A cover letter is often the most important piece of your application for a job. While your resume may demonstrate that you have the necessary qualifications for a job, your cover letter argues that you are the perfect person to hire. This is where you explain how your education and experience fit the employer's needs. This is also where you talk about your background, your ambitions, and other issues that aren't suitable for the short, factual format of a resume.
Effective cover letters are targeted. When you send a mass mailing, the amount of time that you have spent on it is apparent to the employer. If you don’t invest any time in the application, an employer will conclude that you have little interest in the position. Give the employer a reason to consider you by demonstrating your knowledge of the position and how your specific skills and experience are a perfect fit.
Your cover letter should be in formal letter style. You may copy the heading that is on your resume to provide a unified look for your materials, or you may use a standard letter heading. In either case, your name, address, email and phone number should come first. Make sure to remove the hyperlink from your email address so that it will not appear grey or faded when printed. Next include the date, followed by the employer’s name and address.
Always address the letter to a specific person if possible. You may need to do some research online, among your classmates, or at CPD to find a specific person to approach with your letter. Include the person’s title in the address block. As an absolute last resort, if you can not find a contact person to address by name, list "Hiring Coordinator" in the address block and address the letter “Dear Sir or Madam” or "To Whom it May Concern."
Substance of your Cover Letter
Cover letters do three things:
Introduce you and say why you're writing. Employers get a lot of mail and may be receiving dozens or hundreds of applications for each position; they need to know immediately why they should read the document they're holding. If you have a personal connection to the employer through contacts or networking, mention it in the first line. If you are applying to an employer outside the Seattle area, you may also want to explain why in the initial paragraph. (One short paragraph -- one to three sentences is sufficient.)
Ex. 1: “I appreciated the opportunity to speak with you last April at the Small Firm Job Fair at Seattle University School of Law. Our conversation about the hospitality law practice at your firm inspired me to apply for a summer internship at Ham, Eggs & Hashbrowns, LLP.”
Ex. 2: “I am writing to you at the suggestion of Howard Black, a senior partner at your client, Black & Blue Medical Consulting. I worked for Mr. Black as an intern last summer before leaving to attend law school at Seattle University. In a recent conversation about my career plans, he suggested that my experience at his firm and my interest in personal injury law might make me a good fit for a position with your firm.”
Ex. 3: “I am a second year law student at Seattle University School of Law. I am seeking a summer internship with Fish & Cutbait due to my strong interest in admiralty and maritime law.”
Ex. 4: “Please accept my application for a summer internship in the legal department of Humanity for Unilateral Grabbing of Strangers (HUGS). I have long been a volunteer at HUGS’ annual hug-a-thon and am excited about the opportunity to use my legal education to contribute to the organization in a new way.”
Ex. 5: “As an adoptive parent, a former kindergarten teacher and a current law student completing a concentration in Family Law at Seattle University, I have dedicated my professional career to children and families. I am applying for the fellowship offered by Babies Really Add to Society (BRATS) due to my keen interest in child custody issues.”
Ex. 6: “Please accept my application for an entry-level aviation law associate position with your firm. I am a third year law student at Seattle University with a background in Air Force service and a strong desire to return home to Virginia to live after graduation.”
Explain how your education and experience fit this employer's needs -- in other words, what you can do for them. This is where you can include relevant information that isn't appropriate to include on your resume, such as experience working with certain types or groups of people, a particular expertise, personal interests, etc. This is also where you explain why you want to do this type of work and why you want to do it for this employer. This is the heart of your letter and should include your main “pitch” about why you are the perfect candidate. (Two to three longer paragraphs.)
One topic you should cover in this section is your skills and experience. Do not simply recite the material on your resume. This is your opportunity to bring that material to life with added detail or explanation.
Ex. 1: “After graduation from college, I worked for five years as a paralegal at Honky, Tonkin & Slim LLP in their copyright and trademark practice. I had the opportunity to work in all aspects of protecting artistic compositions, from strategic planning and infringement prevention to post-infringement litigation. When I composed my first original country single last year, Your Rule Against Perpetuities (It’s Makin’ Me Cry), I worked individually with Mr. Honky to copyright the single and document the story of how I composed it. Although I was concerned that the wild popularity of the song and the commonly-known subject matter would attract frivolous lawsuits claiming credit for the composition, my years of experience in the industry provided me with the necessary tools to defend my own interests.”
Ex. 2: “I have worked in federal law enforcement for nearly thirteen years. My work on complex criminal investigations in both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security has involved bringing together significant documentary and testimonial evidence to assist government attorneys in building a strong case. The skill set I have developed could be put to immediate use at Large, Fullservice and Respected LLP, whether it be in specific areas such as complex business litigation or criminal defense in federal investigations, or more generally in any one of LFR’s litigation practice areas.”
Ex. 3: “My years of experience producing quality written work, both as a student and as a professional, have prepared me well for a position with your real estate transactions group. My undergraduate degree in literature and my senior thesis, An Ode to the Comma: Pause Briefly to Consider It, were my first introductions to scholarly research and writing. I learned to compose a detailed analysis and achieved top grades through hard work and constant practice of my writing skills as an editor of our college paper. After college, I spent five years working on Madison Avenue at BuyThisUselessThing.com. While working in the frenetic world of drafting advertising copy, I learned to take my analytical skills and use them to produce efficient and highly persuasive copy. Finally, by studying legal writing in the top-rated program at Seattle University, I have further honed my writing skills in the specialized area of real estate contracts. I believe that the enclosed writing sample will demonstrate my commitment to thoughtful, concise, and air-tight contract drafting.”
Another important topic to cover is the specific work that the employer does and your reasons for being interested in that work.
Ex. 1: “I am interested in pursuing a career in municipal transportation law at Speeding & Ticket LLP. I recently completed the first draft of my law review note on eminent domain issues related to large metropolitan public transportation projects using Seattle as a case study. Your firm’s successful 1996 suit against the city on behalf of undercompensated landowners provided the basis for much of my research.”
Ex. 2: “After winning the National Tonya Harding Criminal Law for Athletes Moot Court Competition last March, I realized that I had both passion and talent for defending athletes who unexpectedly find themselves in legal trouble. I have followed your firm’s long-term representation of Pete Rose with great interest and look forward to providing the same consistent and creative representation for my own misunderstood clients.
You may choose to include some personal information that demonstrates your commitment to the practice area, the employer, the geographic location, or some other aspect of the job.
Ex. 1: “As a first generation Luxembourg-American, I have long held an interest in immigration law. My parents moved to Seattle from Luxembourg before I was born to pursue their fortune in llama farming. Growing up on the farm, my sisters and I often rebelled against our lessons in Luxembourgish language and native folk dance. I now understand that my parents were struggling to maintain their native culture and traditions. They often felt torn between the two countries and struggled with their decision to become American citizens when I was in high school. This personal experience as the child of naturalized citizens gives me a unique perspective on the challenges faced by recent immigrants. I believe that I could be an invaluable counselor in helping clients to navigate the complex maze of forms, regulations, and hearings involved in becoming a citizen, while also wrestling with the conflicting emotions involved.”
Ex. 2: “Although I left Vermont to attend law school at Seattle University, it has always been my intention to return to Burlington to practice after graduation. I have fond memories of my childhood in Montpelier and can’t wait to introduce my wife to maple sugaring season, skiing at Stowe, and Burlington’s annual hot air balloon festival.”
Close by thanking the employer for her/his consideration and saying what you're going to do next. (One short paragraph.)
Ex. 1: “Thank you for your time and consideration. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you when you visit our campus next month.”
Ex. 2: “I have included a writing sample and transcript for your review. I will be in the Chicago area for the winter holidays to visit my family and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss my qualifications with you. I will contact you next week to see if we might arrange a time to meet in late December or early January.”
Ex. 3: “I appreciate your consideration of the enclosed resume and would welcome the opportunity to learn more about your firm. I look forward to hearing from you.”
There may be certain situations where you choose to compose cover letters that are more creative than the norm. If you have an unusual background, if you are applying for an unusual job, or if you just have an inclination that a unique letter might be useful, it is OK to vary from the format laid out here. We have certainly had students in the past that have benefited from a non-traditional approach and we would be glad to work with you on drafting such a letter.
In all cases, cover letters, like resumes, must be flawless. You have unlimited time to prepare job application materials, and if your work isn't flawless under those circumstances, an employer will have questions about the quality of work you'll produce on their behalf under time constraints. Make sure to have at least one other person read through your cover letter before sending it out. Anyone at CPD would be happy to review cover letters for you. You can also turn to family and friends for a fresh set of eyes. After reading through your own letter several times, a typo or grammar mistake can easily slip by you. Any small mistake can be a killer in a competitive job market – make sure not to include any.
For guidance on how to draft cover letters requesting informational interviews, please see our Informational Interviewing section.