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Cover letters: guidelines and samples

Why is it called a "cover letter?"

Why is a job search letter called a "cover letter?" Because in the era of hard copy resumes and letters, the letter would be on top of, and therefore cover, the resume. A cover letter introduces a resume and explains why you are sending the resume.

Writing guidelines

  • These writing guidelines apply to both email content and letters written as a document. There are just some formatting differences. You can also see email guidelines.

If you're sending your resume via email, yes.
If you are speaking to an employer at a career fair (or other event), no.
If you are submitting your resume online (sometimes to an employer's Applicant Tracking System, called ATS; a thing that's good to know about), do what the employer instructs! If there are no instruction, a cover letter can help. A cover letter is personalized and individualized to the employer. (Your resume is not.)

In person, you have a conversation, so you're talking to the employer about why you're interested in their job, and offering your resume. A letter doesn't apply to that situation. You can and likely should send a follow up email afterward to emphasize your interest and thank the employer for their time in talking with you.

When emailing your resume, your email usually serves as a cover letter; it explains why you're sending your resume. (In certain cases, if the employer requests this, or you are in a very formal and/or traditional industry, you might attach a cover letter document to your email.) 

What a well-written cover letter (usually email) does:

  • Explains why you are sending your resume;
  • Shows that you can communicate in a professional way;
  • Places emphasis on why you are interested in that specific employer. (Your resume is about you, not the employers you are pursuing.)
  • Shows good manners and appropriate business etiquette;
  • Is a different communication tool than a resume. Enables you to express yourself in complete sentences, tell things about yourself that the resume might not, and show your personality as appropriate to the job search.
  • Should never read like a form letter that could be sent to anyone.

What if I'm sending my resume to someone who knows me and is going to pass it on to someone else?

  • Include a brief email cover letter thanking your contact person for her/his/their kindness and assistance in passing your resume along, and include your goal (job, internship, co-op, etc.) and career interest. Your friend might forward your email to another contact who can then see your writing style, focus, and professionalism.

In most situations, email is the medium for professional communication in the job search.

Sometimes, in very formal and/or traditional fields, letters are written as documents with certain formatting. That document could then be sent as an attachment to an email (with a clear, concise description of what is attached and why). It's now very rare to actually physically mail hard copy when applying for jobs.

  • Signature block placement
    • In email, your signature block (address, etc.) goes below your name, after your email content.
      In document format, your address, etc. goes at the top of the page. 
  • 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.
    • A letter in document format can have a subject line after recipient's address block and before "Dear Ms./Mr./Dr...".
  • Handwritten signature
    • Doesn't exist on email.
    • Not needed on a document attached to email (you're not printing it).
      In the rare case you print hard copy, you could sign above your printed name.
  • Explain why you are sending a resume.
    Don't make the reader guess what you are seeking. Be clear and specific: 
    • Do you want a summer internship, a co-op, a field-study?
    • A post-graduation job?
    • Are you inquiring about future employment possibilities?
    • The word "opportunity" is vague; opportunity to do what?
  • Tell specifically how you learned about the position or the organization — an email from your advisor, the employer's website, a 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, you can take 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. 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 that contact.

In email format: your contact info / signature block goes below your name at the END.
In document format: sender address and contact info at the top; then the date; then your contact info / address block, which can be left-justified, or centered.)

(if document format) Month, Day, Year

(if document format, the following about the recipient:)
Mr./Ms./Dr. FirstName LastName
That person's job title
Name of organization
(Street or P.O. address if you are actually mailing hard copy; not common.)
Town/city, state (zip code if mailing hard copy; not common)

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 attached. Mention other attachments if 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 call or email 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 person for her/his/their consideration.

4th paragraph optional if best to split some of content above.

Your first and last name
Address as town/city, state (optional zip code)
(You are not required to give your street address; lean toward protecting your privacy, especially when you do not know how your email might be forwarded / shared.)
Phone number
Email address

Generally letters fall into two categories, but the bottom line is to write what makes sense based on the information you have.

  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.


The purpose of the samples is not to give you something to copy, but to show examples; the content of your letters will be unique to you depending on your situation and the people to whom you write.

Blacksburg, Virginia    |   540-555-0000   |   (emailaddress)

February 2, 20XY

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

Dear Dr. Rhodes:

Thank you for speaking with me on February 18, after the Family and Child Development seminar at Virginia Tech. I appreciated your perspective on balancing the needs of children and the community during difficult economic times. This letter is to express my interest in upper elementary grade teaching positions 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 fourth grade and this semester am teaching fifth 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;
  • Complete in-service sessions on diversity, math and reading skills, and community relations.

My experience includes teaching in a private day care facility, 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 developmentally appropriate activities for elementary-aged children, and practiced strict safety protocols.

I am enthusiastic about putting my knowledge and experience into practice in a full-time teaching position. In a month, in early March, I will be in Vienna, and I would very much like to visit the school while in session and shadow teachers. I will stay in touch with you to make arrangement for this. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and contributing to the professional development of those of us entering the teaching profession.

Averill Harrington

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

April 14, 20XY

Mr. William Jackson
Employment Manager
Biochem Corporation
13764 Jefferson Parkway
Roanoke, VA 24019

Dear Mr. Jackson:

From the Biochem Corp website I learned about your need for a sales representative for the Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina areas. I am very interested in this position, and believe that my education and employment background are very well matched 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 my resume, which more fully details my qualifications for the position.

I look forward to talking with you regarding sales opportunities with Biochem Corp. Within the next two weeks 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.

Harper A. Johnson
Blacksburg, Virginia

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

March 14, 20XY

Ms. Charlene Prince
Director of Personnel
Large National Finance Corporation
Roanoke, VA 24040

Dear Ms. Prince:

Thank you for speaking with me yesterday. As I indicated, I would like to apply for the marketing research position (#031210-528) advertised on Indeed. 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 Finance 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 data analysis. I also have completed a course in statistics and research methods.

My experience also includes working part-time as a bookkeeper in a small, successful, 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 at Large National. My resume is attached. Thank you very much for your consideration, and I look forward to receiving your reply.

Alexi Lawrence
Blacksburg, VA 24060

Subject: Application for building construction position after graduation

Ms. Riley Wilson
Personnel Director
Anderson Construction Company
Rockville, MD

Dear Ms. Wilson:

I am following up after speaking with you at the construction industry career fair at Virginia Tech last week. Thank you for your time in sharing so much helpful information with me. Next May I will complete my bachelor's degree in building construction, and believe that my education, experience, and values make me an excellent candidate to join your team.

Each summer for the last five years I have worked at various levels in the construction industry. As indicated on my attached resume, I have worked as a general laborer, a skilled carpenter, and last summer served as assistant construction manager on a two-million dollar residential construction project.

The Anderson Construction projects are familiar to me, and my aspiration is to work for a company that has your values of service to the community through support of youth activities. One of my volunteer activities is coaching youth soccer, and I believe in the individual and community benefits of involving youth in recreational sports. I hope for the opportunity to interview with you, and will follow up with you.

Thank you for your consideration.

Jesse Bimal
Blacksburg, Virginia

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
Arlington, VA 22207

Dear Mr. Burns:

Next May I will complete my master of science in computer engineering at Virginia Tech. I found information about Megatek through an information session offered through the career center at my university, and am very excited about the career path options you offer for software engineers. I believe there is an excellent fit between my skills and interests and your needs.

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 VWXDF 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.  Attached is my resume with further details.

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

Morgan Stevens
Blacksburg, Virginia  |  540-555-2556

Subj: Wilderness Challenge internship position

January 12, 20XY

Ms. Sylvia Range
Special Programs Assistant
Marion County Family Court Wilderness Challenge
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 youth development, I found your program. 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 encouraging development of adolescents; 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.
  • Wellness coordinator in my campus residence hall, which requires me to establish rapport with fifty residents and coach them on personal matters, university policies, and encourage healthy self-management habits to be successful in college.

My attached 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.

Sinclair Sosa
Blacksburg, Virginia | 540-555-2233 |

Mr. Idris Webb
Delon Hampton and Associates
Washington, DC

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 metro 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 attached 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 Zoom 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.

Adara Alba
Blacksburg, Virginia

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

Mr. Javier Delon
Delon Hampton and Associates
Washington, DC 

Dear Mr. Delon:

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 and 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 Mil Menzur, 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. My updated resume is attached 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 guidance.

Kai Kalani
Blacksburg, VA 24060