Resumes, Cover Letters, and Professional Correspondence

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First Impressions

Resumes, cover letters and other professional correspondence are the nuts-and-bolts of the career process. Frequently, these documents offer your first impression to a potential employer. Resumes give recruiters a quick overview of your academic and career background, cover letters help you secure an interview, and other correspondence can open doors to future opportunities. Knowing how to write these important documents will be extremely beneficial throughout your career.

The Career Guide is also a great resource for advice on correspondence, but the best way to improve your professional writing is to come to our office for a personalized review. You can either scheduele an appointment or come to our drop-in resume and cover letter review hours. 


Resumes are essential career tools, whether you’re exploring options, participating in job-shadowing events or applying for jobs. Your first college resume will look very different from your high school resume and by the time you graduate from Cornell, your resume will showcase the best of your academic and professional accomplishments.

The first step toward a strong resume is to understand yourself, the position and why you are a good fit. Once you know what the employer is looking for and how your skills match up, you can create a list of your top 10 skills and qualities relevant to the job.

We STRONGLY encourage all students to have a resume reviewed by our staff before submitting it for any position. The resume is often the only thing between you and an interview and you want to stand out.

Occasionally, you may be asked to provide a curriculum vitae, or CV, which is similar to a resume. Our career advisors can help you and this online resource can get you started.

Cover Letters

A cover letter allows you to introduce yourself to an employer and share why you are passionate about that role at that company. It highlights experiences and skills in more depth than on your resume and connects those skills to the job to which you are applying. It also showcases your written communication skills, so make them impressive! Even if an employer asks for just a resume, it never hurts to send a cover letter, even an abbreviated one. Even if they don’t read it, they will know that you took the time to write and send one.

Cover letters usually contain three or four paragraphs, with an introduction, one or two body paragraphs and a conclusion. The opening paragraph should explain why you are qualified and interested in the position. The middle paragraphs could detail specific experiences and projects, highlighting the value you brought to your employer or you might use them to showcase one of your skills or explain how you overcame a problem during a past position or internship. In the closing paragraph, you should thank the reader for their time and restate your interest in the job and your desire for an interview. This is also where you can provide your contact information.

Your cover letter should show that you understand the organization and your career field. Employers want to see an enthusiastic individual who already has the experience and qualifications for the job.

You can preview sample letters and find additional advice in the Career Guide.

Personal Statements

Personal statements provide a similar role in the graduate school admissions process that the cover letter does in the job search process. Personal statements are your chance to show your interest in a graduate field and program. It will tell the admissions committee about yourself, your experiences, and how they relate to your chosen career field. In your personal statement, you should talk about your long and short term career goals and how the graduate program will help you accomplish them.

The personal statement and statement of purpose are very similar. Both want you to write about the particular program and why you want to apply there, and why you want to study that field and go to grad school at all. In a statement of purpose, you would talk more about the research you want to do/projects you want to work on, and in a personal statement, it is more about why you want to study that discipline and your motivation for applying to grad school. The important thing is to read the directions each school gives you though, and answer it using their prompts. Research the school and give specifics about what makes that school right for you. They want to know why you are applying to their school, not just this kind of program. For many research-based programs (especially PhD programs), they want you to name the specific professor(s) with which you would like to work.


Along with resumes and cover letters, there are a few other documents you will need to know how to compose: inquiry letters, thank you notes, and decision letters.

Inquiry letters are usually written as you work to expand your network, perhaps to ask an Arts & Sciences alumnus/a for an informational interview, for example. The letter should be shorter than a cover letter, but offer similar information. You should talk about how you found the alum and why you’re interested in talking with them, tell them about yourself and your career-related activities and attach your resume. Your request should also talk about what you would like to accomplish by talking to them. Industry knowledge? Daily life in their position? A tour of their workplace? Finally, you should request a meeting and be specific about your availability. Another type of inquiry letter is written when you want to ask for an internship or a position when none has been advertised. This letter is similar, but includes more about your qualifications and your interest in the company or organization. See a sample letter here.

Thank-you notes are written after an interview, a networking meeting, or another occasion. They should be about one paragraph. Thank the person for their time and include something that was said during the interview. If the note comes after a job interview, you should reiterate why you are qualified for the job and would like to work there. Thank-you letters show that you are courteous and paid attention during the interview. They should be sent to anyone you talked to for a significant amount of time and should be sent within 48 hours of the interview. They do not have to be physical, hand-written notes (especially since hiring decisions could happen quickly), so emailing is fine.

Decision letters inform an employer of your acceptance or declination after they have extended you an offer. Both should be short and include a thanks, with the acceptance letter reiterating points made in the offer letter, and the declination letter stating you have already taken another position or are seeking opportunities elsewhere. Be very polite. This is either your first official correspondence as a member of the organization or an opportunity to avoid burning bridges with a contact who could help you later on.

Keeping track of your professional documents

Along with resumes, cover letters, and notes mentioned above, you may also be asked to provide writing samples, transcripts, faculty recommendations, or a portfolio of your art and design work. You can keep track of these documents through a credential service such as Interfolio or by creating a folder on your computer specifically for these documents.

Etiquette & Methods

These tips are true regardless of the correspondence you are writing:

  • Proofread everything, no matter how short.
  • Use a professional e-mail address
  • Make certain that attachments have a relevant title.
  • Be sure to have an appropriate greeting and closing in emails.
  • Include a subject line in emails.
  • Always follow through on what you said you would do.
  • When deciding the best way to contact someone, approach with formality. Email and phone are both good ways to start, but don’t text, instant message, or friend someone you don’t know. Use titles (Mr., Ms., or Dr.) and avoid slang or abbreviations. If you have a mutual connection, ask to be introduced.


Check Handshake to find out more information and the dates of these programs.