it is your 19th job application! Everyone knows that most application material is recycled, but it is vital not to leave trails in the cover letter or résumé.
The concluding section should have statements on next steps, such as your willingness to provide references and that you are looking forward to hearing back from them. If you are geographically close or can meet independent of distance, you can state that, too.
When completed, your letter should flow smoothly and inform the reader about your enthusiasm for the job, as well as showcase your skills, experience and fit for the position. Ideally, it should be a page long with consistent formatting, well-organized thoughts and no typographical errors. It is a good idea to have the letter and other material for the application package ready a few days before the deadline. That will give you a chance to ask peers, senior colleagues or mentors to review the package.
In sum, the cover letter is usually the first snapshot of you that the employer sees. So make sure you put your best image forward.