Cover Letters 101

With more and more resumes being sent electronically, the cover letter may someday become a lost art.  If you are still sending an original resume via mail, your cover letter can enhance your communication with a potential employer.  A good cover letter can help put your resume in context, expand on your skills for the position, and express your personality in ways that your resume can’t.

A good cover letter is fairly short; recruiters tell us that the cover letter won’t make or break your chances, so don’t invest too much time. . 

Whenever possible, it should always be addressed to the recruiting point of contact by name.  The page header should include your name, address, phone number and email address, and should match the style and typeface you use on your resume. 

 The first paragraph should always include the position for which you’re applying and how you heard about the job.  If you have a personal referral to the company, use it.  (“John Stanley suggested that I contact you.”) This first paragraph is especially important if your resume doesn’t have a clear objective, or if you have more than one obvious skill set.  In those cases, the cover letter is essential in helping the recruiter understand what position you are applying for.  You should never assume your objective will be obvious to the person screening resumes.  The company may have run several ads or be trying to fill several vacancies.

 The second paragraph offers a chance to expand on your skills and state why you think you’re qualified for the position you seek.  This is also your chance to say things you can’t put in your resume, such as what previous employers have said about your work or why you’re interested in changing careers.  If you feel it’s necessary, you can explain gaps in employment (“After taking a year off to complete my M.B.A., I am again seeking full time employment.”)

The third paragraph should emphasize your interest in the position and the company.  In this paragraph, address your commitment to teamwork, your passion for the industry, or how much you’re looking forward to the interview. As you close, include a statement of your intent to follow up with the interviewer.

 The cover letter also presents an opportunity to showcase your written communication skills.   Take the time to develop your thoughts, write clear sentences, and make sure to eliminate any grammatical or spelling errors.  Don’t simply rely on your software spell check feature – have another human being proofread the letter, especially if you’ve never mastered the difference between “there” and “their.”   

 What doesn’t work in a cover letter? Aggressive selling (“Stop looking now – you’ve found the perfect candidate”) or language that’s too precious (“From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to work in your industry.”)  Letters that are too terse make recruiters wonder why you bothered. (“Dear Recruiter:  attached please find my resume.”)  Generic cover letters that don’t address the specific company and position are also wasted effort.

 Some applicants make the mistake of including too much information. Unless specifically requested, don’t include salary history or contact information for references.  With a crisp, well-written letter, your resume may get extra attention from recruiters.  And that may improve your chances of getting an interview.

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