Chapter 19: Cover/Application Letters

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Explain the difference between a cover letter and a résumé
  • Recall at least three tips for making your cover letter stand out
  • Distinguish between the four parts of a cover letter and the purposes of each
  • Analyze a sample cover letter to determine strengths and weakness

Key Terms and Concepts

  • cover letter / application letter
  • full block letter format
  • pathos
  • ethos
  • logos
Photo: A workspace

In the era of social media, the idea of writing a cover letter to introduce your résumé may seem outdated. However, the cover letter (also known as an application letter) still serves a few critical functions. If your résumé is characterized by breadth—giving a broad overview of your qualifications—the cover letter is characterized by depth—choosing a few most significant qualifications to cover in detail.

Your cover letter is the first writing sample your employer will see from you that is written in paragraphs rather than bullet points. In paragraphs, it is easier to market your unique qualifications and how you will fit in with the culture of the company. An effective cover letter will create a picture of you as a potential employee, and inspire a potential employer to learn more about you.

Keep the following tips in mind as you write your cover letter:

  • Your cover letter is essentially an argument for why you should be granted an interview.
  • Make sure to support the claim that you are qualified for the position with evidence. This evidence should come from the pre-writing exercises you did in the previous chapter.
  • Demonstrate your authority by speaking in detail about your qualifications, and show the reader that you have the skills and abilities necessary to do the job at hand. The more detail you offer and the more precise your language is, the more the reader will be able to picture you doing the job. See the sample cover letter below for examples of “showing.”
  • Use your audience analysis research to help you connect with the company and to choose the appropriate tone, level of formality, and level of technicality
  • Follow the full block format for professional letters found in the Technical Communication chapter.
  • Aim for one page for your letter and avoid spilling over onto a second
  • Follow the Seven Cs to make sure you’ve edited your letter professionally

Outline for Cover Letters

With some adjustments, the full block format will help you design your cover letter, but what about the actual content? The general outline for a cover letter has four parts, each with their own elements. They are:

  1. Salutation
  2. Opening Paragraph
  3. Body Paragraph(s)
  4. Closing Paragraph

Make sure your cover letter has all the elements discussed below. Otherwise, your cover letter risks not being the persuasive document it needs to be to get you an interview.


Make your best attempt to find a specific name (or at least the job title) of the person to whom you should address this letter.  Avoid using generic salutations like “Dear Hiring Manager,” as they do not add any relation to your letter. If you do not know the specific audience to direct your letter to, you can omit this portion of the letter.

Opening Paragraph

State why you are writing, specifically naming the position to which you are applying. Indicate how you learned about the position (networking if you can). In one sentence, create a pathos appeal by using your audience analysis research to establish a connection with the company. Finally, in one sentence, summarize your strongest qualification/s for the job, in order to build up your credibility or ethos.

Body Paragraph(s) 

Your body paragraphs show how you are uniquely qualified for the position. Build each paragraph around a single qualification or unique professional strength that relates to the job for which you are applying. Open the paragraph with a claim about this qualification/strength, and then provide a developed illustration of a time in your work or academic history when you used/excelled at this skill, or used it to benefit others.

For example, if the job requires excellent customer service skills, you might discuss a time in which you used your customer service skills to defuse a conflict or increase your company’s profits. It can be effective to conclude your middle paragraphs with sentences that express how these past experiences will prepare you for the potential job. These concluding statements contribute to your ethos by demonstrating your good judgement, and establish an effective logos appeal by drawing connections between your skills and experiences and the company’s needs. 

Be sure to begin each paragraph with a clear topic sentence that unifies the information found in the paragraph.

Closing Paragraph 

Thank the reader for their time and consideration. Gesture towards an interview. You may explicitly request an interview, or you may wish to include such a phrase as, “I look forward to discussing my qualifications with you in person soon.”

If there is any information the reader should know about getting in touch with you, include it; if your phone number and email address do not appear elsewhere in the cover letter, include them here. You may refer the reader to your enclosed résumé.

Exercise #1: Sample Cover Letters

Below are images of two cover letters. The first image shows an outline version. The second one is a sample. Review the outline, and then read the sample. Does the sample meet all the criteria we have discussed in this chapter? Why or why not? How could it be improved?

If you need a reminder on what the criteria for each part is, click the icon at the end of each element.

Key Takeaways

  • The cover letter is your argument for why a company should hire you. It is a way for you to market your qualifications to a potential employer and explain how you will fit into the company culture. This is accomplished by choosing your most significant qualifications and discussing them in detail.
  • It is not enough to state: “I have customer service skills.” You must back up this claim with evidence from your past experiences.
  • It is also important to create a connection with your audience. If you can show how your own goals align with the company, it will be easier for them to see why you would be a good fit.
  • Your cover letter should have four elements: a Salutation, Opening Paragraph, Body Paragraph(s), and Closing Paragraph.
  • For the Salutation, avoid generic greetings if possible. Try your best to find the specific name of the person receiving your letter.
  • The Opening Paragraph is your chance to forge a connection to the company. Explain why you want to work for the company and summarize your strongest qualifications.
  • Each Body Paragraph of your letter should focus on a specific qualification and provide evidence of how you acquired and/or used that qualification.
  • The Closing Paragraph is there to thank the reader and affirm your interest in an interview. Don’t forget to include your name and any necessary contact information.


This chapter is adapted from “Technical Writing” by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva (on Open Oregon). It is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach Copyright © 2021 by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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