Job Hunting Advice

What Is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter is a written introduction to a potential employer - a way to highlight your talent and enthusiasm and give a sense of who you are. It is usually submitted by a job seeker, along with a resume, as part of the initial job application.

The cover letter is an excellent tool to:

  • Highlight your skills in a written, paragraph-by-paragraph format
  • Animate the most important aspects of your resume
  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the position
  • Show a little of your personality

A cover letter is generally seen as a way for you to distinguish yourself from other applicants. It is therefore considered one of the most important aspects of applying for a job.

Because potential employers often receive many applications and do not have time to thoroughly read all of them, the first few sentences of a cover letter are crucial — meaning they need to grab the potential employer's attention and compel the potential employer to continue reading.

How to Write a Cover Letter

What should the cover letter contain? First, it needs to serve as a proper introduction. The opening few sentences, aside from holding the reader’s attention, should also include what position you are applying for, which of your skills relate to the opening, and, ideally, should serve as an outline for the rest of the letter. Below is an example of the header and the first few sentences of a successful cover letter:

Mr. John Doe
1414 Somewhere Street, Apt. 4
New City, Illinois 60667
December 8, 2011

Re: Application for Part-time Research Assistant Position, Job ID #004590

Dear Mr. Mintz:

I am a hard-working individual interested in applying for the part-time Research Assistant position. My experience conducting research for my senior thesis, along with my previous work in a fast-paced office environment, would make me an excellent fit for your opening.

Several things to note:

A formal tone is used. All cover letters should be considered business correspondence and be written as such. This means that there should be a left-justified header containing the name and address of the applicant, as well as the date, as in the example above. Though it is not strictly necessary, it is often helpful to include a formal line that clearly states the topic of correspondence for easy reference.

When writing the salutation, find out who is in charge of hiring for the position and address the letter directly to that person, using their formal title and last name. Follow the salutation with a colon. In rare cases, where it is not possible to determine to whom the letter should be addressed, it may be acceptable to use the company’s name instead, as in "Dear Matthews Metal:" and then proceed to write the letter as though it were addressed to a specific individual.

While it was formerly acceptable to address a cover letter to "To Whom It May Concern:" this format is now viewed as antiquated and should not be used. Also, apart from tone, your application is much more likely to avoid misdirection and receive its due attention when it is correctly addressed to one specific individual.

As for the mechanics of the sample cover letter above, the applicant presents himself as having a unique characteristic (he is hardworking) and as being interested in a specific job opening. He then provides two reasons why he would be a good fit for the position (that he has previously conducted research and has worked in an office). In the example above, the applicant would ideally demonstrate how his experience is relevant in the remaining body of the cover letter, expressing briefly and concisely why the research he has conducted for his senior thesis is relevant to the research he would conduct for the potential employer.

Generally speaking, cover letters should be limited to one page. As a result, cover letters seldom have more than three body paragraphs, excluding the opening introductory paragraph and the closing, summary paragraph. Therefore, economy and efficiency of description are necessary. Ideally, to extend the example above, an explanation of the connection between the applicant's thesis research experience and the job opening would take only one or two paragraphs. The applicant would then likely use the remaining paragraph of the cover letter to explain why his office experience is good preparation for the position.

The important thing is that the applicant makes sure that the connections he makes in his cover letter are relevant to the job opening. For example, if the applicant mentioned that he, as part of his office work, has significant experience fielding telephone calls in a professional business environment, this should relate to the job opening.

If the job listing itself makes no mention of this skill being relevant, it may be a mistake (and a missed opportunity) to squander precious space in highlighting this irrelevant experience in the cover letter. In short, highlighting superfluous skills in a cover letter is not going to make the potential employer feel that the applicant is uniquely suited for the job at hand. Rather, it is to your benefit to have such a clear understanding of the position and the associated skills necessary to perform well in it that you can specifically target your cover letter and resume to those qualities and qualifications, whether they are stated or unstated.

While potential employers value candidates with intelligence and broad skill sets, potential employers want to know how an applicant can help them immediately. Therefore, seemingly mundane skills, such as experience using the Microsoft Office Suite, working with fax machines and scanners, answering emails in a professional manner, the ability to use Photoshop at a high level, experience climbing ladders or dry-walling, and so forth, may be well worth highlighting in a cover letter, depending on what the listing calls for.

The closing paragraph of a cover letter is an opportunity for you as the applicant to reassert your interest in the position, as well as to explain why the company itself is of particular interest to you. For example, if an applicant to a nonprofit organization strongly believes in the organization’s mission, this could be mentioned in the closing of the cover letter. It is also common practice to let the potential employer know in the closing paragraph that you would be available to answer any further questions or provide any additional information upon their request.

Finally, the closing, or valediction, should be formal and brief and should include the applicant's full name. For example, the following would be correct:

Sincerely,

John Doe

Whereas something less formal, such as the following, would be inappropriate:

Talk to You Soon,

John

Many people find writing a good cover letter challenging - it requires an applicant to talk about him- or herself in a positive light while using formal language, and without exaggerating. Here are some keys to keep in mind when composing a cover letter:

  • The potential employer is interested in why an applicant would help the company, not why the applicant would be happy to get the job. Many applicants fail to grasp this basic concept. Therefore, when discussing the position in a cover letter, you should not mention that you would have an easy commute to work, that you need a full-time position to pay off credit card debt, or that you would enjoy the status associated with gainful employment. None of these things help the employer. Instead, when writing a cover letter, focus on skills that the employer needs. Examples of skills employers might value include: an ability to manage a complex database system, certified training in nursing, a commercial driver’s license, and experience with HTML coding.
  • Be as specific as possible. Generalities often come across as boring and unhelpful. Even worse, they may give the impression that you do not possess the skills mentioned, or only have them to a limited degree. For example, if you state in a cover letter that you are proficient with computers, what does this mean? An employer may be left reasonably wondering whether you are merely able to word process and surf the internet, or if you have more advanced skills. A more detailed, specific description would be better. For example, if you state that you are familiar with the programming languages C++, JavaScript, and OmniMark and have used them in a business environment, the potential employer has a clear sense of your skills and is far more likely to be impressed.
  • Use metrics and quantifiable data whenever possible. This advice relates to being specific, but in this instance, when writing a cover letter, you should not only describe the specific skills you possess, but also provide data that demonstrates how your skills have helped other companies in the past. If you say in a cover letter that you have implemented a social media marketing campaign through Twitter for a nongovernmental organization (NGO), this is good, specific information. However, an even better choice would be to quantify the effectiveness of the campaign by saying that you implemented a social media marketing campaign through Twitter for an NGO and that the campaign increased the NGO's number of Twitter followers by 300 percent. This added information shows that you have used social media effectively in a previous position. This is a vital distinction in a cover letter, and it could be the difference between getting an interview or being bypassed.
  • Use good grammar and clear, direct language. While this should be obvious, typos and poor grammar reflect poorly on an applicant. Make sure to check spelling and, when writing a cover letter, avoid the passive voice. Also, use active verbs whenever possible. For example, instead of writing:

I have used InDesign to enhance the layout of my college newspaper.

It would be better to write:

I enhanced the layout of my college newspaper with InDesign.

In the improved example, instead of the bland deployment of the all-too-common verb construction "have used," the writer chooses an active, seldom-used verb ("enhanced") that gets to the point more quickly and uses space more economically. So, as with all written documents submitted to a potential employer, a cover letter should be viewed as an opportunity for applicants to demonstrate their attention to detail, in addition to their suitability for the position. In the case of the cover letter, this attention to detail comes through in your diction, grammar, and syntax.

Summing Up

A cover letter is an important document that must be written with care. While the various aspects of a cover letter have been discussed above, it may be difficult to visualize what a complete cover letter would look like without an example. Therefore, below is an example of a full cover letter, which demonstrates the points delineated above:

Ms. Jane Smith
333 House Avenue
Ithica, New York 55503
October 17, 2010

Re: The Financial Editor Position at HouseWorks Magazine

Dear Ms. Johansen:

I would like to submit my resume for the Financial Editor position you have advertised. I feel that my experience as an Editor and Writer, combined with my research experience at Suarez Archive and Institute, would make me an excellent fit for your magazine.

I was the editor of a weekly small-press financial magazine, Donaldson Outlook for three years. My responsibilities included writing for each issue, soliciting and editing submissions, liaising with writers, performing administrative duties, making content and layout decisions, and performing basic HTML coding. During my tenure, magazine sales increased twenty percent and our subscription rate increased ten percent. I also have a high degree of proficiency in InDesign and Photoshop, since I occasionally served as the layout manager and would be happy to do the same for HouseWorks.

Besides working as an editor, I have significant freelance writing experience and a broad communications background. I spent two years as an art reviewer for a major print publication, TheChicago Herald. I've also written a weekly investment column for the blog Investing for Nibblers. My assignment was to find off-beat, little-known investment opportunities for timid investors and then present them in a digestible, easy-to-read format. I know that the financial section of your magazine focuses on just such readers, so I feel I'm already equipped to edit for that audience. Also, I would like to note that in the course of my freelancing career, I have never missed a deadline. Some of my other major clips include: The New York Weekly, The Cincinnati Gazette, and TheNational Inquirer.

Moreover, while working as a Project Manager at Suarez Archive and Institute, an archive of South American financial documents and practices, I gained valuable research and office experience. I scanned and digitized over 400 of the archive's documents. I also created a synthesized database out of previously underutilized material. Addition of this database to the archive's website increased access of the listed holdings by six hundred percent. When not working on projects, I assisted incoming patrons with research and performed independent research upon request.

Lastly, I would like to acknowledge that I am a huge admirer of your magazine, HouseWorks, which I have read since I was in high school. It would be an honor to work for you. If you have any questions or would like to discuss anything in further detail, please feel free to contact me at (555) 555-5555 or at janesmith@email.com.

Sincerely,

Jane Smith

While the above example may be studied for format and style, keep in mind that each applicant's cover letter will look different, depending on experience, the type of job applied for, and the applicant's personality. Therefore, the above cover letter should only serve as a guideline.

Additionally, while a cover letter is a vital piece of any job application, it is not the only piece. For example, an excellent cover letter will do little for an applicant if the concomitant resume is poorly written. Moreover, while a cover letter may impress potential employers, if the applicant does not actually possess the skills discussed in the cover letter or is unqualified for the position, the cover letter will do little to remedy these issues. So when applying for positions, it is important for you to assess your suitability for the opening before penning a cover letter and sending an application.

Finally, if a cover letter serves its purpose, it will get you an interview - either a telephone interview or an in-person interview, depending on the situation. Once this has been secured, the importance of the cover letter recedes. There are further steps - you will be judged on how well you perform in the interview, on the viability of your resume, and on the totality of your application.

Therefore, the cover letter has a very specific goal: to get your entire application noticed and to secure an interview, giving you the chance to impress the potential employer face to face. With this in mind, the cover letter should be consistent with the rest of the application and reflect your personality in a professional manner. A cover letter should therefore be viewed not as a key to getting a job, but as a key to getting an opportunity to pitch yourself in person for the job.


Last Updated: 05/23/2014

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