Cover letter do’s — and absolute don’ts

First impressions can be the most lasting, so it is vital to get your cover letter right for your prospective employer.

“The cover letter is the trailer, and your CV is the movie,” Professor Bill Sullivan.

Sullivan, Showalter Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM), has written a guide to creating a killer cover letter, complete with do’s and don’ts in each section, which has proved very valuable to many early career researchers.

At the end of this post you’ll find three open access links to sample cover letters and CVs. These have been put together by staff and alumni at the University of California and Cornell University in the USA and Vitae, a UK charity dedicated to promoting active career learning and development for researchers.

Opening paragraph
Make sure to address the person making the selection with their correct title, and include the reason you are writing. If relevant, it is acceptable to address your letter to a committee, but where possible always use an individual contact’s name. Little is more off-putting than receiving a letter addressed “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern”, and your application could be quickly dismissed as generic and untailored for the position if you do.

Next, state why you are writing, the position you are applying for, and the position you currently hold. It can also be helpful to your prospective employer to clarify when you would be available to take up your new position. A brief mention of why you would be a suitable candidate for the role works well here too, but is something that you will expand on further in your next paragraph.

Second paragraph
This is where you really need to tailor your letter for the role. You may well have composed a template letter for your postdoc applications. However, failing to customise your letter for each role may imply laziness and even a lack of sincerity. Make sure you do the background research on your prospective new team, department and institution, as well as the project. At the same time, bear in mind that flattering your potential new colleagues may create the impression that you are light on talent or productivity yourself.

This is the place to demonstrate that you are both resourceful and thoughtful. Remember that they are hiring a future colleague. It is also here that you need to strike a balance between emphasising what you will bring to the role and what you can gain from it.

Third paragraph
Here’s the place to highlight key achievements from your CV, such as your most significant paper, grant or fellowship, or other notable honours (an award-winning presentation at a conference, for example). Also mention any experience you have in training others.

Closing paragraph
End your cover letter with the same professionalism you demonstrated at the opening. The sample cover letters below include several ways to sign off, depending on the role you are applying for, and whether you are applying to an individual or committee.

Recommended format
• Fit your cover letter within a single page, or one and a half pages at most
• Use plain email stationery, free of distracting backgrounds or pictures
• Opt for a font size no bigger than 12 point
• Choose a simple font such as Arial or Helvetica; never use Comic Sans
• Don’t use colour
• Ensure that there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes
• Avoid slang and attempts at humour
• Never end your sentences with an exclamation point!

Click here to read Professor Sullivan’s full post.

Excellent resources with sample letters for faculty and postdoctoral positions can be found at:

University of California, USA
Cornell University, USA
Vitae, UK

Further reading
How to write a brilliant cover letter

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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