Uncovering the secrets of the cover letter

Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director

While there are certainly specific styles of resumes that reflect different career fields and industries, the cover letter offers a much less structured document, and so often leads to much more confusion. You will no doubt get different advice from everyone you ask about cover letters, and so what I am covering here will certainly to add to this pile. However, having read a frighteningly enormous number of cover letters in my role as a career advisor, my advice comes from experience. This experience can be divided into positive experiences (where the letter was interesting to read), and neutral-to-negative experiences, where the letter was readable, but not very engaging. When you are thinking of your cover letters, the description of “readable” should be the absolute minimum outcome you aim to achieve. Ideally, your letter is interesting, engaging, unique, positive, energetic, and optimistic! That is a lot to achieve in one page!

The first question to ask yourself is what is the purpose of the cover letter? If you have already created a customized resume for the job you are applying to (and this is essential), then you have already highlighted the relevant skills you have (relevant to the job you are applying to). You don’t just want to provide exactly the same information again in your cover letter. Reading the same information twice doesn’t make it any more impactful, but can definitely make it less interesting. Used strategically, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to highlight some of the best parts of your resume in a slightly different way, and with the main focus on explaining why – why you’re the right person for the job; why your experiences are relevant; why you want to use your skills and knowledge in this new role at this new organization. The answers to these questions are not punchy bullet points. Instead they need to be slightly more narrative in their form, and when you start using more narrative formats you can start using story-telling approaches. The benefit of telling stories is that you don’t just have to state empirically what happened (which is what the bullet point in the resume does), you can talk about the broader impacts of the experience, including what you learnt from it, how it made you feel, why you sought it out, what was so surprising about it, why is was challenging, and so on. These will all be unique perspectives to you (which makes them interesting to your reader who won’t have read them in 100 other cover letters), and can help make your letter more energetic by bringing in action-based emotional states. People remember stories more than they remember high-level, generic statements that you have important skills.

Let’s cover the basic structure of a 1-page cover letter that I tend to recommend. We can break it down into three separate sections just to make it easier to think about.

First paragraph/opening

Make a very clear statement of intent. This means avoiding statements such as:

“I am writing to possibly explore the opportunity to be interested in applying for the position of….”

Instead, the most direct approach could be this:

“I am applying for the position of X that was advertised on your website

You can add to this, but be direct. The rest of the first paragraph is taken up with a takeaway conclusion about yourself. Yes, you can start your letter with a conclusion. This means that the reader immediately knows you have something that they want, and makes them more likely to read the rest of the letter to find out more. If you are going to start off with a conclusion, though, make sure that it is relevant to your reader by summarizing what they are likely to care about the most. Take a look at this introduction sentence and see if you can identify what some of the key takeaways are, and thus what some of the job requirements might have been:

“With 8 years of experience managing multi-step data collection projects in academic and industry settings, and an ability to establish and maintain relationships with clients, stakeholders, and international collaborators, I am excited to bring my creativity and structured approach to this Data Analyst role.”

Middle paragraphs

Once you have made a conclusion statement in the introduction (I know, it sounds a little weird!), the main part of the letter is going to be expanding on these themes. You don’t have to go through all of your experiences from the resume, but rather you want to highlight the best parts. This means that everything in your cover letter should be echoed by something in your resume, but not everything in your resume needs to be mentioned in your cover letter. And if you are wondering why you can’t just customize your cover letter and send a standard resume as part of your application, just remember that not everyone will read a cover letter. You want them to, but you cannot make them!

The main body of your letter will contain good illustrations of your relevant skills in action, all wrapped up in a narrative form that includes just a sprinkling of drama. Here is an example of a story without drama:

“As a project leader in the PBG Healthcare Consulting Group, I oversaw a team of 3 students and completed an extensive market analysis of the medical device field to determine the a suitable pricing model for a wearable device developed by the client.”

None of this is bad information; it is just not that engaging. It would be much better as a bullet point in a resume. And if it were already a bullet in the resume, it should not just be repeated in the cover letter. Here is an alternative version with a little more drama.

“When I was serving as a project leader in the student consulting group at Penn, my team had engaged with a client seeking market access information for a new wearable device. We faced two immediate challenges with this work: the device was unique, and there were few products to compare, and this was the first consulting experience for half of our 4-member team. In thinking about the project, I saw their lack of experience as a possible advantage, and took the opportunity to encourage the two new team members to think creatively about comparable products in the medical space and beyond. In two brainstorming sessions, we successfully generated sufficient data for our market analysis. I found it really satisfying to see how well the new members complemented and then learnt from our more practiced approach”

Every piece of work you have done, every project you have been involved with, has presented its own unique challenges. If you can state what these were, and talk about how you have used your skills and abilities to overcome these challenges (relevant skills and abilities for the job you are applying to), then you have the basis for good examples. Concepts that you can touch on in a cover letter that are hard to highlight in a resume include:

  • Enjoying or being excited about something
  • Learning from an experience that went well or badly
  • Combining experiences from two separate roles you have had (that might be separated by years on a resume) to show how you solved a problem
  • Explaining why you did something, not just that you did it
  • Passion

Final paragraph

Once you have given some examples to illustrate the themes highlighted in the first paragraph, you can move to the final paragraph. Here you might want to answer the questions: why do you want this job? Why do you want to work here? The answer to these questions should flow nicely from the examples you have been giving.

“In all of these projects, I have found myself most engaged when I have been able to bridge disciplines, and draw upon my relationship building skills to establish productive collaborations. I would enjoy the opportunity to liaise between the marketing and science teams in this Project Coordinator role, and this would make exceptional use of my lab research skills and creative mindset. I have spoken with three Penn alumni who work at X, and each has highlighted the mentoring program for junior staff as wonderfully helpful for their own professional development. I have been fortunate to have strong mentors in my current lab, which has certainly helped me progress in my research, and I am very excited about learning from the experience of senior staff in this new role through this mentoring program.”

The more you know about an organization, and the role itself, the easier it will be to come up with an authentic answer to the “why this job?” and “why this company?” questions.

There is no perfect cover letter, and different approaches can be just as effective (after all, different people will read each letter, and they have their own ideas about good and bad letters!). Hopefully, you can take some of these considerations to heart for your next letter, and uncover just a hint of drama as you describe your exceptional skills, knowledge, and experiences!

I want to work here because…

by Sharon Fleshman

When I work with students on cover letters or mock interviews, they can find it challenging to articulate what appeals to them about a particular employer.  Indeed, all of the non-profits, businesses, schools, hospitals, and agencies seem to look alike after writing the umpteenth letter.  Yet it is crucial to pinpoint why you want to work at Employer A, Employer B, Employer C, etc…  Here are some thoughts on how to proceed in an efficient way.

Explore the employer’s website.

Fortunately, the internet makes it easier to conduct employer research.  Be on the lookout for a mission statement or a list of core values and reflect on how they resonate with your own work values.  Even if a mission and core values are not posted, perusing the website can give you a feel for the company’s approach to providing products and services, conducting business, and developing staff.  Also, check out recent news items, projects or initiatives as some of them may intrigue you and reaffirm your interest in the organization.

Document highlights from conversations with employees.

Talking with those who work at a given organization can generate interest, so keep track of your chats with those representing the employer at career fairs or information sessions.  Make sure that the exchange is still fresh in your mind by taking notes on business cards shortly after the conversations.  Another source of good dialogue about an employer is an informational interview, where you typically have more time.   With this approach to employer research, you can be more prepared for the job search and eventually write or say something like, “During my conversations with alumni during the recent campus information session, I was pleased to hear that company X values ….”

Reflect on any previous hands-on experience with the employer.

You may have interned or volunteered with an organization of interest.   While it may seem like a no-brainer that you would love to keep working there, you still need to make it clear that you enjoyed the experience and would continue to add value and thrive as an employee.

The Emotional World of Job Seeking

Dr. Joseph Barber

I teach an “Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare” course up at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York, and one of the lectures in this course focuses on the question of whether or not other species have emotions. This is a very important question from an animal welfare perspective, because negative subjective emotional states (like fear, pain, frustration, boredom, loneliness, etc.) can be a potential source of suffering if they result directly from the way that we house or manage these animals in captivity. There are no easy answers to these questions, because emotions by their very nature are subjective states that are unique to the individuals experiencing them. I assume that other humans feel emotional states in a similar way that I do, but it is almost impossible to show that in any objective fashion. We cannot measure the experiences that we feel, even if we can measure changes in blood flow or nerves firing in parts of the brain. What we are left with, then, are some general questions we must ponder. Here are two examples:

  • Do other species have the same range of emotional states that we do – and do they have some that we don’t experience?
  • How can we try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of these other species when they see, smell, hear, and experience the world in such different ways from us?

Now, I bring up the issue of differing perspectives because in many cases these types of questions are also important when thinking about employers – especially those who have the types of jobs you are looking to apply to. Yes…, I know that employers are humans too, and so they should experience the world in the same way that you do. However, their environment is very different from yours, and environmental factors play a significant role in affecting behavioural responses and emotional reactions.

The idea of trying to figure how employers perceive their environment, and how they respond to the application materials you send to them in their environments, is actually quite a crucial step in the job application and interview process. So, let’s look at the questions I listed above from a job perspective.

1) Do employers have the same range of emotional states that you do – and do they have some that you don’t experience?

In general terms, the same things that would annoy you will annoy employers. If they ask for a resume, and you send them a 10-page CV instead, they will find that annoying. If they ask for a writing sample and you don’t send one, then that too will cause irritation. I don’t think there are studies that look at this, but I feel sure that chronic irritation will inhibit open-mindedness about your potential as a candidate.

While employers probably don’t experience employer-specific emotions that you don’t have, they will generally not feel the same extremes of fear, desperation, or worry in the same way that some job candidates may. After all, they are not the ones being judged, and the people at these institutions and organizations already have jobs. It is important not to let the “smell of fear” permeate into your application materials or your interview answers. It can happen quite subtly, with an innocent-enough sounding “although I don’t have all the experience you are asking for, I do have…” statement in a cover letter. Don’t dwell on the negatives. Let the spring-filled scent of optimism waft from your letter instead. One easy way to do this is to simply remove the first part of the sentence I used as an example above, and start with what you can do, and what you will offer that will be make you an ideal candidate. Focus on the positives, and ignore (as much as possible) the negatives so that you present a confident aura.

2) How can you try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of employers when they see, smell, hear, and experience the world in such different ways from you?

The first thing to realize is that employers do see the world differently than you do. Your priorities might be to find a job for some of the following reasons: to have enough money to eat and stay warm, to get good health insurance, to be able to work with an interesting group of colleagues, to continued being paid to do the research you love doing, and so on. There are many reasons out there, and each of us will have some unique ones. Employers may be much less interested in your reasons, and much more focused on their reasons for advertizing the job – and the main one usually always boils down to the fact that they need someone to get the job done effectively, whether that is teaching courses, working with clients, developing new protein sequencing pathways, or managing programs. They don’t care what you will spend your salary on, but they do care about whether you are going to be a good investment.

To be convincing to an employer, you need to have a good answer to the question “why do you want this position?” that puts less priority on what you might get out of it, and more on what you can offer them. Focus on their needs first, and it should become obvious to them that you want the job because a) you have the abilities to do it; and b) something from your past experiences has shown you doing something similar, doing it effectively, and enjoying doing it.

If you spend too much time telling an employer how excited you are by the possibility of working for such an impressive an organization as they obviously are, then you are missing out on the chance to highlight the skills you bring to actually get the job done effectively. The senses of employers are keyed into abilities, experiences, and knowledge that will help them build capacity within their organizations. Academic experiences are important, but can often represent passive experiences (a lot of sitting in a room being talked at), and so you will need to talk about your academic credentials and relevant non-academic experiences in as active terms as possible. So rather than, “My academic experiences have given me…”, which is passive, consider something like “I actively sought out opportunities to study X subject with X professor so that I could connect X concept with X reality, and I have used this knowledge in X situation to help me X” (where the concepts and realities mentioned in this case were in some way relevant to the job, and where the outcome highlights how effective your knowledge and skills truly are). Employers are looking for patterns: if you have used a skill successfully in the past, then you will be likely to do so again in the future. You need to find a way to show them how effective you have been – and this will always be more interesting than just telling them that you have been effective.

But the real question is “how” do you see the world from the employer’s perspective. The easiest way is to read the job advert really, really, carefully. This is where employers layout what they need to get done, and the type of skills they believe are necessary to do so. If your cover letter, resume, or interview answers are not addressing these points, then you need to spend some more time figuring out how to see the world from the employer’s perspective. Remember, try to talk about your experiences in the language that the employer uses. Another approach is to speak with people from the types of organizations you want to work at (and Alumni are often a good starting point for this type of outreach) to learn about what are important trends you should be aware of, what skills are valued on a day-to-day basis, and what experiences you have had that might be good to focus on as illustrations of your effectiveness. Ultimately, you should be able to put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be reading your cover letter and CV/resume, and who will be listening to your answers in the interview, because this will help you to tailor what you say and speak most effectively to their needs and interests.

When you make it easy for employers to see how your experiences make you an ideal candidate to get the job done that they need to be done, then you will make them happy. It is probable that happy employers will more likely see you as their preferred candidate. So yes, employers do have emotions, and you will need to make sure that you give some thought to how you can keep their subjective states as positive as possible.

Schedule an appointment with us at Career Services and bring your questions about how to tailor what you say to the needs of the employers you want to connect with. We’ll be happy to help you. I can also tell you a thing or two about the emotional world of primates, elephants, sheep, cows, and chickens…, if you think that will help!

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Ears

by Rosanne Lurie

Though few of us have had occasions to paraphrase Shakespeare’s inspiring (and parodied) valedictory speech, we all have the opportunity to impress future employers with a well thought through valediction. I am referring to the closing lines we write in emails and letters, you know the ones like:

• Sincerely yours,


• Take care,

• Have a great day,

• All the best,

According to Wikipedia, “A valediction (derivation from Latin vale dicere, ‘to say farewell’), or complimentary close in American English, is an expression used to say farewell, especially a word or phrase used to end a letter or message, or the act of saying parting words- whether brief, or extensive.” In its more day-to-day form, a valediction is not inspiring bit of dramatic oratory, but a chance for you to impart a final tone to whomever you are writing to – one of intimacy, formality, or in the case of a potential employer, one of professionalism. We career advisors spend a fair amount of time reading cover letters and emails from eager candidates who work hard to craft documents that will impress hiring managers. I want to remind you that your valediction counts. There are formal ones and informal ones, appropriate for different readers. The standard for writing to someone you don’t know (but want to work for) shouldn’t vary much from one of the following:

• Sincerely yours,

• Sincerely,

Other, less commonly used, but generally accepted professional valedictions are:

• Best regards,

• Regards,

• Cordially,

• Yours truly,

Your valediction reminds an employer that you understand the writing standards of the working world, and that you yourself are professional in your communications. Language and communication evolves, so there are no hard and fast rules but rather conventions you can learn which will help you make the impression that you would fit well in the employer’s world. Here are some recommendations:

1) Stay away from anything that sounds emotive or implies intimacy (Love – Warm regards – Take care) or something too casual (Best wishes – Cheers – Have a nice day).

2) International students in particular may make a poor impression inadvertently, when they write letters with valedictions which are appropriate at home. Mostly I have seen more honorifics in these students’ letters, which are not used in conventional business letters in the USA. This means that “With greatest honor” or “With deep respect” or “Most humbly submitted” sound formal, but in fact are not quite what is called for in professional correspondence. As a result, these letters show a lack of understanding, not the respect they intend. If you are unsure about writing cover letters or other job search correspondence, look at the samples and guidelines provided on the Career Services website, or ask an advisor.

3) Additionally, when you are emailing, do not skip the valediction. “Sent by my iPhone” does not help your cause, unless you are applying to Apple for a job (and even then, maybe not). More often than ever, people close their letters/messages with just an automated signature or their name. This may be okay in informal correspondence but not when you are writing to an employer or recruiter.

Your impact, with a valediction, is to bring thoughtful closure to your message. And, with that said, I will sign off –

GLHF (good luck, have fun),

– Rosanne

Storytelling & The Job Search, Or Why English Majors Make Successful Job Applicants

By Kelly Cleary

“Perhaps the only job I’m qualified to do at this point is to write cover letters,” was a response I recently received from an English major to whom I had given a glowing critique for a very well written application letter.

While it’s true that there is a long tradition of English majors who fell into the world of career counseling (including me), of course, as an English major that student is qualified for a great deal more than writing cover letters (see First Jobs & Graduate School for Penn grads and What Can I Do With This Major (general). That said, she raises a good point—English majors, and other students who are required to do a great deal of reflective analysis and writing through the study narrative forms are also building skills that will help them write the most effective and persuasive resume and cover letters, and to really shine as a memorable candidate during interviews.

Despite Garrison Keillor’s frequent references to the (un)employability of English majors during his comical segments sponsored by the fictitious Professional Organization of English Majors, incorporating the elements of good storytelling into the job application process is a great way for candidates to clearly demonstrate their qualifications, professionalism, and enthusiasm for a position in a memorable, personable, and unique way so their application rises to the top, even during this highly competitive job market.

Here are a few lessons from English class that should be applied to your job search:

  • Think before you write. Any good writer will tell you they spend a great deal of time thinking about a story before they actually put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. The same goes for the resume and cover letter. Job seekers must reflect on their skills, values, and interests and how they fit into a particular career path or organization’s culture before actually creating or updating their documents.
  • Carefully consider your intended audience. While some creative writers are indeed writing for themselves, writers who achieve some commercial success, and students who do well in English courses, tend to have a solid understanding of their intended audience(s) (i.e. their professor or fellow students) and the message they hope to relay to them. A resume should always be tailored to best match the applicant’s skills and experiences to the job opening, and a cover letter should always be written with the goal of impressing the hiring manager.
  • An interesting and relevant plot with memorable characters will keep the reader coming back to see how the story ends. Of course resumes and cover letters should always be professional, and in general it’s better to err on the conservative side, but approaching resumes and interviews as ways to “tell your professional story” and to use cover letters to create narratives that clearly explain how your past experiences have prepared you for job openings is a very effective way to persuade an employer that you may be a good fit.  Support your thesis (“I’d make a great —insert job title here—”) by including relevant and impressive details, and quantifying results and the impact you made on an organization.
  • Personal style and tone are how you make your mark. Thousands of resume and cover letter templates and samples are available online and in bookstores. Samples can be a helpful starting point, but following them too closely makes it hard to differentiate you from other candidates. Submitting a personalized, original letter with an appropriately professional tone is one of the best ways to set your application apart in a large stack of resumes.
  • Grammar counts. Strunk & White may not have been thinking about the job search process when they wrote The Elements of Style, but using correct grammar in error free documents is essential to a successful job search.

Career Services resume and cover letter guides are available here:  http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/undergrad/documents.html

For more advice on applying your inner muse to the job search, read Quintessential Career write Kathy Hansen’s Career Storytelling Tools for Job Seekers.