Creating Your Cover Letter

Every time you send out a résumé, you'll need to have a great cover letter to send along with it. It's a good idea to customize your cover letter for each job you're applying for. The cover letter is another way of introducing yourself to a potential employer. What it says about you can be the difference between getting in the door and missing your chance.

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Before You Write


Each cover letter takes preparation. Here are some things to keep in mind while you prepare:

  • Think about yourself and your experiences. Then think about how you would like to relate these experiences to the organization you're writing to. Which of your talents, skills, personality traits and accomplishments should this particular organization know about? Brainstorm a list for yourself.
  • How did you hear about this opportunity? If it was through a personal contact, write down the name. If through an advertisement, write down where and when you saw it and list the specific points the ad wants you to include.
  • What do you know about the organization you're writing to? Consider what attracted you to it in the first place. Maybe it's personal (a friend worked there), or maybe you are impressed with what the organization does or admire their unique work philosophy. Do some research about the company online or through trade magazines, etc.
  • To whom are you writing? It's always best to write to an actual person (with a title) if you can. If you're responding to an ad that does not include a specific contact, try to look up the name of someone related to the role. Be sure to spell both name and title perfectly. If you cannot find a specific person to write to, try "Dear Hiring Manager" or "Dear Human Resources." 

Busy people don't want to read long letters from people they don't know. The cover letter should be no more than one page long, written in standard business letter format. This means that you may indent your paragraphs or not—but not indenting gives a bit more room. 

Leave wide margins (minimum 1 inch) and use a clean, simple font like Arial or Times New Roman. Don't use a tiny font just to fit everything on one page; 10- or 12-point type is best. Write clearly and avoid hyphenated words at the ends of lines.


Compose the Letter


  • Paragraph One: Start with how you heard about the job—friend, employee, newsletter, advertisement, etc. This is especially important if you've been referred by a mutual friend or acquaintance. If this is the case, don't start with "My friend John Peterson told me you have a job opening so I thought I would write." This will not "wow" anyone. Instead, show a little excitement and passion for the potential employment: "I was thrilled when my friend John Peterson told me there was an opening for an assistant photographer at your company."  Follow this with a few key strengths you have that are pertinent to the position you're looking to obtain.
  • Paragraph Two: Here you should describe your qualifications for the job—skills, talents, accomplishments and personality traits. Don't go overboard; pick the top three talents or characteristics that would make you stand out as a candidate. (your résumé is there to fill in the details). When writing this paragraph, think about how and why your specific skills, talents and accomplishments would be best for the role.
  • Paragraph Three: Describe why you'd be a good fit for the company. Maybe you like their fast growth, know people who work there already or you've always used their products. Companies feel good if the candidate has some connection to them and has a good understanding of how the company works, even before he or she is hired.
  • Paragraph Four: Mention the enclosed résumé, give them a reason to read it in-depth (e.g., "For my complete employment history and applicable computer skills, please see the included résumé") and ask for an interview. Suggest a time and a way for you to follow up. Always give the reader easy ways to contact you.

Essentials


  • Proofread carefully. A single spelling, grammatical or factual mistake indicates carelessness to the employer and may disqualify you before your résumé has been reviewed. If spelling and grammar aren't your strong points, ask for help. Having a second pair of eyes proofread your résumé and cover letter can help you catch mistakes you may have missed.
  • Write individual letters. Personalized communications are always the way to go, so take the time to tailor each letter to the organization and person to whom you're writing. Recruiters can easily recognize "stock" or "generic" letters, which send the message that you don't care enough to personalize your message.
  • Forget photos. Unless you're an aspiring actor or model, don't enclose a photo. It gives the screener one more arbitrary reason not to call you for the interview.
  • Use simple, clear sentences. Choose every word carefully. Constantly ask yourself, "Is there a way to say this more clearly?" and "Am I communicating my ideas to the best of my ability?"
  • Save your résumé and cover letter in a place where you can find them easily. You'll need to have them handy when you follow up later. 

Make Your Cover Letter Stand Out


  • Be yourself. A "formula" approach is fine, but each letter should reflect your personality and your enthusiasm. Let them shine through. Take pride in who you are and what you've done. The reader is looking for a human being, a person who knows what he or she can offer and can express it well.
  • Write in the active tense. Active verbs are the key when writing cover letters and résumés. Instead of saying, "My best attributes include team play and motivating people," say, "I'm a dedicated team player who can motivate people." The latter promises a go-getter employee—someone who can take action instead of waiting to be led by the hand.

Common Mistakes


  • Writing to a department or title. It's always best to write to a real person with a real title. The exception to this is when you're answering an ad and specific contact information is not provided.
  • Using "Dear Sir." Many cover letter readers are women. If you cannot get the name and title of someone to write to, it's safer to use either a job title or generic title like "Dear Human Resources Manager," or "Dear Sir/Ma'am."
  • Overusing "I." It's okay to refer to yourself, but not in every sentence. Remember to use "you" even more. Show the "you" to whom you are writing that you're more concerned with meeting his or her needs than meeting your own.
  • Exaggerating your experience. Don't "stretch" anything you say. Be completely truthful while still presenting yourself in the best possible light.
  • Forgetting to give the employer a way to contact you. Never forget to include your phone number or email address or both. How will the employer let you know about your upcoming interview if he or she can't call and tell you about it?
  • Forgetting to sign the letter or to attach your résumé.

Tips for Emailing a Cover Letter


Unless you’re submitting your résumé and cover letter on a job submission website, chances are the employer has asked that you email your application directly. In that case, you can either attach your cover letter as a PDF to the email as you would your résumé, or you can include your cover letter in the body of the email. Other things to keep in mind:

  • Make the most of an email subject line. Don't just leave the subject line blank or insert a job number unless that's what you're instructed to do. Use the subject line to sell yourself. For example, if you're applying for a sales position, in your subject line say something like "Experienced Salesperson for Executive Sales Position."
  • Use plain styling. While some email allows special formatting, many will not recognize specialized text, bullets, tabs, boldface text or formatted text.
  • Remove the contact's address. If your cover letter becomes the body of the email, you can skip the formality of including the contact's mailing address.
  • Email your cover letter to a friend before sending it to your employer. This will give you an opportunity to make sure the formatting and content look OK on the receiving end.
  • Maintain a professional tone. Remember that this is not an email to your friend or family member. Avoid using abbreviations, slang, wild colors, emoticons (happy faces, hearts, etc.) or inspirational quotes as part of your signature or any other everyday email features.

Sample Cover Letter


September 12, 2018

John D. Smith

Human Resources Manager

Mom's Marmalades, Inc.

123 Main Street

New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Smith:

I was thrilled when Tom Townsend, a mutual friend, suggested I write to you about opportunities at Mom's Marmalades. As a self-starter who's already had some strong experience as an entrepreneur, I'm interested in a marketing internship with your company.


I am hardworking and analytical and I like taking initiative. In the past year I have accomplished a lot:

  • Received one of only three prizes in school science fair
  • Worked weekends two years straight as a telephone call center representative
  • Managed a small online bookstore that grossed over $600 in sales in four months

I've always believed in the quality of your jams and have enjoyed them since I was seven years old. I would love to be a part of the specialty foods business, especially at Mom's Marmalades.


Enclosed, please find a copy of my résumé. I will give you a call next week to see if we could set up a time to discuss my becoming a part of your company for the summer. Feel free to call me at (212) 555-5555 or send email to jhiggins@mail.com.


I look forward to speaking with you soon.


Sincerely,

(Signature)

Joe P. Higgins

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