The Intrepid Guide to Cover Letters
Keeping in line with this month’s theme of “Work and Career,” I would be remiss if I did not offer any advice on actually getting a job. I know how the economy is right now. For every job you apply to there will be 100 other more qualified applicants. That is why you need a killer, professional cover letter to get noticed enough to even be granted an interview. Today I am here to help you with that.
Before You Even Start
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before ever putting your fingers to the keypad. First among those is to remember the purpose of the cover letter. A cover letter is meant to introduce why your are a good fit for a position and your interest in the company. A cover letter IS NOT meant to be a repeat of your resume NOR is it meant to tell the prospective employer why you need the job. Blandly repeating your qualifications and the fact that you need money will not impress, I guarantee it.
The second thing that you need to keep in mind is that recruiters are busy. Chances are, they will spend less than one minute on your well thought out, beautifully crafted cover letter. Make those precious seconds count. It is vital that you keep in mind the specific position and company in mind when writing your cover letter. Tailor your qualifications and voice to what they are looking for. Keep it short, less than a page, because they aren’t going to read more than that anyway.
Now I am not going to pretend that you have the luxury of spending hours researching each company you apply for and creating a brand spanking new cover letter for each position. I am going to assume that many readers are unemployed and are applying for 10 jobs a day. My advice would be to carefully craft a cover letter for each different career field and to keep it on file. For every new job, take 10 minutes to look on the company website and another 10-20 to change up your language to match the company’s culture and needs. If you are looking to get that one dream job however, then you should definitely spend a little more time getting creative.
Step 1: Header
Now you are ready to begin putting your cover letter together. The first item that typically appears on a cover letter is your name in big, bold, and easy to read font. A recommended font size is 14-16 pt. Below your name is your contact info: address, phone number, email, etc. A basic example would look something like this:
123 S Main • (800) 555-1234 • email@example.com
To Whom are You Speaking?
Below your name and contact info you will put the date, the name of the person in charge of hiring, and their contact information. The date can be directly above their info, right aligned, or where ever looks best.
It really is best to address your cover letter to a specific person if at all possible. It is much more likely to be looked at if it goes to a real person and not just to some inbox somewhere. If you cannot find a specific person then address it to “Hiring Committee” or “Recruiting Team” or if all else fails, “To whom it may concern.”
After you have inserted the contact info for your potential employer, it is time to begin the cover letter. You do this like you would any other letter, “Dear _______________ ,” It is important here that you use the appropriate title if you are talking to a specific person. If they are a doctor, address them as such. Generally you will use Mr./Ms. If the person you are addressing is a female, don’t make a guess as to their marital status. When in doubt use “Ms.”
This section would look something like:
6 August 2014
Mr. John Doe
456 N Main
Somewhere, USA 12345
Dear Mr. Doe,
Introduce Your Purpose
Now its time to get into the meat of your cover letter. Your first paragraph should introduce your purpose — what position are you applying for? If you learned about the position from someone inside the company, now is the time to name-drop. Your first paragraph is also a great place to show off that research you did earlier about the company. Say what impressed you about them and how you could really make an impact in their team. This lets them know that you have done your research and that you don’t want just any job – you want this job. Remember to keep it concise. A good opening paragraph might look something like:
I recently heard about the opening for a Junior Linux Admin from John Smith, a VP of operations at your company. I have been following Davis Aeronautics for quite some time and was impressed with last year’s release of Davis Simulation Software. As an administrator for Davis Aeronautics, I would be thrilled to help develop such integrative and intuitive systems.
After your first paragraph it should be clear why you are writing. It is time to prove why you are the best candidate for the job. Here in the body of your letter you have to identify why you are qualified, what useful experience you have, and how your values align with the company’s. Again, you have to be concise, no more than 1-2 paragraphs.
This portion of the letter is tricky because there is a lot for you to remember. Remember that someone within the company is your audience. They don’t care that you need a job or what your dreams and ambitions are. They want to know what you can do for them. With that in mind, tailor your qualifications to what they are looking for.
Remember that they already have your resume so don’t just repeat it. Get very detailed about what you have done before. Instead of saying “I served fries” say “I increased drive-thru time by 15% by putting a napkin system in place.” That may seem a bit dramatic but it is quantifiable and shows results — not just some generic language used to fill space. You are a person who gets things done.
Remember to be confident. An easy way to do this without sounding pompous and arrogant is to switch your phrasing from passive to active. A passive voice sounds like this: “My last job gave me technical and social skills you need.” Sounds alright but listen to the impact that same sentence can make when stated actively: “At my last job I utilized the same technical and social skills that you are looking for.” Take ownership of what you can do. It’ll sound better, trust me!
One last tip to remember. This one might be the hardest one of all — let your own personality shine through. To do this can be really difficult because you are trying to match your writing to what they want. You are trying to match their level of formality and the culture of the company while still trying to make yourself stand out from the hundred other generic cover letters. Its a tall order. Depending on the formality of the company, you might consider using a conversational tone or writing the way you talk, using a Post Script at the bottom, or telling a short AND relevant story.
Continuing our example:
I believe that I have what it takes to administer the Linux Systems at Davis Aeronautics. Davis Aeronautics has a reputation for being on the forefront of aviation technology. My work experience and personal qualities are in harmony with your tradition of excellence. I have an in depth working knowledge of Ubuntu, CentOS, Python, MySQL, PHP, and countless others. I have a deep understanding of Linux operations and coding. I am dependable, dedicated, and a quick learner. I will quickly adjust to the systems and protocols that Davis Aeronautics has set in place.
At my current employment I have utilized all of the above outlined systems. I have set up hard disk partitions to maximize space and utility. The partitions have saved my current company $750K in new machine costs. I diligently maintain all workstations to which I am assigned. I am passionate about my job and do what it takes to get things done. When my company had a blackout, I volunteered to stay overtime and work on rebooting the systems, resetting the firewalls, and checking the networks. I am constantly on the lookout for any way that I can improve the efficiency and user ease for all my clients. If hired, I will show this same commitment to Davis Aeronautics.
Tie it All Together
With the body of the cover letter complete, the end is in sight. For your last paragraph you will want to reiterate why you are a good fit for the job and the company. It is also a good idea to mention that you will give them a call in a few days (and then actually do it). This call will encourage them to take a second look at your application and perhaps set up an interview time. If you know that you will not call them, instead say that you look forward to hearing from them. This is a positive statement that invites further contact.
In this last paragraph it is also a good idea to put your phone and email again. Even though these items should figure prominently at the top, you will want to be sure that they are at the end to remind the hiring agent to contact.
If your cover letter is sent via email, it is likely that you have sent your resume and references as an attachment to the cover letter. A reminder that these items are attached can also be helpful. Last, don’t forget to thank them for their time and consideration!
Keep your salutation short and professional. “Best,” “Sincerely,” and “Cordially” are good way to end.
Leave some Space between your ending salutation and your printed name.. If you are sending your letter in person you can sign in ink your name. If you are sending via email you can use a signature service for a personal added touch. I used this free service for my example. Below your signature you can type your name.
Here is an example of an ending paragraph:
I am happy for this opportunity to work with Davis Aeronautics. I will call in three days to check up on the application status. Attached are my resume and references, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (800) 555-1234. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Review, Review, Review
Your cover letter is written but you have one last step to complete before sending it in. You need to look it over before sending it in. Spell check doesn’t catch everything. Go through and look for spelling errors. Whoever is looking at your cover letter has scores others and can afford to be picky. Sloppy spelling and grammar errors will give the impression that you are a sloppy person.
Read your cover letter aloud. Sometimes things that make sense in your head won’t translate in real life. Reading aloud is a good way to catch this sort of mistake.
Have someone just a little bit smarter than you read your resume. This might be hard if you are a perfectionist or afraid of criticism but will pay off in the end. A second set of eyes will catch what you could not.
Now, you can send in your cover letter!
You now have some of the best info available on writing a successful cover letter. Its time to get writing! Let me know what your favorite cover guide tips are in the comments below and stay tuned for my future posts, “The Intrepid Guide to Resumes” and “How to Ace an Interview.”
Remember to Subscribe to keep in the loop!