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Cover Letter Tips to Stand Out

By Higher Education Recruitment Consortium
February 21, 2017
an image of a woman typing on her laptop

In the generations before the Internet and online applications, job hunters spent as much time choosing the paper on which their application material would be printed as crafting the cover letters themselves. Dr. Miri Pardo, adjunct assistant professor at New York City College of Technology, began teaching business and professional communication when textbook material often included chapters on the type of paper used for cover letters, resumes, and envelopes. “‘Paper & Envelopes’ was a chapter in the business communication text books. Can you imagine?” she said. “Different weight, color of paper, embossed, watermarks, all of this was carefully considered.”

Are Cover Letters Still Relevant?

In a word—yes! “Think of the cover letter as your calling card," says Pardo. "It should be included with any application material—leaving it out makes your portfolio appear incomplete at best; lazy or unmotivated at worst. Your cover letter serves as a condensed version of your CV or resume. Use it to call out how your skills meet and exceed the position requirements in a sentence or two.” Furthermore, Dr. Pardo offers the following suggestions for crafting your cover letter:

Begin with the Needs of the Employer

While a CV or resume demonstrates your qualifications, a cover letter helps you demonstrate your “fit” with an institution. Start by researching your potential employer, including a review of their mission statement to help tailor your cover letter to their needs. Introductory phrases should start strong: “I have worked in higher education for the past 12 years, and am anxious to bring my energy and enthusiasm to – University." They should also show how your skills will be beneficial: “I bring award winning teaching techniques, coupled with a strong habit of scholarship.” Craft a message that will catch the attention of the person reading the application materials. At most, they will spend 10 seconds reading your cover letter. Make your information stand out.

Emphasize Your Skills

Use the paragraphs after your introduction to show how your skills meet the requirements of the position you seek, then go beyond. Show your enthusiasm for the position with sentences such as, “I look forward to the excitement and energy that comes from teaching this course, and I know from my experience teaching similar courses that my approach will keep students engaged.”  

Use Specific Examples

Tell a story within the body of your cover letter that shows how you would handle the responsibilities of the position. Explain how you would conduct yourself in the role you seek. Use specific examples to show your capabilities, such as “my experience as a – has prepared me for the job of – at – University,” or: “Even as an undergraduate I was fascinated by the way students prepare for tests and quizzes. This interest has fueled my research in –.” 


  • Be sure your grammar and spelling are impeccable. Poor spelling or grammar almost guarantees you will not receive a call back.   
  • Research the names and titles of the people you will be contacting. No one likes to read a cover letter addressed “to whom it may concern," especially when the information you need is readily available on LinkedIn or the potential employer’s website!
  • Have someone you trust read your materials before you press "Send." There is no shame in using a proofreader. Better your friend find a mistake than the addressee of your cover letter!
  • Keep it positive! If you feel you are lacking in some skill, don’t bring it up! If the knowledge is critical, it will become clear. Often we are our own worst critics. Keep your deficits to yourself.

Do Not:

  • Forget your due diligence. Make sure you research your prospective employer. Incorporate what you find into your cover letter.
  • Use humor. Especially if the culture of your prospective employer is unknown to you, beware of seeming too "jokey" and not serious about the position. If you are unaware of the culture of the institution, do some research. Even if an employer is lighthearted in an employment announcement, play it neutral. 
  • Take yourself too seriously. No one likes a know-it-all. While it is important to stress your strengths, don’t act like you have the job until you’ve signed on the dotted line. 
  • Much has changed about the way cover letters are delivered. While special paper and fancy envelopes aren’t necessary, the need to deliver a carefully crafted letter that highlights your strengths remains essential to a successful job search.


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