74 Reflective Cover Letters

Joel Gladd and Liza Long

The previous chapters in this section on Writing Reflectively introduced you to the basics of critical reflection and offered a few different approaches to practice it. Those strategies, including Driscoll’s “So What?” cycle of reflection and K-W-L learning, are often deployed in a variety of academic and professional situations. They can be adapted to many different scenarios. In academia, however, one of the most common reflective assignments is a simple cover letter written at the end of an assignment, project, or entire course.

The cover letter genre can be very informal or intensely rigorous, depending on the preferences of the instructor. But nearly all such assignments expect the student to reflect on completed work in such a way that they successfully demonstrate growth  in the course. The audience here is key: cover letters are often targeted directly towards the instructor and aim to convince them that the student did indeed learn what they were supposed to. Unlike other reflective forms of writing, the cover letter borders on a hybrid status: it’s primarily reflective, yes, but it must also persuade the audience that something was learned.

This hybrid nature of the cover letter genre can make writing it more challenging than students often assume. The metacognitive aspect of the letter demands that the student monitor their own learning, as well as how certain kinds of knowledge might transfer to other areas; but the persuasive aspect of the letter also expects the student to provide evidence for each point that they make, somewhat akin to a thesis-driven persuasive essay. In fact, as Laurel L. Bower suggests in the Journal of Basic Writing, a compelling letter will employ all of the persuasive appeals, including logos, pathos, and ethos.

Ethos: The student demonstrates care and attention to writing as a craft; and, in the case of research-intensive courses, a dedication to quality sources. The metacognitive reflections throughout the letter also contribute to the image/character of the writer.

Pathos: Cover letters often have an affective dimension, focusing on the extent to which writing is often a deeply emotional form of labor. Persuasive letters will track the student’s experience during periods of hardship and show how they responded.

Logos: Effective letters are persuasive in part because they offer concrete evidence for each point. Any generalization and transferable nugget of wisdom should emerge from a specific experience in the course. Otherwise, the letter can quickly devolve into empty platitudes that simulate reflection without actually demonstrating it.[1]

The main purpose of a cover letter is to persuasively demonstrate the student is familiar with the course outcomes, is aware of the extent to which they practiced them, and can project how those practices contribute to future learning (transfer). However, it’s not uncommon for cover letters to devolve into crude flattery and unconvincing pseudo-reflections, when “students seem more concerned with pleasing the teacher and appealing to his/her set of values than analyzing their priorities and thinking.”[2] To avoid these inauthentic reflections, follow the assignment criteria closely and remember to practice the persuasive appeals above.

Assignment Example: Reflective Cover Letter

Liza Long

Length: 3-4 pages double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 pt. font

The Reflective Cover Letter is a vital part of your portfolio. It should be written last, after you’ve completed your revisions. This cover letter is a highly detailed, thoughtful reflection on your work in this class; on your sense of yourself as a writer; on the “learning behind the writing projects” that you’ve done; and on what conscious, deliberate connections you can make to work you will be doing next semester and in your future academic, professional, and/or technical lives/careers.

Imagine that you’re writing for someone who doesn’t know you or your work, and you want to show that person all you can about what you’ve done and written and learned, using your own included drafts and revisions as evidence. This letter is basically an argument, where you—the writer—are aiming to convince the reader that you’ve learned X, and here’s all the evidence. Writing the Reflective Cover Letter gives you the opportunity to look hard at what you’ve done with writing in this class and where you’re going with writing in the future.   

Please write this assignment in letter format. You can address the letter to your instructor, and/or to your instructor and your class colleagues. If your portfolio is chosen (at random) to review, other English teachers may read it too. The cover letter provides a lens for anyone reading your portfolio to understand the writing and revision moves you’ve made.

All R/P Cover Letters should address the following at a minimum:

  • Discuss what your own expectations were for you as a writer, thinker, and learner at the beginning of 102. How have you grown as a writer (if you have)?  
  • What are you especially proud of this semester?  Why? 
  • Take us behind the scenes for the two significantly revised essays included here. For each one, discuss: 
  • What specific changes you’ve made, why, and what the results of those changes are;  
  • How it demonstrates your ability to write for different audiences and/or purposes. What kinds of decisions do you make?  How? 
  • Your evolving sense of yourself as a researcher, as represented in this portfolio.  What kinds of research can you do that you couldn’t do at the beginning of the semester?  How is that represented in your portfolio pieces?
  • How the process of both giving and receiving peer feedback affected your writing. What did you learn about feedback? How did your experience with peer feedback in this course compare with previous courses?
  • How your conception of your writing process(es) have changed this semester. If so, in what ways? 
  • Consider where you’re headed next as a writer – choose one or two “next places” to make some projections about (this could be next semester’s classes, your major classes, your life, your work).  While you won’t likely be given these particular kinds of writing tasks again, what underlying strategies about writing or how to approach writing/research have you learned about in 102 that you’d like to remember for other situations?  Why? 

  1. The ethos, pathos, and logos approach to Cover Letters is from Bower's article, "Student Reflection and Critical Thinking: A Rhetorical Analysis of 88 Portfolio Cover Letters," Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 22., No. 2 (Fall 2003), pp. 53-55.
  2. Bower, p. 60.


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