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How to Write a Cover Letter
Advice for tackling one of the toughest parts of the job-hunting process.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the job application process is writing an effective cover letter. And yes, you should send one. Even if only one in two cover letters gets read, that’s still a 50% chance that including one could help you. Before you start writing, find out more about the company and the specific job you want. Next, catch the attention of the hiring manager or recruiter with a strong opening line. If you have a personal connection with the company or someone who works there, mention it in the first sentence or two, and try to address your letter to someone directly. Hiring managers are looking for people who can help them solve problems, so show that you know what the company does and some of the challenges it faces. Then explain how your experience has equipped you to meet those needs. If the online application doesn’t allow you to submit a cover letter, use the format you’re given to demonstrate your ability to do the job and your enthusiasm for the role.
No one likes job hunting. Scouring through online job listings, spiffing up your résumé , prepping for grueling interviews — none of it is fun. For many, the most challenging part of the process is writing an effective cover letter. There’s so much conflicting advice out there, it’s hard to know where to start. Do you even need one, especially if you’re applying through an online system?
What the Experts Say
The answer is almost always yes. Sure, there will be times when you’re submitting an application online and you may not be able to include one, but whenever possible, send one, says Jodi Glickman, a communications expert and author of Great on the Job . “It’s your best chance of getting the attention of the HR person or hiring manager and an important opportunity to distinguish yourself from everyone else.” And in a tight job market, setting yourself apart is critical, says John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of Knockout CV . Still, as anyone who’s ever written a cover letter knows, it’s not easy to do well. Here are some tips to help.
Do your research first.
Before you start writing, find out more about the company and the specific job you want. Of course, you should carefully read the job description, but also peruse the company’s website, its executives’ Twitter feeds, and employee profiles on LinkedIn. This research will help you customize your cover letter, since you shouldn’t send a generic one. It’ll also help you decide on the right tone. “Think about the culture of the organization you’re applying to,” advises Glickman. “If it’s a creative agency, like a design shop, you might take more risks, but if it’s a more conservative organization, like a bank, you may hold back.”
If at all possible, reach out to the hiring manager or someone else you know at the company before writing your cover letter, advises Lees. You can send an email or a LinkedIn message “asking a smart question about the job.” That way you can start your letter by referencing the interaction. You might say, “Thanks for the helpful conversation last week” or “I recently spoke to so-and-so at your company.” Of course, it’s not always possible to contact someone — or you may not get a response. That’s OK. It’s still worth a try.
Focus it on the future.
While your résumé is meant to be a look back at your experience and where you’ve been, the cover letter should focus on the future and what you want to do, says Glickman. “It can be helpful to think of it as the bridge between the past and the future that explains what you hope to do next and why.” Because of the pandemic there is less of an expectation that you’ll be applying for a job that you’ve done before. “There are millions of people who are making career changes — voluntarily or involuntarily — and need to pivot and rethink how their skill set relates to a different role or industry,” says Glickman. You can use your cover letter to explain the shift you’re making, perhaps from hospitality to marketing, for example. Think of it as an opportunity to sell your transferrable skills .
“People typically write themselves into the letter with ‘I’m applying for X job that I saw in Y place.’ That’s a waste,” says Lees. Instead, lead with a strong opening sentence . “Start with the punch line — why this job is exciting to you and what you bring to the table,” says Glickman. For example, you might write, “I’m an environmental fundraising professional with more than 15 years of experience looking for an opportunity to apply my skills in new ways, and I’d love to bring my expertise and enthusiasm to your growing development team.” Then you can include a sentence or two about your background and your relevant experience, but don’t rehash your résumé.
Read more about
How to Write a Resume That Stands Out
Chances are the hiring manager or recruiter is reading a stack of these, so you want to catch their attention. But don’t try to be funny. “Humor can often fall flat or sound self-regarding,” says Lees. Stay away from common platitudes, too. “Say something direct and dynamic, such as ‘Let me draw your attention to two reasons why I’d be a great addition to your team.'”
If you have a personal connection with the company or someone who works there, also mention it in the first sentence or two. And always address your letter to someone directly. “With social media, it’s often possible to find the name of a hiring manager,” says Glickman.
Emphasize your personal value.
Hiring managers are looking for people who can help them solve problems. Drawing on the research you did earlier, show that you know what the company does and some of the challenges it faces. These don’t need to be specific but you might mention how the industry has been affected by the pandemic. For example, you might write, “A lot of health care companies are overwhelmed with the need to provide high-quality care while protecting the health and safety of their staff.” Then talk about how your experience has equipped you to meet those needs; perhaps explain how you solved a similar problem in the past or share a relevant accomplishment. You want to provide evidence of the things that set you apart.
Lees points out that there are two skills that are relevant to almost any job right now: adaptability and the ability to learn quickly. If you have brief examples that demonstrate these skills, include those. For example, if you supported your team in the shift to remote work, describe how you did that and what capabilities you drew on.
“When you don’t get hired, it’s usually not because of a lack of skills,” says Glickman. “It’s because people didn’t believe your story, that you wanted the job, or that you knew what you were getting into.” Hiring managers are going to go with the candidate who has made it seem like this is their dream job. So make it clear why you want the position . “Enthusiasm conveys personality,” Lees adds. He suggests writing something like “I’d love to work for your company. Who wouldn’t? You’re the industry leader, setting standards that others only follow.” Don’t bother applying if you’re not excited about some aspect of the company or role.
Watch the tone.
At the same time, don’t go overboard with the flattery or say anything you don’t mean. Authenticity is crucial. “Even if you’ve been out of work for months, and would take any job at this point, you want to avoid sounding desperate ,” says Lees. You don’t want your tone to undermine your message, so be professional and mature. A good rule of thumb is to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager and think about “the kind of language that the hiring manager would use with one of the company’s customers.” Of course, it can be hard to discern your own tone in writing, so you may need to ask someone to review a draft (which is always a good idea anyway — see advice below). Lees says that he often cuts outs “anything that sounds like desperation” when he’s reviewing letters for clients.
Keep it short.
Much of the advice out there says to keep it under a page. But both Glickman and Lees say even shorter is better. “Most cover letters I see are too long,” says Lees. “It should be brief enough that someone can read it at a glance.” You do have to cover a lot of ground — but you should do it succinctly. This is where asking a friend, former colleague, or mentor to review your letter can be helpful. Ask them to read through it and point out places where you can cut.
In fact, it’s a great idea to share your cover letter with a few people, says Lees. Rather than sending it off and asking, “What do you think?” be specific about the kind of feedback you want. In particular, request two things. First, ask your friend if it’s clear what your main point is. What’s the story you’re telling? Are they able to summarize it? Second, ask them what’s wrong with the letter. “Other people are more attuned to desperation, overselling, over-modesty, and underselling,” says Lees, and they should be able to point out places where the tone is off.
When you can’t submit a cover letter.
Many companies now use online application systems that don’t allow for a cover letter. You may be able to figure out how to include one in the same document as your résumé, but that’s not a guarantee, especially because some systems only allow for data to be entered into specific boxes. In these cases, use the format you’re given to demonstrate your ability to do the job and your enthusiasm for the role. If possible, you may try to find someone to whom you can send a brief follow-up email highlighting a few key points about your application.
Principles to Remember
- Have a strong opening statement that makes clear why you want the job and what you bring to the table.
- Be succinct — a hiring manager should be able to read your letter at a glance.
- Share an accomplishment that shows you can address the challenges the employer is facing.
- Try to be funny — too often it falls flat.
- Send a generic cover letter — customize each one for the specific job.
- Go overboard with flattery — be professional and mature.
Advice in Practice
Case study #1: demonstrate an understanding of what the company needs..
Michele Sommers, the vice president of HR for the Boys & Girls Village, a nonprofit in Connecticut, recently posted a job for a recruiting and training specialist. “I was looking for someone with a strong recruiting background who could do everything from sourcing candidates to onboarding new hires,” she says. She also wanted the person to hit the ground running. “We’re a small team and I can’t afford to train someone,” she says.
More than 100 candidates applied for the job. The organization’s online application system doesn’t allow for cover letter attachments, but one of the applicants, Heidi (not her real name), sent a follow-up email after submitting her résumé. “And it’s a good thing she did, because she would’ve been weeded out otherwise,” Michele says.
Heidi’s résumé made her look like a “job hopper” — very short stints at each previous employer. Michele assumed she was a poor performer who kept getting fired. She was also the only candidate who didn’t have a four-year college degree.
But Heidi’s email caught Michele’s eye. First off, it was professional. Heidi stated clearly that she was writing to double-check that her application had been received. She went on to explain how she had gotten Michele’s name and information (through her husband’s boss, who was on the board) and her personal connection to Boys & Girls Village (her father-in-law had done some work with the organization).
Stand Out in Your Interview
What really stood out to Michele, though, was Heidi’s understanding of the group and the challenges it was facing. She’d done her research and “listed some things she would do or already had done that would help us address those needs,” says Michele.
“The personality and passion she conveyed in the cover letter came through during her phone screening,” Michele says. Heidi ended up being more than qualified for the job. “I wanted this role to be bigger from the get-go, but I didn’t think that was possible. When I met her, I knew we could expand it.” Three weeks later Michele offered Heidi the job and she accepted.
Case Study #2: Catch their attention.
Over the past four years, Emily Sernaker applied for multiple positions at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). She never gave up. With each application, she sent a personalized cover letter. “I wanted my cover letter to highlight my qualifications, creative thinking, and genuine respect for the organization,” she says.
Sarah Vania, the organization’s regional HR director, says that Emily’s letters caught her attention, especially because they included several video links that showed the results of Emily’s advocacy and fundraising work at other organizations. Emily explains, “I had prior experience advocating for former child soldiers, human trafficking survivors, vulnerable women, and displaced persons. It’s one thing to make statements in a cover letter, like ‘I can make a pitch, I am a creative person, I am thoughtful,’ but showing these qualities seemed like a better way of convincing the recruiter that the statements were true.”
This is what Emily wrote to Sarah about the video:
Here is a short video about my story with activism. The nonprofit organization Invisible Children made it for a youth conference I spoke at this year. It is about four minutes. As you’ll see from the video, I’ve had a lot of success as a student fundraiser, raising over $200,000 for Invisible Children. I’ve since gone on to work as a consultant for Wellspring International and have recently concluded my studies as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar.
In each of the cover letters, Emily also made clear how much she wanted to work for IRC. “To convey enthusiasm is a vulnerable thing to do and can come off as naivete, but, when it came down to it, my enthusiasm for the organization was genuine and expressing it felt right,” she says.
This is how Emily conveyed her interest in working for IRC:
You should also know that I have a sincere appreciation of the IRC. I have enjoyed learning about your programs and have personally visited your New York headquarters, the San Diego New Roots farm, the We Can Be Heroes exhibit, and the Half the Sky exhibit in Los Angeles. The IRC is my top choice and I believe I would be a valuable addition to your fundraising team.
Emily learned throughout the process that the organization had hundreds of applicants for each position and it was extremely competitive. “I appreciated that I wouldn’t be the best for every opening but also remained firm that I did have a significant contribution to make,” she says. Eventually, Emily’s persistence paid off. She was hired as a temporary external relations coordinator, and four months later she moved into a permanent role.
Editor’s note: The author updated this article, which was originally written in 2014, to reflect the latest advice from the experts and the reality of job-seeking during the pandemic.
- Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, cohost of the Women at Work podcast , and the author of two books: Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) and the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict . She writes and speaks about workplace dynamics. Watch her TEDx talk on conflict and follow her on LinkedIn . amyegallo
Harvard Cover Letter Example
Getting into Harvard is a dream for the nearly 60,000 applicants who apply to the prestigious Boston-area university each year. Whether Harvard is your top choice or a longshot you can’t help but go after, a well-written cover letter, sometimes called a college essay, is one of the most important application materials you can create.
There’s no doubt that you’ve worked hard to ace the SATs or ACTs and spent many hours after school preparing for exams to give you the best grades possible.
Your Harvard cover letter, however, is one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t depend on your booksmarts. This is a chance to tell your own personal story and wow the admissions committee with details of your dreams and resilience.
This guide, along with the corresponding Harvard cover letter, is designed to show you create the most effective college essay possible by:
- Choosing the best cover letter format and including each of the required sections.
- Writing with powerful action verbs and examples of your achievements.
- Sharing your own journey to convince an admissions officer of your desire to succeed.
- Avoiding mistakes often made on college cover letter samples.
Resume.io is a resource for job seekers at every stage of their careers. You can find even more insight and valuable writing tips for your desired field of study in our 125+ free cover letter examples.
Harvard is getting harder. It likely comes as no surprise that the elite Harvard College is tightening up even further as the number of applications rises. For the class of 2025, the university accepted just 1,968 students out of 57,435 – an acceptance rate of 3.43 percent and the college’s lowest ever .
Best format for a Harvard cover letter
As with any cover letter, your Harvard college essay should contain sections that make it easy for the admissions officer to find the information they are looking for. Here are the essential components of your Harvard cover letter sample:
- The cover letter header
- The greeting / salutation
- The cover letter intro
- The middle paragraphs (body of the letter)
- The ending paragraph of your cover letter (conclusion and call-to-action)
By this point in your high school career, you’ve no doubt written a number of English essays. You’ll likely find that the parts of a cover letter are much the same – the intro is your hook, for example, and the body is the place to present the strongest evidence of your achievements.
This structure helps your letter flow from one section to another and keeps an admissions officer interested in what you have to say. Unlike a normal cover letter which discusses much of the experience on your resume, a Harvard cover letter should tell a personal story without needing much detail about your high school clubs or leadership roles (unless that’s part of the story you want to tell, of course!)
You can find more guidance on writing each of these sections in our comprehensive cover letter guide. That’s also a great place to look for specific formatting tips that will help ensure you keep a sense of professionalism throughout your cover letter sample.
Below is a Harvard cover letter example to help you get started in writing your own.
Dear Professor Lockwood, MY Ph.D advisor, Professor Caroline Buchanan has suggested I write to enquire about the possibly of conducting my postdoctoral research at your Harvard faculty. I am currently completing my Ph.D in mathematical sciences and as you have the same academic background as Professor Buchanan, I am interested to explore the possibilities. My focus on applied mathematics and data science has driven the direction of my academic research and having published 30+ papers and corporate case studies, I am seeking a position with an eminent mathematical mind to help shape my future work. As a keen programmer, I am particularly interested in the intersection of coding and mathematics and how A.I. led programming is able to simplify the manipulation of data. I can demonstrate that my projects are accessible to undergraduate researchers, and I have considerable experience of working in diverse teams – encompassing both academic and corporate research. During my Ph.D studies, I have taught various undergraduate courses, including calculus and advanced algebra. I would welcome the opportunity to continue this at Harvard and have a track record of improving learner outcomes. My tutoring students enjoyed a 100% pass rate and I have 28 letters of recommendation to share. Modules that I would particularly enjoy teaching include: Precalculus, Calculus, Fundamental Maths, Linear Algebra, Probability and Algebraic Structures. Enclosed please find my CV, research and teaching documents and a selection of recommendation letters. I will be visiting Harvard for the machine learning symposium in February and would welcome the opportunity to meet and discuss my application. Yours sincerely, Taylor Laughton
Cover letter header
The header of your cover letter serves two important roles: the first is to label the document with your name and contact information so the admissions officer knows exactly whose letter they are reading. The second is to create a bit of visual formatting that catches the admissions officers attention and helps them remember your cover letter a bit better than all the others.
You may be submitting your college essay in an online application or another format that doesn’t allow for a header. If that’s the case, make sure your name, phone number, email and other relevant details are included in the appropriate boxes so that there’s never a question of how to contact you.
You can see an attractive and functional header on our Harvard cover letter example.
The aim of the cover letter header: Include the most relevant contact details and create an attractive page layout to make your cover letter sample stand out from the rest.
Cover letter greeting
The cover letter greeting is how you address the person (or people) who will be reading your cover letter. In many other situations, you’d be instructed to address your letter to the name of the recipient in order to make a personal connection and show interest. In the case of Harvard, however, you’ll likely need a more general greeting. “Dear Harvard Admissions Officer,” or “Dear Harvard Admissions Team” can get the job done.
In certain circumstances, your Harvard cover letter sample won’t need a greeting at all. If you’re asked to paste your letter into a box with limited word count, forgo the greeting to maximize writing space.
The aim of the cover letter greeting: Use a general greeting that’s appropriate for a Harvard cover letter in order to set a friendly and respectful tone.
Here’s the greeting from our Harvard cover letter example.
Dear Professor Lockwood,
Cover letter introduction
The introduction is the hook of your Harvard cover letter. This is the place to draw a reader into the story you have to tell and to give them a reason to read until the very end. The introduction is generally the first paragraph of your cover letter sample. Set the scene, give the details of the characters and offer a sense of what the admissions officer will discover in the rest of your cover letter.
The aim of the cover letter introduction: Begin your cover letter with an interesting set-up that hints at the rest of the letter and encourages the reader to continue.
Check out the introduction from our Harvard cover letter example below.
MY Ph.D advisor, Professor Caroline Buchanan has suggested I write to enquire about the possibly of conducting my postdoctoral research at your Harvard faculty. I am currently completing my Ph.D in mathematical sciences and as you have the same academic background as Professor Buchanan, I am interested to explore the possibilities.
Cover letter middle part (body)
The body of your cover letter gives you all the space you need to expand on your story and convince the admissions officer that you’re the best choice for one of Harvard’s limited spots. Unlike cover letters for job applications, college essays generally tell a personal story that explains the mindset and qualities of the applicant. In the body section, you’ll need to explain how the experiences you’re writing about changed you and made you the person you are today.
The aim of the cover letter body: Share more details about your story that explain your outlook and attitude today.
Use the body from our Harvard cover letter example as a model for your own.
My focus on applied mathematics and data science has driven the direction of my academic research and having published 30+ papers and corporate case studies, I am seeking a position with an eminent mathematical mind to help shape my future work. As a keen programmer, I am particularly interested in the intersection of coding and mathematics and how A.I. led programming is able to simplify the manipulation of data. I can demonstrate that my projects are accessible to undergraduate researchers, and I have considerable experience of working in diverse teams – encompassing both academic and corporate research. During my Ph.D studies, I have taught various undergraduate courses, including calculus and advanced algebra. I would welcome the opportunity to continue this at Harvard and have a track record of improving learner outcomes. My tutoring students enjoyed a 100% pass rate and I have 28 letters of recommendation to share. Modules that I would particularly enjoy teaching include: Precalculus, Calculus, Fundamental Maths, Linear Algebra, Probability and Algebraic Structures.
How to close a Harvard cover letter (conclusion and sign-off)
Your Harvard cover letter should make a point and wrap up into an easily-digestible conclusion. Generally-speaking, your conclusion should reflect your outlook on the world or describe the ways in which you’d be an asset to Harvard (without directly pleading for a spot.)
Unless you’ve included a greeting, there’s generally no need to sign-off. Your cover letter should be complete at the final line of the conclusion.
The aim of the cover letter conclusion: Share the moral of the story and end with your final thoughts that show what type of student you’d be at Harvard.
Here’s the conclusion from our Harvard cover letter example.
Enclosed please find my CV, research and teaching documents and a selection of recommendation letters. I will be visiting Harvard for the machine learning symposium in February and would welcome the opportunity to meet and discuss my application. Yours sincerely, Taylor Laughton
Writing psychology: how to tell your story
A college essay or application letter is different from a traditional cover letter in several ways. It usually offers you more space (up to 650 words for the Common App) to tell your story and doesn’t require you to focus as much on achievements as it does lessons learned and experiences that shaped you.
In order to succeed in writing a Harvard cover letter sample, you’ll first need to reflect on your own life and look for interesting stories to share. Here are some questions to consider:
- What experiences have I had that were particularly memorable?
- Have I lived through any situations that are unusual for people my age?
- Who or what has influenced me the most in life?
- Where do I get my drive and inspiration?
- What are my strongest personality traits and where do they come from?
- What are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at this stage in my life?
There are no right or wrong topics for a Harvard cover letter, but make sure to choose one that you are truly passionate about. By weaving a narrative throughout your cover letter and focusing on your authentic experiences and tone of voice, you can be sure the admissions officer will feel your passion and desire to be part of their university.
You are so much more than your grades. While you might have worked years to perfect them, a great GPA doesn’t guarantee admission into Harvard. Many of the applicants you’re up against have also done their best. The cover letter sample can go a long way in making you stand out from other students who are also at the top of their class.
Basic mistakes in a Harvard application letter (and how to avoid them)
- Cliches and generic information: Harvard admissions officers have read it all, so it’s important to give them something that stands out. Cover letters about hard work, athletic achievements or tragedies will need to be revised carefully so that they don’t come across as too generic.
- Poor tone: Your tone should be authentic without ever sacrificing professionalism. You don’t need to beg for admission, but you should also be careful to avoid coming across as entitled or demanding.
- Spelling and grammar mistakes: When the competition is this fierce, any little typo or grammar mistake can be a big deal. Avoid these issues by using spell check and asking a trusted mentor to proofread.
- Formatting issues: If you need to upload a cover letter sample as its own file, you’ll want to make sure that your layout and design is as attractive as possible. A free cover letter template can help you do this quickly.
- A Harvard cover letter, sometimes called a college essay, is one of the most important documents to help you get accepted into this prestigious institution.
- As seen in our cover letter example, having clear and organized sections makes it easier for the admissions officer to understand your letter.
- Most Harvard cover letters will share a personal story about the applicant and explain what they’ve learned or how it affected them.
- Avoid cliche topics like sports victories, tragedies or difficult coursework and look for unique moments in your life to expand upon.
If you’re looking for more cover letter help as a student, check out these related education cover letter examples:
- Scholarship cover letter example
- University cover letter sample
- Internship cover letter sample
- Student cover letter example
- Graduate cover letter example
Your cover letter is a writing sample and a part of the screening process. By putting your best foot forward, you can increase your.
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Even if only one in two cover letters gets read, that's still a 50% ... doesn't allow you to submit a cover letter, use the format you're
Best format for a Harvard cover letter · The cover letter header · The greeting / salutation · The cover letter intro · The middle paragraphs (body of the letter)
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