Standing Out with a Solid Cover Letter

  • Author
    Patrick J. Hale
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    Career Info

As you continue to craft all the documents for your student affairs job search, it's likely that you are now thinking about the kinds of positions for which to apply. With any job application you submit, you will need your résumé handy (see my advice on writing a solid résumé) and, of course, a cover letter. Whether or not you have written a cover letter in the past, this post will help you think more critically about writing one. 

Think of your résumé as that item on a restaurant menu that should catch your eye instantly. Now, think of the cover letter as, let’s say, a Yelp review. It should answer the following questions for the employer: what job am are you interested in? How will this job benefit both you and the employer? What will you bring to this job? What will this job provide the employer? What will you do to follow up on your interest? Your cover letter should seriously demonstrate what you know about an organization, the position, and how serious you are about it.


Most cover letters are three paragraphs with (1) an introductory paragraph that states interest in the position and organization, (2) a paragraph outlining relevant qualifications that amend (not restate) the résumé, and (3) a final paragraph that reaffirms interest and indicates how you would follow up. The organization is fairly simple, but it’s important to have solid content within your letter. Here are some things you can do to create that outstanding cover letter. 

Do Your Homework

Before writing your letter, do some research on the position, department, and institution that you want to work for. Review all the pertinent information available to you—job description, department and institutional mention, campus statistics, strategic plan documents—anything that can help you to get to know the institution. Also, who are the people that work in the department? Who do you know that knows those people? What stuff can you learn about the institution that isn’t featured on their website? Your network of colleagues can be a great resource if you know who to talk to.

Know Who You Are Writing To

Sometimes it is not quite clear to whom you should address your cover letter. It could be the direct supervisor, a search committee, or the head of the department. It might be a good idea to reach out to someone overseeing the recruitment process to determine to whom the cover letter should be address. As much as possible, try to avoid using the phrase “To whom it may concern” to open a cover letter—unless you have no other means of gathering address information.

Avoid Form Letters

One common practice that candidates engage in during their job search is the creation and distribution of form cover letters, where they write one general cover letter and send that letter to virtually every recruiter from whom they are seeking employment. Form letters are a convenient way of not having to write letter after letter, especially if you are applying to several positions in your search. However--while it is tempting to avoid creating more work for yourself--form letters are not the best way to go. They generally fail to do a few things: 

  1. Express your strong interest in the position
  2. Mention something unique or attractive about the position, department or institution
  3. Point to specific skills and accomplishments that are relevant to the job
  4. Generate interest on the part of the recruiter or employer

From my personal experience, general form letters are easy to spot. Some form letters tend to restate a person’s résumé (which the recruiter already has) and uses very non-specific language that mentions nothing about the position or department. Writing form letters is also another way of indicating that you are not as serious about your job search and are probably attempting to cast a wide net just to land a job. It may be your top priority to get a paycheck, but it’s the recruiter's bottom line to hire someone who is qualified and actually wants to work for them.

Cover letter writing requires time and good attention to detail. Sometimes even if your résumé does not seem as strong, a cover letter can be your saving grace. It can help to use your cover letter to demonstrate what you’re looking to accomplish. Let your cover letter speak volumes to help you move ahead!


Patrick J. Hale is a student affairs professional and social justice educator based out of Boston, MA, who has been in the field for over five years. He's always happy to help graduate students and new professionals! Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @PatrickJHale.

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