Writing Cover Letters
What is a cover letter?
To be considered for almost any position, you will need to write a letter of application. Such a letter introduces you, explains your purpose for writing, highlights a few of your experiences or skills, and requests an opportunity to meet personally with the potential employer.
Precisely because this letter is your introduction to an employer and because first impressions count, you should take great care to write an impressive and effective letter. Remember that the letter not only tells of your accomplishments but also reveals how effectively you can communicate.
The appropriate content, format, and tone for application letters vary according to the position and the personality of the applicant. Thus you will want to ask several people (if possible) who have had experience in obtaining jobs or in hiring in your field to critique a draft of your letter and to offer suggestions for revision.
Despite the differences in what constitutes a good application letter, the suggestions on these pages apply generally.
What to include in a cover letter
Try to limit your letter to a single page. Be succinct.
Assess the employer's needs and your skills. Then try to match them in the letter in a way that will appeal to the employer's self-interest.
As much as possible, tailor your letter to each job opportunity. Demonstrate, if possible, some knowledge of the organization to which you are applying.
Write in a style that is mature but clear; avoid long and intricate sentences and paragraphs; avoid jargon. Use action verbs and the active voice; convey confidence, optimism, and enthusiasm coupled with respect and professionalism.
Show some personality, but avoid hard-sell, gimmicky, or unorthodox letters. Start fast; attract interest immediately. For more information see Business Letter Format.
Arrange the points in a logical sequence; organize each paragraph around a main point.
How to organize a cover letter
Below is one possible way to arrange the content of your cover letter.
State why you are writing.
Establish a point of contact (advertisement in a specific place for a specific position; a particular person's suggestion that you write): give some brief idea of who you are (a Senior engineering student at UW; a recent Ph.D. in History).
Highlight a few of the most salient points from your enclosed resume.
Arouse your reader's curiosity by mentioning points that are likely to be important for the position you are seeking.
Show how your education and experience suit the requirements of the position, and, by elaborating on a few points from your resume, explain what you could contribute to the organization.
(Your letter should complement, not restate, your resume.)
Stress action. Politely request an interview at the employer's convenience.
Indicate what supplementary material is being sent under separate cover and offer to provide additional information (a portfolio, a writing sample, a sample publication, a dossier, an audition tape), and explain how it can be obtained.
Thank the reader for his/her consideration and indicate that you are looking forward to hearing from him/her.
Questions to guide your writing
Who is my audience?
What is my objective?
What are the objectives and needs of my audience?
How can I best express my objective in relationship to my audience's objectives and needs?
What specific benefits can I offer to my audience and how can I best express them?
What opening sentence and paragraph will grab the attention of my audience in a positive manner and invite them to read further?
How can I maintain and heighten the interest and desire of the reader throughout the letter?
What evidence can I present of my value to my audience?
If a resume is enclosed with the letter, how can I best make the letter advertise the resume?
What closing sentence or paragraph will best assure the reader of my capabilities and persuade him or her to contact me for further information?
Is the letter my best professional effort?
Have I spent sufficient time drafting, revising, and proofreading the letter?
*From Ronald L. Kraunich, William J. Bauis. High Impact Resumes & Letters. Virginia Beach, VA: Impact Publications, 1982.
How to format a cover letter
Type each letter individually, or use a word processor.
Use good quality bond paper.
Whenever possible, address each employer by name and title.
Each letter should be grammatically correct, properly punctuated, and perfectly spelled. It also should be immaculately clean and free of errors. Proofread carefully!
Use conventional business correspondence form. If you are not certain of how to do this, ask for help at the Writing Center.
For further information on cover letters contact the Career Advising and Planning Services and take a look at our workshp on Writing Resumes and Cover Letters (NB: this course not offered during the summer).
CV Writing Tips
An Introduction to Writing a CV
This page is designed particularly for graduate students in all fields and provides introductory advice on how to write a CV. The term "CV" is short for "curriculum vitae"—the Latin phrase for "the course of one's life." Your CV is a document that presents who you are as a scholar. CVs are used in academic spheres to organize your education, experiences, and accomplishments in a clear and predictable way that allows readers to skim and find information efficiently. When you apply for an academic position or opportunity, a CV is usually requested instead of a resume.
Hiring committees may receive hundreds of applications for any one job, and their time is limited. Therefore, you want to make sure that your CV is as clear and directed as possible. Your CV needs to be tailored to that position's specific expectations and structured and formatted so that all your material is clear, consistent, and skimmable. Your integrity is very important to uphold, so as with any other application document, make sure that anything you include on your CV is accurate and will stand up to questioning in an interview.
In the sections below, you'll find information about:
This information is general and not tailored to any particular discipline. As such, you absolutely need to:
- locate strong current sample CVs from your field,
- talk to your mentors and professors about particular expectations of CVs in your discipline, and
- share drafts of your CV for feedback from trusted advisors and colleagues.
The insight you receive from these other sources along with the information provided below will help you to make informed decisions about how to approach, draft, and revise your particular CV.
Resumes vs. CVs
While CVs and resumes are similar documents, they are also different in some key ways. (You can find more information about resumes and resume writing here.) This table details some of the most important points of comparison and contrast to be aware of:
|Purpose||To present the case that your experience and skills make you a great candidate for a particular position.||To present the case that your academic experience and accomplishments make you a great candidate for a particular academic position.|
|Audience||Any possible employer or HR employee.||Fellow academics on a hiring committee.|
|Length||Probably only 1 page and absolutely no longer than 2 pages.||As long as you need it to be while still keeping it as concise as possible.|
Description of Experience
Focused on active skills linked with quantifiable results you’ve achieved.
May appear on the top of the first page.
Often not needed since your audience understands academic work and many job, publication, and conference titles are self-explanatory.
May appear at the end of the CV.
|Formatting||Simple, clear, and skimmable.||Simple, clear, and skimmable.|
Sections to Include
Your CV should be divided into clearly labeled sections that allow your readers to easily skim through and learn about your relevant qualifications. The exact sections you include will depend on your background and the positions you're applying for. In some disciplines, there may be an established order to the sections after "Education." If so, follow that. If not, highlight your greatest strengths for the position. For example, if you are applying for a position at a research university, you might choose to start with your publications. If the position primarily involves teaching, lead with your teaching section.
In what follows, we detail the most common CV sections:
This information should appear at the top of your CV and should include your name, phone number, mailing address (either work or private), and professional email address. You may want to draw some attention to this information by slightly altering the formatting, alignment, or font, but don't overdo this.
Frequently this section follows your contact information. This section, like most in a CV, is organized in reverse chronological order, so that your most recent (or highest) degree or degree–in–progress appears first. Include the name of the school, the degree conferred, the area of study and/or major and minor, and the year the degree was completed. This is also an appropriate place to include the title of your dissertation and/or Master's thesis along with your key advisors' names. Don't include your GPA, and generally, do not include information about anything prior to your Bachelor's degree.
Given the expectations of a CV, include only employment experience that is connected to your academic work, interests, and development. Also, whereas in a resume you describe your work, skills, and accomplishments, such detailed descriptions are often out of place in a CV. The people reading your CV have a pretty good idea of what it means to have taught, for example, a general chemistry or an introduction to philosophy course. Of course, if a position you held wouldn't be clear to other academics, you may choose describe it here. For example, if you worked at an MRI lab but your primary responsibilities involved subject location, screening, and interviews, this would be an important descriptive detail to establish in this section.
While you may choose to not use subsections and there may be others to consider, the three most common are: teaching experience, research experience, and administrative experience.
Often this details: the institutions where you've taught, your job titles at these institutions (e.g., TA, intern, adjunct instructor, etc.), the names and course numbers for the classes you’ve taught, and the dates when you taught these or the number of terms you taught them.
If you've served as a research assistant in any capacity, this would be an appropriate section to identify that. Depending on your field and experience, you may choose to detail: the names of labs you’ve worked in, the names of PIs you've worked under, the titles of projects you've worked on and the nature of your contributions, and the dates of your involvement. It is appropriate to use vocabulary here that is familiar to your scholarly peers.
If you have leadership experience in your department or in connection to other organizations or initiatives, you will want to identify your role, the name of the program, the dates you served in this capacity, and perhaps a brief description of your responsibilities. While many CV items won't include descriptions, when accounting for your administrative experience, you may need to offer a sentence or a concise bulleted list in order to inform your readers of what you did within this position.
Include the titles, names of any co–authors, and publication information for your scholarly reviewed publications. Some writers format their references by following the major documentation system used in their discipline. Often publications are organized in reverse chronological order starting with your most recent publication. There are some very specific rules about how to describe manuscripts that are under consideration but not yet accepted or that are in press. Be sure to ask your faculty advisors for instruction about how to claim credit for work in progress without inflating your accomplishments.
Sometimes CV writers want to showcase other, slightly less academic publications (e.g., blog posts or creative writing). If you choose to do this, make sure you use subsection titles to provide clear distinctions between types of publications.
Presentations and Posters
Include the presentation or poster titles, names of any co–presenters, conferences, and dates for your scholarly presentations at conferences. If you have many of these to choose from, select only the most relevant or prestigious presentations to include in a given CV.
Grants, Fellowships, Honors, and Awards
Depending on how many of these you have to draw from, you might choose to break this into subsections. Mostly, this section is about acknowledging the accolades you’ve won and the competitive resources you’ve received. Include the names of the awards or grants and the date you received them. Here again, be strategic about what you include. If a grant you received is particularly prestigious or sizable, it can be appropriate to detail the amount received.
CV readers want to know about your participation on committees, the ways you've contributed to the life of your department or other organizations, and the associated volunteer work you've done. In this section, include information (titles, organization names, dates) about this part of your academic experience.
If you've been a member of a scholarly organization, include the titles of those organizations and the years of your membership.
Especially if it is relevant to your research or academic work, include any languages you know and the extent of your proficiency. If appropriate for your field, this might include foreign languages as well as computer languages.
When it comes to formatting your CV, your priority should be maintaining simplicity, clarity, and skimmability. Now is not the time for you to experiment with different fonts and unconventional alignment. Follow the formatting standards you identify within the sample CVs that you locate. Don't try to be original with how you lay out your information. Make sure your CV looks like the others so that readers can focus on the content of your document. Here are some specific formatting tips to keep in mind:
- Balance text and white space. Pay attention to where text is bunched up and where your page is empty and try to spread these elements out so that your information is clear.
- Don't use anything smaller than point 11 font, and while it's okay to adjust the margins, don't go under .5–inch on all sides.
- Be stylistically consistent. For example, if you choose to make one section title bold, make them all bold.
- Be smart about where your page breaks occur. For example, don't leave a section heading stranded by itself on the bottom of one page. Also, if you have a choice on an electronic application, upload your CV as a .pdf file. This will let you control the formatted appearance regardless of what templated preferences reviewers have on their computer.
Be consistent and work with parallel structures.
Across your CV, be consistent in your formatting, structure, and content. This is a matter of very closely following the norms that you establish for how your CV is set up. For example, if you abbreviate state names in your education section, abbreviate them in your work experience section as well. If you include a 12–point line break after one section, include the same size line break after every section. If you use complete sentences in your description of one job, use complete sentences in every description.
Revise and proofread your CV.
No matter how many similar CVs you've sent out, always read through each newly adjusted one slowly and in its entirety. Consider critically your content, clarity, order, and layout. Make sure that your grammar is flawless. Ask people whose opinion you trust to look at your CV, and be open to making changes to your document based on their recommendations. In addition to getting feedback from experts in your discipline, if you are a currently enrolled UW–Madison student, you are welcome to bring your CV into the Writing Center or visit us at one of our satellite locations to have one of our instructors help you re-see and re–consider your work.
Organize your CV drafts and information.
Your CV will change and grow as you continue through your academic career. Find a way to keep track of your additional experiences so that when it comes time to submit a new CV you aren't scrambling to remember recent conference presentations, awards, classes, etc. Some people have a CV folder on their computer where they can progressively deposit details about additional work and accomplishments. Others find it useful to have a master or composite CV that includes formatted information about everything they've done. They return to this document several times a year to update it, and when it's time to submit a new CV, they paste items from this list into a new document. However you do it, make sure that you're keeping track of the impressive things you've done so that nothing gets accidentally left out.
- Chapter 1 "Preparing for Entering Academia" of Prosanta Chakrabarty's A Guide to Academia: Getting Into and Surviving Grad School, Postdocs, and a Research Job (2012) has great tips and insight for junior scholars writing their first CV.
- Chapter 7 "Your Career" of Martin H. Krieger's The Scholar's Survival Manual: A Road Map for Students, Faculty, and Administrators (2013) includes some important questions for you to ask yourself to make sure that your CV accurately and efficiently represents your best work.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a range of detailed information, samples, and before–and–after renovations of CVs through its 2008, 2009, and 2010 "CV Doctor" content. You can find links to all of this material here.
One of the best ways to learn about CVs is to carefully study successful samples. While you should be absolutely sure to ask faculty mentors and other collegaues in your field for CV models and advice, we have also a few .pdf files of successful CVs from UW–Madison colleagues in various disciplines. While there is no single right way to compose a CV, these samples can open up conversations about choices you have for organizing and structuring CVs.