Tips for Writing a Good Cover Letter

By Multiple Authors

Writing a cover letterIf you are job searching, you may be wondering if you need to go to the effort of writing a cover letter. After all, they’re less common than they were ten years ago, and it does take a bit of time to craft one. We still think they're useful, so we've updated our cover letter blog post to help you write the best one possible! 

Should I write a cover letter?

If you’re in a country where cover letters are common, the answer is usually yes! A good cover letter won’t hurt your application, but it can certainly help you stand out. 

In some fields, a cover letter is vital, particularly in fields where communication and writing are key skills. Other fields, often highly technical or skills-based ones, may not use them very often. Similarly, entry-level jobs are less likely to require cover letters, while higher-level jobs are more likely to consider cover letters an important part of the application.

Even within an organization, there can be variance. At Addgene, our content team, where writing is a core skill, considers cover letters to be very important. On the other hand, our app/dev team rarely, if ever, sees cover letters submitted for their entry-level jobs and does not require or request them for these positions. (They are not, however, opposed to a good cover letter!) As with any part of the job application process, it's a good idea to talk to people in the field to understand what the norms are.

What is a cover letter for?

A cover letter is a place to provide helpful context about your candidacy, beyond what is on your resume. It is a space for you to explain how your skills and experience match the job requirements, by giving specific examples of your work and explaining how your experience and skills would help you do the job as described.

Read More About Career Development

Let’s imagine you’re applying to a job that requires ddPCR skills. Your resume lists ddPCR, so the hiring manager knows that you have ddPCR experience. In your cover letter, you can expand on that by describing how you developed and used a ddPCR assay to answer an experimental question. Now, the hiring manager knows that you can design experiments with ddPCR, interpret the results, and develop a successful, reproducible assay. That information can make you a much stronger candidate! 

Additional uses

The cover letter is a great place to proactively address questions about your application. These could be logistical, like briefly explaining a gap in your job history or sharing relocation plans. They can be skills-based: if you're switching fields, you can use your cover letter to explain why your transferable skills make you a good candidate for the position.

You can also address any missing experience or skills, often by pointing to your transferable skills. In the above example, if you don’t have experience with ddPCR, but do have experience with qPCR, you could talk about how your experience with qPCR would make it easy to master ddPCR. 

Finally, it’s a good idea to state why you’re applying to the specific company or lab. Take some time to research the lab or company via their papers and/or website and use that information to explain why you are interested in working for that organization or group. This is particularly important for labs and nonprofits, who tend to prioritize candidates that are excited about their work and mission. 

How do I know what to write about?

If you’re struggling to think of what to put in your cover letter, start by looking at the requirements in the job description. For each requirement, ask yourself if you have that skill. If the answer is yes, ask yourself “how do I know that I have that skill?” The answer to that is what goes into your cover letter.

Imagine you’re applying to a job with a lot of file management that asks for strong organizational skills. You might think, “I’d be good at that! I organized my lab data so well that I can find the results of any experiment I’ve run in under thirty seconds.” That’s exactly what you would want to talk about! You could describe your organizational system, your rationale for designing it the way you did, and state that it would help you manage a large number of files as part of the job.

Structure of a cover letter

Cover letters follow the same format regardless of whether you’re in academia, industry, or nonprofits. Like any other letter, they have an opening, a body, and a closing.

Parts of a cover letter

  • The opening paragraph is the place to introduce yourself and your background. It’s a great place to state why you’re applying to the job, company, and/or lab, and how you feel connected to their work. Since the beginning is often the hardest part, here are some examples to get you started!

Dear Dr./Professor [last name],

My name is [full name]. I am a [type of scientist] who recently earned my PhD from the Department of [name of the department] at [name of the university].During my thesis work on [phenomenon X], I read several of your publications on [specific topic]. I am extremely interested in pursuing research in [specific topic] and in the possibility of joining your team as a postdoctoral researcher.

Dear Hiring Manager,

I am writing to apply for [title of the position] at [name of the company/organization]. I am a [adjective that describes you] scientist with over [number] years of experience in [field of research], and have excellent [list the most important skills for the position]. I am enthusiastic about [something that you love and is important for the job].

Notice that the intros above allow you to highlight what specific skills, qualities, or interests make you a good candidate for the job.

  • The body of the cover letter should be one to three paragraphs. This is where you make the case for why you are a good candidate, explain how your experience matches the job requirements, and address any unusual circumstances or proactively answer questions the hiring manager may have.
  • The closing paragraph should again show your enthusiasm for getting the position and include a brief summary of why you are a good applicant. If you haven't talked about it yet, it's also a good place to state why you are interested in working for this lab and/or company.

Remember to proofread your cover letter, and if possible, send it to a mentor or colleague for a second look and helpful feedback! 

What if I’m not a good writer?

That’s okay! Your cover letter needs to be coherent and free of typos and grammatical errors. It does not need to be a literary masterpiece. For most jobs, the writing quality required will be close to that of a professional email.

Notes from real-life hiring managers

In preparation for updating this post, I took an informal poll of Addgene hiring managers. All of them stated that a good cover letter, one that explained how a candidate’s skills and experiences fit the job requirements, strengthened an application. Even so, there were examples of great hires who hadn’t submitted a cover letter; their experience and skills had shown through in their resumes alone. 

In my unofficial poll, hiring managers also said that they considered cover letters to be more important for higher-level positions. Many did not require cover letters for entry-level positions, as at that stage, cover letters can be a barrier for qualified applicants.

In short, while a cover letter can’t replace skills and experience, it can help the hiring manager understand how your specific skills and experience will help you excel in the role. It can also convey your excitement for that particular job, your commitment to the organization's mission, or your deep interest in the lab's research.

Quick tips for writing a good cover letter

  • Personalize your cover letter to the job and job requirements. It’s okay to start from a standard version, but take some time to make it fit the job you’re applying for.
  • The cover letter should be no more than a page. Conciseness is key!
  • If possible, address to the professor or hiring manager. Otherwise, use a gender-neutral greeting like “Dear Hiring Manager.”
  • Highlight your achievements with specific examples. Instead of saying “I have excellent communication skills” try giving an example, like “I have extensive communication experience, having given more than 20 talks at conferences and taught for five years at [name of the university]”
  • Include keywords from the job description to help the hiring manager quickly make the connection between your skills and the needs of the job.
  • Make it clear that you are interested in the specific position you are applying to.
  • Be clean and professional. Always review grammar and spelling several times and ask someone else read your cover letter (as well as your resume or CV) before sending it.

... and now... you're ready to go! Good luck!

This post was originally written by Maria Soriano-Carot in September 2016 and was updated by Rachel Leeson in May 2024.  


Additional Resources on the Addgene Blog

Additional Resources

Topics: Science Careers, Applying for Jobs

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