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Cover Letters & References

Cover Letters


Here are 4 basic guidelines for a cover letter, followed by a 4-paragraph formula: 4 + 4 = a great cover letter!

4 guidelines


1. A cover letter introduces your resume. Submitting a separate cover letter along with your resume, or formatting your email message like a cover letter, allows you to draw attention to items on your resume, tell a deeper story, and gives you an opportunity to highlight your skills, like your writing skills.

Some recruiters will tell you they don't read cover letters. For others, cover letters can tip the scales between two candidates. The bottom line is that if you don't send a cover letter, you forfeit a highly appropriate opportunity to showcase your skills and tell a deeper story.

If it's been a while since you wrote a letter, here's a sample.


Writing cover letters (The Writing Center, University of Wisconsin)


2. Use the same heading you created for your resume. This makes your materials uniform, professional, and consistent, and gives the recipient all your contact information at the top of all your job search documents (which should not be stapled when you submit them).

As with the resume header, your name, phone number and email address should all be in your header. A mailing address, LinkedIn, and other personal website or social media URLs are optional.

If you are sending your cover letter as an email, simply address your recipient at the top as you would in any formal email. No need to include date, addresses, etc. (These should already be in your email signature.)


3. Avoid saying “to whom it may concern.” A cover letter addressed to a specific person--or at least a title, like "Hiring Manager" or "HR Director"--is much more personal and effective.


4. Use a subject line. Consider using a subject line in all caps, such as BOB JONES’ APPLICATION FOR PROGRAM MANAGER POSITION. This helps the reader quickly know your purpose and avoids any awkwardness of salutation. Like, should you say, "Dear Mrs. Jones" or "Dear Ms. Jones" or "Dear Miss Jones" if Tiffany Jones is the HR Director? Just skip it by using a subject line. If emailing your cover letter, you obviously already have a subject line and can simply begin your letter.

4-paragraph formula


1st Paragraph – State Purpose

State the job you are applying for, how you know about it, and mention names. If someone recommended it to you, or if you have a reference at the organization who might put in a good word for you, this is the time to say so.

2nd Paragraph – Address Qualifications

Acknowledge that you understand the qualifications for the job (listed for you on the job posting), and describe how you meet them. You don’t have to tell everything. If this letter is longer than 3/4 page it might not get read. From the job posting, choose 3-4 qualifications you feel intersect with your own skill set the strongest. Those are the ones to mention.

Only a sentence or two is needed to illustrate that you have these skills. Rather than focusing on you in your description, think about how your skills can meet the company's need. Help them see you in the role for which you are applying.

3rd Paragraph – Tell A Story

Choose one skill/qualification and package it in a story. This will help you live off the page and make you more memorable. It is an opportunity to infuse enthusiasm for the job and show some personality. (Don’t overdo it.) Keep the story brief and be sure it highlights a skill the company desires.

4th paragraph – Polite Close

Restate your sincere interest in the job. Repeat contact information. Say that you will follow up. And say thank you.

Avoid these 7 killer cover letter mistakes (Monster)

Then follow up. In 1-2 weeks, call or email to restate your interest in the job. People often say they’ll let you know either way, but they hardly ever do. People also say they want to fill the job quickly, but they hardly ever do.

Job hunting is a bit like dating, you don’t want to seem over-eager or desperate if someone is not offering you strong encouragement on the other end. But many people give up too easily and too quickly. Appropriate follow up can bring you back to the forefront of a recruiter’s mind. Sometimes they whittle it down to 2-3 candidates and if you have shown continued interest, it can be the tipping factor. But don’t hound people. Calling after 1 week is okay. Calling after 2 weeks is okay. After that, use your best judgment.


Here are 5 tips for reference pages.


1. Prepare a Reference Page for the interview. A Reference page is not typically sent prior to the job interview, but if the interviewer likes what he/she sees, it could be requested at the interview. It should be printed on quality paper (like your resume).

2. List 3-5 professionals. Those willing to serve as your personal and/or professional references if contacted by the recruiter. Each listing should be uniform. In addition to the reference's name, title, company, email and preferred phone (work or personal), it's a nice touch to also include some context for your relationship.


Dr. John Smith
Professor of Management
X University
555.444.3333 (work)

Relationship: former advisor

3. Three types of people make good references:

  1. Employers (current or former) who can attest to your reliability/work ethic and skill level

  2. Teachers (current or former) who can attest to your skill level, academic achievements and potential to learn

  3. Leaders (coaches, ministers, mentors) who can attest to your character and personal motivation

4. Inform references prior to sharing their contact information. If you inform your references of your goals and current accomplishments--by catching up with them and giving them a copy of your current resume, for example--they are better positioned to help you. If they receive a call about you and are caught off guard, it will be obvious you didn't prepare them which won't do you any favors.

5. Follow up. Let your references know if you got the job! Say 'thank you.' You build strong networks when you stay in touch with your former employers, teachers, mentors, and business associates.

There you have it: basic guidelines for a cover letter and reference page.

Additional job search skills Content

Career Planning

Professionalism & Etiquette

Portfolios & Performance Evaluations



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