These guidelines apply to both hard copy correspondence and email, and include samples of both.
(To decide which to use, see email guidelines.)

Cover letters accompany and introduce your resume. They are so called because you place it on top of, and thus cover, your resume. 

Yes.

What's your goal in sending your resume? Isn't it to get into the "yes" pile (and not the "no" or "maybe" piles) when the employer is sorting resumes to decide whom to interview? A well-written cover letter is an important tool for getting into the "yes" pile.

It's just good manners and appropriate business etiquette to include a cover letter with your resume. It's perceived as lazy and/or ill-informed not to (or to send one that looks like it could have been "shot-gunned" to anyone, or worse, addressed to the wrong person or office).

A resume is a summary of your background and qualifications. A cover letter explains why you're sending your resume. A resume alone is insufficient.

But what if I'm sending my resume to my friend/relative/employer who knows me and is going to pass it on to someone else?
Include a brief cover letter thanking your friend, relative or employer for her kindness and assistance in passing your resume along, and remind her of your goal (job, internship, co-op, etc.) and career interest. Your friend might pass on your letter or email to her contact who can then see your writing style, focus, and professionalism.

What if I'm handing my resume to someone in person, as at a career fair?
Generally, no cover letter is used in person, because you are (or should be!) exhibiting your in-person communication skills. You could send a letter/email afterward expressing your thanks for the person's time in speaking with you (and following any other instructions that were given). Obviously if an employer specifically asks you to hand-deliver a cover letter with your resume, then follow the instructions the employer has given you.

  • Signature block placement
    • Your signature block (address, etc.) goes below your name in email, while it goes at the top of the page on hard copy. 
  • Subject lines
    • Email requires a subject line logical to the recipient. Email subject lines can make or break whether your email is opened and read.
    • Hard copy can have a subject line too, but it's on the letter (after recipient's address block and before "Dear...," and it's seen after the letter is opened.
  • Handwritten signature
    • Of course you won't have a handwritten signature on email, but don't forget this on hard copy.
  • Printing and mailing hard copies:
    • Paper
      Use 8.5 by 11 inch, good quality paper; preferably the same paper as used for your resume. Choose paper which produces clean photocopies. Some papers with flecks make hazy copies.
    • Do I really need special resume paper?
      It's a nice touch, if you've done everything else right. But it's not the most important thing. Nice paper isn't going to get you an interview if your content is weak or your document has typos. If you're going to meet employers at a career fair, they would rather see that you have done your research about the organization in advance, and that you can give a succient introduction of yourself and why the organization interests you. Nice paper won't overcome a weak introduction like, "hi, what does your company do?"
    • Print
      Produce laser quality print; choose a proportionally spaced font, rather than an evenly spaced font. You may choose either serif font such as Cambria or Times New Roman, or a sans serif font such as Calibri or Arial.
    • Folding vs. large envelopes
      A one-page cover letter and a one-page resume (appropriate for 98.6% of undergraduates) can be folded, but it's a nice touch to use a larger flat envelope so your letter and resume don't have to be folded. By all means, if you're sending other things the employer requested (transcripts, application forms, etc.) and/or you're a Ph.D. candidate with a multi-page CV, don't try to stuff it all into a small envelope.
  • Explain why you are sending a resume.
    Don't send a resume without a cover letter. 
    Don't make the reader guess what you are seeking. Be specific: 
    • Do you want a summer internship opportunity or a permanent position at graduation?
    • Are you inquiring about future employment possibilities?
  • Tell specifically how you learned about the position or the organization — an email from your advisor, a website, a family friend who works at the organization. It is appropriate to mention the name of someone who suggested that you write.
  • Convince the reader to look at your resume.
    The cover letter will be seen first.
    Therefore, it must be very well written and targeted to that employer.
  • Call attention to elements of your background — education, leadership, experience — that are relevant to a position you are seeking. Be as specific as possible, using examples.
  • Reflect your attitude, personality, motivation, enthusiasm, and communication skills.
  • Provide or refer to any information specifically requested in a job advertisement that might not be covered in your resume, such as availability date, or reference to an attached writing sample.
  • Indicate what you will do to follow-up:
    • In a letter of application — applying for an advertised opening — applicants often say something like "I look forward to hearing from you." However, if you have further contact info (e.g. phone number) and if the employer hasn't said "no phone calls," it's better to take the initiative to follow-up, saying something like, "I will contact you in the next two weeks to see if you require any additional information regarding my qualifications."
    • In a letter of inquiry — asking about the possibility of an opening — don't assume the employer will contact you. You should say something like, "I will contact you in two weeks to learn more about upcoming employment opportunities with (name of organization)." Then mark your calendar to make the call.
  • For hard copy, left and right page margins of 1 to 1.5 inches generally look good. You can adjust your margins to balance how your document looks on the page.
  • Font style: use a font style that is simple, clear and commonplace, such as Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri. 
  • Font sizes from 10-12 points are generally in the ballpark of looking appropriate. Keep in mind that different font styles in the same point size are not the same size. A 12-point Arial font is larger than a 12-point Times New Roman font.
  • If you are having trouble fitting your letter on one page, sometimes a slight change of margins and/or font can be the solution.
  • Serif or sans serif? Sans (without) serif fonts are those like Arial and Calibri that don't have the small finishing strokes on the ends of each letter. There is a great deal of research and debate on the pros and cons of each. 
  • Short story: use what you like, within reason; note what employers use; generally sans serif fonts are used for on-screen reading and serif fonts are used for lengthy print items (like books); serif fonts may be considered more formal. 
  • Test: ask someone to look at a document for five seconds; take away the document; ask the person what font was on the document; see if s/he even noticed the style. A too-small or too-large font gets noticed, as does a weird style.
  • Should your resume and cover letter font style and size match? 
    It can be a nice touch to look polished. But it's also possible to have polished documents that are not in matching fonts. A significant difference in style and size might be noticed. Remember that you can have your documents reviewed through advising, and that might be a fine-tuning question you ask.

(Hard copy: sender address and contact info at top. Your address and the date can be left-justified, or centered.)


Your Street Address
City, State Zip Code
Telephone Number
Email Address

Month Day, Year

Mr./Ms./Dr. FirstName LastName
Title
Name of Organization
Street or P.O. Box Address
City, State Zip Code

Dear Mr./Ms./Dr. LastName:

Opening paragraph: State why you are writing; how you learned of the organization or position, and basic information about yourself.

2nd paragraph: Tell why you are interested in the employer or type of work the employer does (Simply stating that you are interested does not tell why, and can sound like a form letter). Demonstrate that you know enough about the employer or position to relate your background to the employer or position. Mention specific qualifications which make you a good fit for the employer’s needs. (Focus on what you can do for the employer, not what the employer can do for you.) This is an opportunity to explain in more detail relevant items in your resume. Refer to the fact that your resume is enclosed. Mention other enclosures if such are required to apply for a position.

3rd paragraph: Indicate that you would like the opportunity to interview for a position or to talk with the employer to learn more about their opportunities or hiring plans. State what you will do to follow up, such as telephone the employer within two weeks. If you will be in the employer’s location and could offer to schedule a visit, indicate when. State that you would be glad to provide the employer with any additional information needed. Thank the employer for her/his consideration.

Sincerely,

(Your handwritten signature [on hard copy])

Your name typed
(In case of email, your full contact info appears below your printed name [instead of at the top, as for hard copy], and of course there is no handwritten signature)

Enclosure(s) (refers to resume, etc.)

(Note: the contents of your letter might best be arranged into four paragraphs. Consider what you need to say and use good writing style. See the following examples for variations in organization and layout.)

  1. Letter of application: applying for a specific, advertised opening. See sample letters below.
  2. Letter of inquiry: expressing interest in an organization, but you are not certain if there are current openings. See sample letters below.

To draft an effective cover letter, you need to indicate that you know something about the employing organization. Sometimes, even with research efforts, you don’t have enough information to do this. In such a case it is appropriate to write requesting information. See sample letter below.

After you receive the desired information you can then draft a follow-up letter that:

  • Thanks the sender for the information;
  • Markets why you would be a good job candidate for that organization based on the information; and
  • Explains why you are sending your resume.

i.e. with all the elements that all cover letter should have. See sample letter below.

E-2 Apartment Heights Dr.
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-0101
abcd@vt.edu

February 22, 20XY

Dr. Michelle Rhodes
Principal, Wolftrap Elementary School
1205 Beulah Road
Vienna, VA 22182

Dear Dr. Rhodes:

I enjoyed our conversation on February 18th at the Family and Child Development seminar on teaching elementary children and appreciated your personal input about balancing the needs of children and the community during difficult economic times.  This letter is to follow-up about the fourth grade teacher position as discussed at the seminar.  I will complete my M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at Virginia Tech in May 20XY, and will be available for employment as soon as needed for the 20XY-XZ school year.

My teacher preparation program at Virginia Tech has included a full academic year of student teaching. Last semester I taught second grade and this semester am teaching fourth grade. These valuable experiences have afforded me the opportunity to:

  • Develop lesson plans on a wide range of topics and varying levels of academic ability,
  • Work with emotionally and physically challenged students in a total inclusion program,
  • Observe and participate in effective classroom management approaches,
  • Assist with parent-teacher conferences, and
  • Complete in-service sessions on diversity, math and reading skills, and community relations.

My experience includes work in a private day care facility, Rainbow Riders Childcare Center, and in Virginia Tech’s Child Development Laboratory.  Both these facilities are NAEYC-accredited and adhere to the highest standards.  At both locations, I led small and large group activities, helped with lunches and snacks, and implemented appropriate activities.  Both experiences also provided me with extensive exposure to the implementation of developmentally appropriate activities and materials.

I enthusiastically look forward to putting my knowledge and experience into practice in the public school system. Next week I will be in Vienna, and I plan to call you then to answer any questions that you may have.  I can be reached before then at (540) 555-1234.  Thank you very much for your consideration.

Sincerely,
(handwritten signature)
Ashley Harrington

Enclosure

Subject line: (logical to recipient!) Application for sales representative for mid-Atlantic area

April 14, 20XY

Mr. William Jackson
Employment Manager
Acme Biochem Corporation
13764 Jefferson Parkway
Roanoke, VA 24019
jackson@orgname.com

Dear Mr. Jackson:

From the Acme web site I learned about your need for a sales representative for the Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina areas. I am very interested in this position with Acme Biochem, and believe that my education and employment background are appropriate for the position.

You indicate that a requirement for the position is a track record of success in meeting sales goals. I have done this. After completion of my B.S. in biology, and prior to beginning my master’s degree in marketing, I worked for two years as a sales representative with a regional whole foods company.  My efforts yielded success in new business development, and my sales volume consistently met or exceeded company goals. I would like to repeat that success in the biochemical industry, using my academic background in science and business. I will complete my M.S. in marketing in mid-May and will be available to begin employment in early June.

Attached is a copy of my resume, which more fully details my qualifications for the position.

I look forward to talking with you regarding sales opportunities with Acme. Within the next week I will contact you to confirm that you received my email and resume and to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you very kindly for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Sean A. Johnson
5542 Hunt Club Lane, #1
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-8082
sajohnson@vt.edu

Resume attached as MS Word document (assuming company website instructed applicants to do this)

Subject line: (logical to recipient!) Application for marketing research position #031210-528

March 14, 20XY

Ms. Charlene Prince
Director of Personnel
Large National Bank Corporation
Roanoke, VA 24040
cprince@largebank.com

Dear Ms. Prince:

As I indicated in our telephone conversation yesterday, I would like to apply for the marketing research position (#031210-528) advertised in the March 12th Roanoke Times and World News. With my undergraduate research background, my training in psychology and sociology, and my work experience, I believe I could make a valuable contribution to Large National Bank Corporation in this position.

In May I will complete my B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology at Virginia Tech. As part of the requirements for this degree, I am involved in a senior marketing research project that has given me experience interviewing and surveying research subjects and assisting with the analysis of the data collected. I also have completed a course in statistics and research methods.

My experience also includes working part-time as a bookkeeper in a small independent bookstore with an annual budget of approximately $150,000.  Because of the small size of this business, I have been exposed to and participated in most aspects of managing a business, including advertising and marketing.  As the bookkeeper, I produced monthly sales reports that allow the owner/buyer to project seasonal inventory needs. I also assisted with the development of ideas for special promotional events and calculated book sales proceeds after each event in order to evaluate its success.

I believe my combination of business experience and social science research training is an excellent match for the marketing research position you described.  Enclosed is a copy of my resume with additional information about my qualifications.  Thank you very much for your consideration.  I look forward to receiving your reply.

Sincerely,
Alex Lawrence
250 Prices Fork Road
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-1234
alex.lawrence@vt.edu

Resume attached as MS Word document

1000 Terrace View Apts.
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-4523
stevemason@vt.edu

March 25, 20XY

Ms. Janice Wilson
Personnel Director
Anderson Construction Company
3507 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD 20895

Dear Ms. Wilson:

I read in the March 24th Washington Post classified section of your need for a Civil Engineer or Building Construction graduate for one of your Washington, DC, area sites. I will be returning to the Washington area after graduation in May and believe that I have the necessary credentials for the project.

Every summer for the last five years I have worked at various levels in the construction industry. As indicated on my enclosed resume, I have worked as a general laborer, and moved up to skilled carpentry work, and last summer served as assistant construction manager on a two million dollar residential construction project.

In addition to this practical experience, I will complete requirements for my B.S. in Building Construction in May.  As you may know, Virginia Tech is one of the few universities in the country that offers such a specialized degree for the construction industry. I am confident that my degree, along with my years of construction industry experience, makes me an excellent candidate for your job.

The Anderson Construction Company projects are familiar to me, and my aspiration is to work for a company that has your excellent reputation.  I would welcome the opportunity to interview with you. I will be in the Washington area during the week of April 12th and would be available to speak with you at that time. In the next week to ten days I will contact you to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
(handwritten signature) 
Jesse Mason

Enclosure

Subject: (logical to recipient!) Inquiry about software engineering position after completion of M.S. in computer engineering

December 12, 20XY

Mr. Robert Burns
President, Template Division
MEGATEK Corporation
9845 Technical Way
Arlington, VA 22207
burns@megatek.com

Dear Mr. Burns:

Via online research in Hokies4Hire through Career and Professional Development at Virginia Tech, I learned of MEGATEK. Next May I will complete my master of science in computer engineering. From my research on your web site, I believe there would be a good fit between my skills and interests and your needs. I am interested in a software engineering position upon completion of my degree.

As a graduate student, I am one of six members on a software development team in which we are writing a computer-aided aircraft design program for NASA. My responsibilities include designing, coding, and testing of a graphical portion of the program which requires the use of ZX-WWG for graphics input and output. I have a strong background in CAD, software development, and engineering, and believe that these skills would benefit the designing and manufacturing aspects of template software.  Enclosed is my resume with further background information.

My qualifications equip me to make a contribution to the project areas in which your division of MEGATEK is expanding efforts.  I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss a position with you, and will contact you in a week or ten days to answer any questions you may have and to see if you need any other information from me.  Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Morgan Stevens
123 Ascot Lane
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-2556
mstevens@vt.edu

Resume attached as MS Word document

2343 Blankinship Road
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-2233
StacyLeeGimble@vt.edu

January 12, 20XY

Ms. Sylvia Range
Special Programs Assistant
Marion County Family Court Wilderness Challenge
303 Center Street
Marion, VA 24560

Subj: Wilderness Challenge internship position

Dear Ms. Range:

This semester I am a junior at Virginia Tech, working toward my bachelor's degree in family and child development. I am seeking an internship for this summer 20XY, and while researching opportunities in the field of criminal justice and law, I found that your program works with juvenile delinquents. I am writing to inquire about possible internship opportunities with the Marion County Family Court Wilderness Challenge.

My work background and coursework have supplied me with many skills and an understanding of dealing with the adolescent community; for example:

  • 10 hours per week as a volunteer hotline assistant for a local intervention center. After a 50-hour training program, I counseled teenagers about personal concerns and referred them, when necessary, to appropriate professional services for additional help.
  • Residence hall assistant in my residence hall, which requires me to establish rapport with fifty residents and advise them on personal matters, as well as university policies. In addition, I develop social and educational programs and activities each semester for up to 200 participants.

My enclosed resume provides additional details about my background.

I will be in the Marion area during my spring break, March x-xx.  I will call you next week to see if it would be possible to meet with you in early March to discuss your program.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
(handwritten signature)
Stacy Lee Gimble

Encl.

23 Roanoke Street
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-1123
K.Walker@vt.edu

October 23, 20XY

Mr. James G. Webb
Delon Hampton & Associates
800 K Street, N.W., Suite 720
Washington, DC 20001-8000

Dear Mr. Webb:

Next May I will complete my bachelor’s degree in Architecture at Virginia Tech, and am researching employment opportunities in the Washington area. I obtained your name from Professor (LastName) who teaches my professional seminar class this semester. S/he indicated that you had volunteered to provide highly motivated graduating students with career advice, and I hope that your schedule will permit you to allow me to ask for some of your time and advice. I am particularly interested in historic preservation and have done research on the DHA website to learn that your firm does work in this area. I am also interested in learning how the architects in your firm began their careers. My resume is enclosed simply to give you some information about my background and project work.

Within two weeks I will call you to arrange a time to speak to you by telephone or perhaps visit your office if that would be convenient. I will be in the Washington area during the week of November 22. I very much appreciate your time and consideration of my request, and I look forward to talking with you.

Sincerely,
(handwritten signature)
Kristen Walker

Encl.

Subject: (logical to recipient!) Thank you for meeting Tuesday, Nov. 23

November 26, 20XY

Mr. James G. Webb
Delon Hampton & Associates
800 K Street, N.W., Suite 720
Washington, DC 20001-8000
webb@delon.com

Dear Mr. Webb:

Thank you so much for taking time from your busy schedule to meet with me on Tuesday. It was very helpful to me to learn so much about the current projects of Delon Hampton & Associates and the career paths of several of your staff. I appreciate your reviewing my portfolio and encouraging my career plans. I also enjoyed meeting Beth Ormond, and am glad to have her suggestions on how I can make the most productive use of my last semester prior to graduation.

Based on what I learned from my visit to your firm and other research I have done, I am very interested in being considered for employment with DHA in the future. I will be available to begin work after I graduate in May 20ZY. As you saw from my portfolio, I have developed strong skills in the area of historical documentation and this is a good match for the types of projects in which your firm specializes. I have enclosed a copy of my resume to serve as a reminder of my background, some of which I discussed with you when we met.

During the next few months I will stay in contact with you in hopes that there may be an opportunity to join your firm. Thank you again for your generous help, and I hope you are enjoying a pleasant holiday.

Sincerely,
Kristin Walker
23 Roanoke Street
Blacksburg, VA 24060
(540) 555-1123
kwalker@vt.edu

(Email version of course has no handwritten signature, and your signature block appears below your name at the close.)