Comparing Improvements in Cover Letter Compositions of Business Communication Students

Scott Springer, Ann Springer, and Spencer Scanlan

The number of international students studying in American higher education institutions continues to rise as English is increasingly becoming the language of global higher education (Doiz, Lasagabaster, & Sierra, 2013; Bound, et. al, 2021). While the number of international students studying in America dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic (Morona, 2020), this number is expected to rise again in the future (Van Estrop, 2021). Many of these students complete English as an International Language (EIL) courses — preparatory coursework in English that focus on grammar, written and oral proficiency, and academic writing — prior to completing the remainder of their degree-granting coursework. Students may take either the full or partial sequence of EIL courses, depending on their knowledge of English.

This study compared two cover letter compositions (designated as Attempt 1 and Attempt 2) written by business communication students enrolled in an undergraduate-level business communication course at an American university in the western United States.

This study sought to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the effect of a business communication course on university students’ cover letter composition?
  • Are there subgroup differences in cover letter compositions after taking a business communication course between university students who completed EIL coursework and students who were not required to complete EIL coursework?

The cover letter was chosen as the writing assessment for this study because a cover letter encapsulates many elements required in professional business writing such as correct spelling and grammar, the customization of the letter to a particular audience, and the use of an appropriate writing format.

Literature Review

Several studies have compared the writing quality of those experienced in speaking and writing English with those less experienced in the language. This section will analyze some of these studies as they provide context to this study.

In a study comparing cover letters written by Taiwanese and Canadian students, Hou (2011) discovered significant differences in the writing styles of the two groups, including length, the descriptions the writers used in expressing their desires to apply for the job, and explanations offered by the writers of the possible benefits they would offer for the company if hired. Even though the Taiwanese students had studied in Canada for one semester and had been trained in the professional standards of the application process, the Taiwanese students were unfamiliar with “the concept of politeness strategies in cover letter writing” (p. 12). These politeness strategies included phrases and expressions intended to convey specific messages to the readers. Hou (2011) encouraged instructors to focus not only on the grammatical aspects of student writing but also on the “pragmatic component” (p. 12).

In a later study exploring the same data set, Hou (2013) revealed that Canadian students wrote longer cover letters than did Taiwanese students and used the cover letters to convince potential employers of their qualifications for the positions for which they were applying. Taiwanese students, meanwhile, employed a direct approach in asking for interviews and wrote their letters using formulaic expressions found in English textbooks. Hou (2013) argued that this “short-cut approach” of using formulaic expressions “might hinder [the Taiwanese students’] potential in writing a successful letter that describes their qualifications” (p. 59).

These findings by Hou support those of earlier studies that explored areas in which native English speakers and nonnative English speakers differ in how they craft business documents. Sims and Guice (1992) found that business letters written by native English speakers deviated less from communication practices accepted by U.S. business than did letters written by nonnative English speakers. Specifically, the letters written by those not native to speaking English differed in their use of salutations, closings, and overall tone, and nonnative English speakers “seemed to misunderstand the expectations of their readers and the context in which their letters would be received to a much greater degree than did the native speakers” (p. 36).

Additional studies in the literature have looked at the most effective means of instructing English learners in the skills of writing in English. Nishigaki et al. (2007), for example, argued that different elements of writing demand different approaches to instruction when teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students. The authors analyzed writing samples from Japanese EFL students and discovered that some aspects of writing develop organically for EFL students through practice, such as the length of a paragraph or the composition itself, while other aspects such as the composition’s organization and sentence structure improve most effectively through formal instruction. Another specific strategy of instructing nonnative English speakers in writing skills is in the enforcement of writing standards. Some studies have revealed that faculty members often do not hold nonnative English speakers to the same standards for avoiding errors in their writing as native English speakers (Wolfe, Shanmugaraj, & Sipe, 2016; Song & Caruso, 1996). This may create a double standard for these students.

Method

Research Site

This study was conducted at a private university in the western United States. This institution provided an ideal location to conduct this study because it features the highest percentage of enrolled international students of all bachelor’s-granting universities in the United States. Students at this university come from more than 70 countries, primarily from the Asia Pacific region. More than 50% of the students who enroll in a business communication course at this institution are international students, with about a third of these having previously completed EIL courses before advancing to regular coursework within their chosen academic major.

Participants

Students (n = 83) who enrolled in four sections of the same undergraduate business communication course at the research site university were asked to write two cover letters as part of the course curriculum. When broken down, 49.40% of these students were from North America (Canada and the U.S.), 37.35% were from countries in Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan), and 13.25% were from other countries (Brazil, Fiji, Guatemala, Kiribati, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Tonga). Of the 83 students, 30 (36.14%) self-reported that they had taken EIL courses prior to enrolling in the business communication course. At the research site university, international students must demonstrate proficiency in English by earning an acceptable score on an approved English proficiency test within two years of enrollment. Those international students who are required to take EIL coursework at this university complete these courses in 4 to 12 months.

The Cover Letter Prompt

Both cover letter compositions the students wrote (designated as Attempt 1 and Attempt 2) were based on the same fictitious job posting for an entry-level position in the marketing industry that the students had not previously seen. (See Appendix 1 for the assignment prompt). All students wrote their cover letters to the same job posting rather than customizing their letters to unique job postings of their choosing in order to create consistency in the evaluation stage.

Students completed Attempt 1 in the first week of the semester prior to receiving any formal instruction about cover letter writing and without advanced notice that they would complete it. Twelve weeks after completing Attempt 1, the students again wrote a cover letter based on the same entry-level job posting. Again, no advanced notice was provided of the assignment. The students signed their cover letters using the same gender-neutral pseudonym (“Taylor Smith”) to ensure anonymity during the evaluation stage.

Between writing the two cover letter compositions, the students in the four sections of the business communication course received formal instruction about crafting a professional cover letter in accordance with the typical Western job application process that encourages the inclusion of cover letters with a resume or CV. This instruction included elements such as formatting, grammar, style, customization to the job posting, and use of appropriate tone. Two of the sections were taught by one instructor and the other two sections were taught by a different instructor; however, the same instruction material about writing cover letters (including the textbook, instructor slides, and cover letter samples) was used in all four sections of the course. Students wrote both cover letter attempts by hand while in a classroom setting, monitored by the course instructor. Students were not allowed to access any outside resource about cover letter writing when completing either cover letter.

Evaluating the Cover Letters

After being written, both cover letter compositions were assigned unique codes and were reviewed by an independent evaluator at the university. The independent evaluator had extensive experience evaluating cover letters and served as department chair of the Business Management Department at the university where the study was conducted. The researchers provided photocopies of the cover letters to the evaluator. The unique codes assigned to the cover letters prevented the evaluator from knowing which of the cover letters were from Attempt 1 and which were from Attempt 2. The evaluator provided scores for each cover letter in the categories of Format, Writing Techniques, and Customization to the job posting. The Format category included four sub-items: a) letter format (return address, date, etc.); b) includes the person’s name in the salutation; c) respectful closing; and d) contact information. The Writing Techniques category included five sub-items: a) specifies the specific position desired; b) contains 3 to 5 short paragraphs; c) concise sentences; d) avoid the use of jargon, and e) spelling. The Customization category included three sub-items: a) answers the question, “Why should they hire me?”; b) uses keywords from the posting, and c) makes a personal connection through an anecdote or other means.

The evaluator provided a dichotomous rating for each of the 12 sub-items by indicating if a student “Needs Improvement” or was “Satisfactory.” Items without a “Needs Improvement” rating were determined as “Satisfactory.” After annotating the initial rating for the 12 sub-items, the evaluator then provided an overall rating for each of the three categories as either “Excellent,” “Average,” or “Poor.”

Although each of the three categories received an overall rating of either “Excellent,” “Average,” or “Poor,” the analysis for the current study focused only on the binary outcomes (i.e., “Needs Improvement” or “Satisfactory”) for the two cover letter compositions for the 12 sub-item rating results. Focusing on the sub-item binary outcomes helped reduce measurement errors that were discovered during the initial data analysis for the overall ratings.

Preliminary analysis of the data revealed inconsistencies in how the evaluator applied the evaluation criteria for the overall ratings across the three cover letter categories. For example, there were several instances where the evaluator rated two of the four sub-items in the Format category as “Needs Improvement” rating and then proceeded to give an overall “Average” rating for the Format criteria. Other students who received an “Average” overall rating for the same category listed one of the four sub-items with a “Needs Improvement” rating. In some cases, the evaluator rated three of the four Format category sub-items as “Needs Improvement” before assigning an “Average” overall rating. 

The second reason for focusing on dichotomous outcomes for the sub-item analysis is specificity. Sub-item analysis offers more insights about students’ cover letter writing and may provide more concrete and actionable recommendations for improvements. The overall category ratings lack specificity about explicit mechanics and techniques of cover letter writing and therefore may not provide as much, if any, actionable insights to help students improve their ability to craft a professional cover letter.

Each of the categories received an overall rating. (See Appendix 2 for the full list of assessment criteria). These categories correlate with the instruction on crafting cover letters provided by the instructors between the writing of the two cover letter compositions.

Findings

We used McNemar’s Test (McNemar, 1947; Adedokun & Burgess, 2012) to examine changes in the proportion of students’ cover letter compositions at the beginning and conclusion of the business communication course. McNemar’s test is appropriate for the current research design for at least two reasons. As mentioned earlier, the current study employs a dependent sample design rather than an independent (unrelated) sample design. Student samples in Attempt 1 are related to student samples in Attempt 2 because they are the same set of subjects. Second, the dependent variable for the study is a categorical variable with two levels (“Needs Improvement” and “Satisfactory”). The independent variable is also a categorical variable with two levels (Attempt 1 and Attempt 2). Since the current study employed a matched-pair design with binary values on both dependent and independent variables, McNemar’s test was selected to model the data. As such, this study aimed at understanding whether there were statistically significant differences in students’ samples from Attempt 1 and Attempt 2.

The McNemar test statistic is where cells A and D are called “discordant cells’ measuring the frequency of non-agreement between the scores of a pretest and a posttest. McNemar’s test examines changes in the discordant cells over time (in this case, from Attempt 1 to Attempt 2 of writing the cover letter). The null hypothesis for McNemar’s test states that changes in the discordant cells over time are the same. The alternative hypothesis, however, states that frequency changes in the discordant cells over time are not the same. To determine the non-chance probability of changes over time between the discordant cells, the McNemar test statistic is evaluated against a critical value from the chi-square distribution using a .05 a priori with 1 degree of freedom (df). If the McNemar test statistic exceeds the critical value, this suggests that evidence is in favor of the alternative hypothesis.

Research question 1: What is the effect of a business communication course on university students’ cover letter composition?

Results from the analyses for Research Question 1 revealed significant differences in the proportion of students who met satisfactory performance on their cover letter assessment scores after completing the business communication course. As Table 2 indicates, seven of the reviewed categories showed significance with a p-value of .05 or lower. More specifically, the proportion of students’ cover letter performances shifted significantly after the business communication course across Item 1 (p<.001), Item 2 (p=.005), Item 3 (p=.006), and Item 4 (p<.001) of the Format category. There were also significant differences in the proportion of students’ responses between Attempt 1 and Attempt 2 to Item 1 (p=.003) and Item 2 (p<.001) for the Writing Techniques category. Finally, only Item 3 (p<.001) for the Customization category revealed a significant change in the proportion of students who met satisfactory performance after completing the business communication course.

Research question 2: Are there subgroup differences in cover letter compositions after taking a business communication course between university students who completed EIL coursework and students who were not required to complete EIL coursework?

Results from the analyses for Research Question 2 revealed that changes in proportions were most pronounced for students who had no prior enrollment in EIL courses, p<.001. This was true for six of the seven items with significance p-value of .05 or lower from Research Question 1. The only category of the seven for which the changes in proportion were not more pronounced for students with no prior enrollment in EIL courses was Writing Techniques 1: Specifies the Specific Position Desired (see Table 7).

Limitations

This study is not without limitations. One limitation was the manner in which the students completed the cover letters. Although most actual cover letters are composed and submitted electronically, the cover letters in this study were composed by hand. This was done to ensure that no outside source was consulted in the composition of the letters. Writing the letters by hand may have altered the extent to which the students could compose professional letters, particularly in the areas of formatting and writing techniques. Presumably, some of these errors could have been avoided with electronic composition. Another limitation was the use of a single evaluator to analyze the cover letters. Employing multiple evaluators would have improved the inter-rater reliability and reduced the impact of evaluator bias.

Conclusion

This study’s finding that those students who had completed EIL coursework did not improve as much in writing a cover letter after completing a business communication course as did those students who were not required to take EIL courses is a valuable insight for instructors of business communication courses. Crafting a professional cover letter requires a job seeker to apply a high level of expertise in grammar, word structure, sentence length, and tone in only a few paragraphs. This can be challenging for even experienced English speakers. But for those students who complete EIL coursework, this task can be much more difficult.

Some of these EIL students may come from countries where cover letters are less commonly used in the job application process, so completing a cover letter for a business communication course requires a solid understanding of the complexities of this unfamiliar job application step on top of the required writing techniques and formatting used in cover letters. Instructors of business communication are encouraged to ensure they provide a thorough explanation of how cover letters are used by hiring managers in the job application process in addition to instructing the practical aspects of crafting professional cover letters.

The use of appropriate tone in cover letter writing is especially important to emphasize to all students, and especially to those less familiar with English. As suggested by Wolfe, Shanmugaraj, and Sipe (2016), employers perceive errors in tone from nonnative English speakers to be more bothersome than grammatical errors. Business communication instructors may find it helpful to pair instruction on tone in cover letter writing, one of Hou’s (2011) “politeness strategies,” with instruction on cross-cultural communication, a topic frequently covered in a business communication course (Al-Ali, 2004; Dressen-Hammouda, 2013; Smallwood, 2020). One means of pairing the topics of both tone and cross-cultural communication is to provide examples of cover letters with an appropriate and inappropriate conveyance of tone, and drawing attention to how the use of singular words or phrases impact tone and how this word usage is potentially perceived across cultures.

An additional area of research related to this study is how tone is created and perceived interculturally in documents such as cover letters. As with Hou’s (2011; 2013) studies on Taiwanese and Canadian college students, similar studies could be conducted to analyze linguistic features across a wide range of countries and nationalities. Another future area of research is the applying the lens of gender across business communication writing samples, including those written by English learners such as students who have completed courses in EIL.

Manuscript History: The findings of this study were presented at the Association for Business Communication, Western U.S. Conference 2020

IRB Information: Brigham Young University—Hawaii Institutional Review Board. Application #18-12. Approved 20 March 2018.

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Appendices

Appendix 1. Fictitious job posting used in both cover letter compositions.

Company: Arctic Ice Inc., 34678 Penguin Street, Arctic Circle, North Pole

Industry: Ice Manufacturing

Position Title: Marketing Coordinator

Reports to: Shelia Singh,MarketingManager

Scope of Position:

This is a terrific opportunity for an entry-level candidate to join and learn marketing in the exciting ice manufacturing industry. This person will plan, coordinate, and participate in marketing activities to ensure the Marketing Department runs efficiently and effectively.

Responsibilities:

  • Plan and deliver social media campaigns.
  • Update website to stay current with trends in the ice industry.
  • Perform other duties and/or projects as assigned.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business or related field.

Desired Qualifications:

  • Ability to work unsupervised in a fast-paced environment.
  • Ability to handle multiple competing tasks and projects.
  • Detail oriented, organized, and willing to learn.
  • Must have a high level of interpersonal skills to handle sensitive and confidential situations.
  • Prior experience collaborating with international team members.
  • 1 to 2 years of experience.

Appendix 2. Cover letter assessment criteria.

Evaluators gave a score of “Excellent,” “Average,” or “Poor” in each of the three areas below.

Format

  • Letter format (return address, date, etc.)
  • Person’s name in the salutation
  • Respectful closing
  • Contact information

Writing Techniques

  • Specifies the specific position desired
  • Includes 3 to 5 short paragraphs
  • Concise sentences
  • Avoids the use of Jargon
  • Spelling

Customization

  • Answers the question, “Why should they hire me?”
  • Uses keywords from job posting
  • Makes personal connection through anecdote or other means
Author Biographies

Scott Springer is an assistant professor in the business management program at Brigham Young University—Hawaii.

Ann Springer is an assistant professor in the business management program at Brigham Young University—Hawaii.

Spencer Scanlan is an assistant professor in the psychology program at Brigham Young University—Hawaii.

Recommended Citation

Scott Springer, Ann Springer, & Spencer Scanlan. (2021). Comparing Improvements in Cover Letter Compositions of Business Communication Students. the Western ABC Bulletin, 3.1