Writing an effective cover letter: a flowchart for success

I engage in quite a bit of professional development in my classes, and one of them includes the drafting of a cover letter. The students are required to peruse opportunities on a job-posting website (I send them to this one for a nice mix of wildlife and natural resource-related positions) and prepare a letter of application for one of the positions.  Because many of my students are just a few months out of high school, they have the option of mock-applying for something for which they might actually be qualified or pretending that they have qualifications for a more advanced position.

The point of the exercise is threefold: (1) To read through actual job opportunities to develop a better sense of employment opportunities and the skills they will need to develop to take advantage of those opportunities; (2) To develop familiarity with construction of a basic business letter; and (3) To provide me with an example of their best persuasive writing.

I walk them through a typical business letter format:

Student’s name, address, date, etc.

Name and address of the contact person for the position

Re: Letter of application for [specific name of the position]

Dear Mr./Ms./Dr., etc:

Paragraph 1 content: Express your desire to be considered for the specific advertised position. Briefly describe your current status and educational background.

Paragraph 2 content: This is the important one.  In Paragraph 2, you should briefly reiterate the stated requirements and qualifications of the position. The rest of the paragraph should be you making your best case that you meet or exceed those qualifications.  Be as specific as you can.

Paragraph 3 content: Offer your gratitude for being considered for the position and your willingness to be contacted for an interview or other additional screening. This can also be an opportunity to express any intangible qualities that might make you an exceptionally good fit.



Printed name


That’s it.  One page, single-spaced, and probably no smaller than 11-pt. font.

It should go without saying that the letter be proofread and copy-edited to correct typographical errors, misspellings, and obvious mistakes of grammar. I still see way too many such errors despite my ardent pleas for students to check their work diligently. Another issue is a rather puzzling tendency to have multiple fonts appear in these letters, evidently because students have cut and pasted information from some other source and failed to fix such discrepancies before printing. Determining an actual person to whom the letter should be addressed is often a nebulous area for students, too. It is okay to address a letter To Whom it May Concern but I prefer to see a real person’s name and title in the greeting. Just because it is not listed clearly in the advertisement does not mean that the appropriate addressee cannot be known. Take the time to follow links to the organization’s website to see if there is an obvious person to whom your letter should be addressed.

By far the biggest problem, however, concerns the content in Paragraph 2. Only a tiny fraction of students take the time to clearly express that they understand the requirements of the advertised position, and they also tend to be far too vague in describing their suitability to it. I am confident that I meet all the requirements for the position. Ooh, that’s a one-way ticket to the recycling bin unless you follow a vague statement like that with some specific examples of you having performed such tasks. Specificity is the key. Be as explicit as you can be to demonstrate that you have the skills advertised for the position.

Sometimes, we will apply to positions for which we do not meet all the qualifications but the point of the opportunity (an internship, perhaps?) might be to provide relevant work experience. In that case, it is good to acknowledge the skills and experience that you would hope to acquire in the position rather than fumble your way through trying to explain why you should be selected despite your inexperience. In fact, it is a good idea to always make some mention of how you would hope to grow in a position, even if it is one for which you are well qualified.

To help make this Paragraph 2 stuff a bit less mysterious, I have prepared the following flow chart of how to approach your suitability for a position.  Use it in good health, and good luck on that job search!




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