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Cover Letter Guide for Graduate Students

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Introduction

Additional Cover Letter Resources

Timeline/Getting Started with Your Letter

How Career Services Can Help You

Samples/Anatomy of a Cover Letter

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of a cover letter


Sometimes called a "letter of intent" or "letter of interest", a cover letter is an introduction to the rest of your job

Resumes, CVs, Cover


Letters & Correspondence
Interviewing Advice
Networking & Mentoring
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application materials (e.g., resume/CV, research statement, teaching philosophy, writing samples, etc.). The
purpose of a cover letter is to quickly summarize why you are applying to an organization or for a particular
position, and what skills and knowledge you bring that make you the most suitable candidate for that position.
The cover letter is often the first impression that a prospective employer will have of you, especially if they do not
know you, or have not heard about you from their network of contacts. First impressions count, and so getting

Jobs & Internships /


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your cover letter right is a critical step in your job application process. Like all your job application materials, it
may take time and focus to write your cover letters well. You will likely have several drafts before you come up
with a final version that clearly articulates your skills and your understanding of the employer and the job

Career Fairs

requirements.

Applying to Grad School

While your CV or resume briefly states your skills, knowledge, experience and (most importantly), what you have
achieved using your abilities, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to create a narrative that shows the path
you have taken in your career or education, emphasizing the skills you've used along the way, and explaining
why the position you are applying to is the next desirable step on this path. To find out more about the structure
of the cover letter, you can see some examples here. Also, it is important to know that there are some differences
between cover letters written for faculty positions and those written for non-faculty positions. You can review
some of the key differences of cover letters for faculty positions here. For a detailed discussion of academic
cover letters, as well as many sample letters provided by successful applicants, see "The Academic Job Search
Handbook", available to Penn doctoral students and postdocs for $10 at Career Services.
When you start the process of looking for job opportunities, you will probably read through lots of job
advertisements. You will notice that most of the ads for both faculty positions and non-faculty jobs ask for a cover
letter of some sort. The exception to this might be when you apply for some jobs through an employer's online
job application system, where they may ask you to upload your letter as a document, cut and paste the contents
of your letter into specific fields, or they may not ask for a letter at all. For most jobs, and whenever you are
submitting a formal application, cover letters are usually expected - even if a letter is not requested in the job ad
itself.

Cover Letter Etiquette


You might be tempted to send the same version of your cover letter to multiple employers, especially if you
are applying for similar types of positions. Don't. It can be fairly obvious to an employer when they receive a
stock letter, and this will make a bad first impression. Tailor your letter to the employer and to the specific job.
This may require you to do some background research on the employer's website, or talk to someone you
know (or don't yet know) who already works there. Use this information to explain why you want to work at
that particular place, doing that particular job. It takes time, but it is worth it. You'll probably have more luck
with three tailored cover letters than with 30 stock letters sent out to 30 different employers. Your cover letter
will be read by someone as part of a formal job application, so make certain that it is free of spelling mistakes,
grammar issues, and typos.

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When Not to Use Cover Letters


There are some occasions during the job search process where cover letters might not be used. During career
fairs, you would typically only hand out your resume to employers (and a 1-page resume is ideal). Employers
want to be able to quickly scan your resume for the key points, and you should be able to verbally communicate
some of the ideas that a letter might contain (for example, why this company interests you).

Other Uses for Cover Letters


Here are some occasions, in addition to applying to job announcements, when writing a cover letter can help you
in a job search:
When trying to find out if an organization or university is likely to have any openings
To offer services teaching as an adjunct when no position has been advertised
When seeking internship opportunities
When writing to ask for an informal appointment with someone at an organization that interests you
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TIMELINE: GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR COVER LETTER

First step:
The first step to writing a good cover letter is to first have a good CV or resume. For information on putting these
documents together, click here. You cover letter expands upon some of the information you include within these
documents, and describes the role you have played in achieving your academic or non-academic goals (i.e.,
showing how your experiences have made you the best candidate for the position).

Second step:
The next step is to find an open position that interests you, or at least the type of job to which you want to apply.
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cover letter, as each should be tailored to each job you apply to, but
there will certainly be parts of the letter that will stay much the same, and be appropriate for multiple jobs. This
might mean changing some of the key words in the letter, so that you are describing your experience in the
employer's language, not your own.

Third step:
Go through the job ad and carefully note all of the requirements and skills the employer is looking for. Based on
your background research of the employer and the people you have spoken to who know about this employer
(whether a business or a university department), try to identify the two or three most important skills that the
employer is looking for. You should then try to create a cover letter that illustrates that you have these skills and
have used them effectively. See the anatomy of a cover letter for more information.

Next step:
Use some of the samples and resources we have provided to create a draft version of your cover letter, and then
make an appointment with us here at Career Services so that we can review your draft and provide suggestions.
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COVER LETTER SAMPLES


The best place to start when putting together an effective letter is the job ad itself. This ad really contains all the
most important information you need to write your letter. Start off by going through the job description and
requirements and highlighting the important key words. Employers have spent a long time choosing which words
to include in the ad, and they are all important. Look for technical terms used, specific research or teaching areas
required for faculty positions, and the more general transferable skills that might be identified.

Examples of key requirements from actual job ads that should be addressed in your application
materials

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Technical

Academic

Business

requirements

requirements

requirements

General requirements

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Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania

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Familiarity with military

Demonstrated record of,

Significant auditing,

A proven ability to work

certification programs
such as Mil-Hdbk-516

or commitment to,
scholarly achievement

review and/or financial


statement preparation

in cross functional
networks

and excellence

experience required

with control algorithms is

Able to teach

Experience with

written and verbal

required

neuroscience courses,
and courses in

supervisory and
financial management

communication

Demonstrated track

developmental

responsibility of a

Ability to manage

record of IND

psychology, statistics,

regulatory affairs

multiple conflicting

applications and product

and research methods

department

priorities and varied

Ability to work effectively

Demonstrated skills in

with faculty, staff and

complex reasoning, risk

students with diverse

management, risk

backgrounds

benefit and cost benefit


assessments

Previous experience

Solid proficiencies in

approvals

concurrent tasks

Your cover letter will be stronger if it addresses these requirements and the job duties. Ensure that you talk
about your experiences in the language used by the employer, echoing their words in descriptions you use to
illustrate your skills. Write out a list of the keywords that you highlighted from the job ad, and then next to each of
these words, write a brief statement that illustrates the fact that you have this skill/ability/knowledge using a
specific example. You may not have an experience for all of the requirements, but the more you think about what
you have achieved, the more likely it is that you will find something relevant to talk about. When you have all of
this information, then you can begin to structure it within the format of a formal cover letter. Some organizations
are increasingly using software to scan job application materials for keywords relevant to the advertised position
(which they've included in the job ad). The more keywords you can integrate into your materials, the more likely it
is that your application will be given a closer look.

Here is a general template for a cover letter:


Your Name
Street Address City, State, Zip
Email and phone number
Today's Date
Mr./Ms./Dr. Name
Title
Organization
Address City, State, Zip
Dear ______:
The opening paragraph should explain why you are writing, giving your specific employment interest. Mention
how you found out about the position. If it was advertised, refer to the website or resource in which you saw it.
If a contact told you about it, say so.
The middle paragraph(s) should summarize the aspects of your background which will interest the employer.
The more information you have about the organization and its needs, the better. Likely you will want to
mention your graduate program or degree, or current position, such as a postdoc. Discuss your qualifications
in terms of the contributions you can make. While you should not repeat your CV or resume verbatim, don't
hesitate to refer to the most important information discussed in it. Ideally, both your cover letter and your
CV/resume would be able to stand alone. It is not necessary to describe yourself in superlatives. Rather than
saying, "I can make a uniquely valuable contribution to your organization," give the employer enough
relevant, targeted information to allow the reader to reach that conclusion independently. Be specific and
credible.
The closing paragraph should explain why the position and the particular organization is attractive to you, and
should hopefully pave the way for the interview. You may ask for an appointment, or suggest that you will call
the employer soon. You can also offer to send any additional information, restate your contact details, and
state that you look forward to hearing from them.
Sincerely,

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Your Name

Academic and non-academic cover letters differ in style and their length. While a 2-3 page cover letter might be
the norm when applying for an English, tenure-track, faculty position (you need to check with your own
department to find out what the norms are), this type of lengthy letter would not make a good impression for a
consulting firm. Check out these cover letter samples for ideas about how to format your letters, and to see how
others have illustrated their skills and achievements. Remember, these are examples only, and every cover letter
will be slightly different to reflect your own individuality.
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ANATOMY OF A COVER LETTER


If you are looking for more insight into what to include in your cover letter, and how to tailor what you are saying
to each employer, then take a look at the "anatomy of a cover letter" for a strategic perspective on what to write
and why. This resource provides a paragraph-by-paragraph explanation of a real cover letter used in a job
application that explains why the author provided certain information about skills and experiences in the letter
based on the specific job ad, the position and background information about the organization.

Academic cover letters


When applying for faculty positions, especially those that involve both teaching and research, you will be
expected to spend some time in your cover letter talking about your research and goals, as well as your teaching
even though you may have covered these in more detail in your research statement and teaching philosophy
documents. How much time you need to spend talking about teaching and research will depend on the nature of
the position and your field of study. For some humanities and social sciences applications, you will not be asked
for a separate research statement, and this information will need to be integrated into the cover letter. Cover
letter for scientific positions will generally be shorter as more (but not all) of the information about research will be
covered in the research statement. Academic letters also need to cover everything that non-academic cover
letters address, however, because you need to show that you are not only a good academic, but that you are a
good person to work with who is committed to working at that particular institution. Make sure that you address
the requirements of the position as stated in the job ad. Speak to faculty in your department to get a sense of
what is expected in cover letters used in faculty job applications for your discipline. See if any faculty you know
have been involved in search committees, and find out what they looked for in cover letters. See the list of cover
letter resources, below, for additional information.

A brief note about emailing cover letters


If you are sending a cover letter as a PDF attachment to an email (and always send it as a PDF rather than
as a Word document), what do you say in the email itself? Do you repeat the contents of the cover letter
again? No. In the email you can just say what position you are applying to, what you have attached, and
perhaps mention that the recipient should let you know if they have any trouble opening the attachments.
Make sure your attachments are clearly titled, for example, RJSmith_CoverLet_Resume.pdf (indicating both
documents are attached in one PDF.)

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Wetfeet's "Insider's Guides" to cover letters and resumes will walk you through what you need to do to write
an effective cover letter for business and other non-academic positions. Visit our online subscriptions page
to access these resources and see more great examples.

You will find all you need to know about the process of applying for academic jobs in the Academic Job
Search Handbook, with great examples of actual application materials used to get faculty positions.

Spend some time exploring the career advice pages of Science Careers, NatureJobs, and the Chronicle of
Higher Education for more advice on cover letters (Tip: use the search function on these websites to find
useful resources, since new material is added frequently).

When you have a draft version of a cover letter for a non-faculty job, use the Cover Letter Checklist to
review it, and see if you can identify areas where you need more work, or where you would like help from a

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career advisor during a one-on-one appointment.

Make sure you search through articles on the Career Services blog "Penn & Beyond." You will find plenty of
useful information, and new posts are added frequently.

The Career Services library has plenty of books with sample job application materials, including cover
letters. Stop by and browse the collection to get some ideas for how to format your own letter.

There are other types of letters you might use during your job search (e.g., thank you letters, letters to set
up informational interviews and letters accepting or declining an offered position). Click here for examples
of these types of correspondence.
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HOW CAREER SERVICES CAN HELP


You can make an appointment with a career advisor at any time, but you'll find it more helpful if you have already
prepared a draft version of your cover letter (and/or other job search materials) that you want us to critique. To
make an appointment, call 215 898 7530. You can also drop in for walk-ins, but since these slots are only 15
minutes long, it might not be possible to get a complete review of all of your materials during this time.
Take a look at our calendar of events to see if we have any workshops or panel discussions that might be helpful.
Take every opportunity to network with faculty or company representatives who visit the campus to speak at
these programs. Remember, the more you know about a company or organization and what they do, the easier it
is to write an effective cover letter.
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