A cover letter informs an employer why you are interested in working for their organization and why they should hire you. It should highlight your credentials and background as tailored to that employer. An informative, error-free cover letter sets a positive tone for the person reviewing your resume and credentials.

Be specific, but concise.

A cover letter should never sound like a form letter. Always take the time to write a cover letter tailored to the individual employer. If you are responding to a job announcement or posting, make sure that your letter details how your background or experience fits with the specific hiring criteria mentioned in the posting. Do not just reiterate issues already listed on the resume. If you are writing to the hiring partner or the head of a specific group, make sure to explain how you believe you fit with that group.

A well-written cover letter should:

  • Detail your specific background and strengths that match the needs of the employer;
  • Add relevant information that is not on your resume; and
  • When appropriate, indicate your reasons for geographical preference, if not apparent from your resume.

Post-interview correspondence–which may include thank-you notes and letters accepting or declining offers of employment–should be similarly tailored, specific, and error-free. Any post-interview correspondence should provide enough information to evoke the relationship you have established with the recipient and to fulfill the purpose of the correspondence (generally, either getting or giving information or thanks), and then should conclude gracefully, respecting the reader’s time.

In additional to our high-level overview below, please refer to the Career Manual for a detailed discussion of cover letters and e-mail correspondence.  It provides additional information on drafting cover letters and e-mails and examples of different types of correspondence. It is highly recommended that LL.M. students consult the relevant chapter of the Career Manual when writing, editing, and formatting their written correspondence. For additional guidance in drafting your cover letters and e-mails, we recommend you review our samples of different kinds of correspondence.

Cover Letter Format

Cover letters should be written in general business letter style and printed on high-quality bond paper that matches your resume paper and envelopes. A one-page cover letter is sufficient for any job. See information below regarding content of individual paragraphs.

Also, please bear in mind that some non-profit organizations have started to ask for longer personal statements (or statements of interest). In this case, the one-page letter may take a different form, as some of the information set out below will need to be included in the personal statement rather than in the cover letter.

If you are sending your application materials in by e-mail, save your cover letter as a PDF file and attach it to your e-mail. This will allow you to retain your formatting when the employer prints out the document.

Cover Letter Content

A cover letter should include the following sections:

  • Addresses (yours, then the employer’s)
  • Date
  • Salutation
  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Concluding paragraph
  • Closing

Post-interview correspondence should follow the same general format, but may not need a separate introduction, body, and concluding paragraph.  If the subject of the correspondence is limited–a brief thank you, for example, or a quick question or response to a request–then a single paragraph might include both the introduction and the body, and perhaps even the conclusion.

Address and Employer Salutation

Your address should contain the following lines:

  • Your name
  • A two-line address
  • Your current phone number
  • Your e-mail address

For example:

Your Name
207 P Street, NW
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 555-0000

You may also choose to format your header in the same style as your resume.

You should then leave a couple of lines and add the current date in this format: October 14, 20XX.

In the employer address area, you should include the name and the title of the person to receive the letter, followed by the employer’s name and address (please do not forget to include the zip code). Whenever possible, your cover letter should be addressed to a specific individual, such as the hiring attorney, recruitment administrator or intern coordinator. If you do not know the name of the particular individual, call the firm or organization and ask to whom you should address your cover letter.

For example:

Ms. Nan Hunter
Hiring Partner
Hunter, Collins & Associates
Suite 10
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20000

Body of Cover Letters

A cover letter normally should contain three or four short paragraphs—an opening paragraph, followed by the “heart” of the letter (one or two paragraphs) and a closing paragraph. Each paragraph should be no more than seven sentences, preferably less than five.

These middle paragraphs of the cover letter should collectively reflect your unique abilities and qualifications in a manner that sets you apart from other applicants. Tailor the discussion of your skills and career interests as much as possible to the employer—its work, location, size, reputation, etc. Many employers, particularly public interest organizations, prefer cover letters that discuss your background and commitment to the constituencies and/or issues the employer represents.

General Guidance on E-mails

Employers often request that students communicate with them by e-mail. Always treat e-mail correspondence as you would treat a hard copy of a cover letter or resume. Many employers view an e-mail as a writing sample, so pay attention to grammar rules, spelling and punctuation. Remember that e-mails are meant to be brief, yet professional, and should provide the reader with an immediate sense of what you are trying to communicate.

Write clear, short paragraphs and be direct and to the point. Always choose a professional typeface. We suggest that you keep your formatting simple so that it does not detract from the actual message you have written.

When using e-mail to assist you in the job search, always keep the reader in mind. Your first thought should be “who will be reading my e-mail?” Consider the reader’s position, organization and potential needs and objectives. You should use e-mail as a method of first contact to employers only when an employer specifically invites or suggests doing so in the instructions on the employer’s website, in a job announcement or in verbal advice after an informational interview.

The tone of a job search or business-related e-mail should always be professional. Never use the casual language that you would typically use in e-mails to family and friends. Be friendly and cordial, but do not try to joke around. This may be inappropriate or may not come off in the right way in an e-mail. You can never go wrong by letting professionalism be your guide. When in doubt, err on the side of formality.