A cover letter is your first opportunity to introduce yourself, stand out from other applicants, and make a good impression on an employer. This first impression can make or break your chances of reaching your goal of getting an interview.
How Do I Begin?
If you’re feeling lost and don’t know how to go about beginning a cover letter, think back to senior year of high school and all of the college essays you wrote. The classic college essay includes a memorable, inspiring story from your past that inspired or taught you in some way and shows why you would be a great fit for the university.
Just like your college essays, your cover letter is your opportunity to tell a business what you have to offer and why you would be a great fit for them.
You could start your cover letter with a relevant anecdote. Jenny Foss of themuse.com wrote,
“As humans, we love stories far more than we love data sheets. (OK, I speak for most humans). So, what’s your story? What brings you to this company? Did you used to sing along to all of its commercials as a kid? Did the product make some incredible difference in your life? Do you sometimes pull into the parking lot and daydream about what it would feel like to work there? Tell your story. Just make sure you have a great segue. Random trivia can come across as weird.”
Make your story authentic and use it to brag a little. However, don’t get carried away. Keep your letter professional and strive to match the formality of the company you are applying for. Be sure to make your story relevant and frame your skills in the context of how you could benefit the company. The purpose is to not only catch their attention, but to catch it in a positive way that makes them believe you would be an asset to their business.
Now that you’ve got a place to start, here are the dos and don’ts of how to create a well-written cover letter that will make employers want to learn more about you:
Do be concise.
Limit your letter to a single page to be put in front of your resume. It does not need to be more than 2-4 short paragraphs. Write more than a couple of sentences, but don’t be long-winded.
Do focus on your skills.
Don’t say much about what your past job experiences were (they see all of that on your resume), but rather focus on the skills you have acquired through these experiences. The skills you have mastered are what will benefit a company, not just the fact that you worked at Goldman Sachs.
Do personalize it.
Tailor your letter to the specific job and company you are applying for. Do not use the same generic information for every job application. You need go beyond why you are great in general, and convince the employer that you are great fit for THIS job.
Ash Arnett, from PARTICULAR, said,
“We trash generic inquiries (i.e. form letters) automatically. If you don’t care to put in a little effort to tailor your communication to my company, I sure don’t care to read it. Why do you want to work for Particular instead of some other company? How did you find us? Some indication that you’ve read the Particular or Matter websites is a good start.”
Keep your cover letter out of the trash and tailor it to the job you’re applying for.
Do write it pyramid style.
Include the most important information towards the top. The employer probably has several applications to look at, so if he only reads part of your cover letter, ensure that he at least reads the best part.
Do show a little personality.
After reading tens of cover letters, a lot of them start to sound like the same “pick me, here’s why” letter. Make your cover letter stand out from the others and not sound so dull. Be professional, but let yourself shine through.
Check, double check, and triple check for spelling and grammar errors. Easily fixed spelling mistakes can be a complete turn-off to an employer. Take this opportunity to show your professionalism and communication skills.
Don’t simply repeat your resume.
Interpret your resume. Complement your resume. The employer has your resume, so you need to make your cover letter different and interesting.
Don’t make these deathly grammar mistakes.
Show you passed the 6th grade and make sure to use the correct word choices in your cover letter.
Don’t write why you want “a job” or “a job in this field.”
Write about why you want THIS job. Explain why you are the perfect match for THIS position. Don’t be too generic.
Don’t point out your weaknesses.
If you don’t fit the requirements for the job, the employer will see this on your resume. You don’t need to highlight or even mention your weaknesses in your cover letter. Reel in the employer’s interest by focusing on your skills and strengths that make you a great fit for the job.
Don’t include salary expectations.
This is premature. Salary should not be discussed until the interview at the earliest, and even then, only if the interviewer brings it up.
Don’t address the employer as sir or madam.
Use the person’s name! If you don’t know it, use his/her title. This is another key component of personalizing your letter.
Don’t focus on what the company can do for you.
Focus on what YOU can do for the company. You are the one trying to convince them that you would be a good fit for the company, not vice versa.
Don’t badmouth anyone.
This includes your previous employers, the company’s competitors, other companies you have applied at, etc. How you talk about others will be viewed as how you would talk about this new job when you leave. Badmouthing is unprofessional, not classy, and will never make you look better.
What Do I Include?
Tell the employer your recent and relevant career achievements, job experience, education, and skills you have that make you the best candidate for the job. Include your enthusiasm and interest in the position, and thank the employer for his time and consideration.
Below, is an outline for how the format of a cover letter could be:
Your Contact Information
City, State, Zip Code
Employer Contact Information (if you have it)
City, State, Zip Code
Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name, (If you do not have the hiring manager’s information, simply write his/her job title)
First paragraph: Explain your purpose for writing. Include the position you are applying for. You may include where you found the job listing and any mutual contacts. Could include a relevant anecdote here.
Middle paragraph(s): Highlight a few of your relevant job experiences (most recent first), education, and skills you acquired through those experiences. Match your skills to what they are looking for.
Final paragraph: Thank the employer for his time/consideration. Request an opportunity to meet with the employer for an interview.
Handwritten Signature (for hard copy)
This outline is a pretty standard, accepted format. However, don’t force what you have to say into a format if it doesn’t work well. You can stray from this outline and make your letter unique, but keep it professional and the proper length.
Here are a few examples of cover letters you can refer to and get ideas from:
43 Lancaster Street
Manhattan, NY 55555
August 15, 2015
42 Essex Street
Manhattan, NY 55555
Dear Mr. Jensen,
I was excited to discover Montgomery’s Bistro is looking for a new server, and hope to be invited for an interview. My good friend Lauren Caswell is currently a server at your restaurant, and informed me of the opening.
I have an extensive background as a server, bartender, and hostess. My most recent experience was as a night and weekend server at Callaway’s. In the three years I worked there, I was responsible for serving 3-6 tables at a time, taking drink orders and making mixed drinks, and handling payments. Prior to my position at Callaway’s, I was a server at Elena’s BBQ and Brazilian Grill, and a hostess at Frederico’s. Through all of this experience, I have developed the essential customer service, multi-tasking, problem-solving, memorization, and efficiency skills required to please customers and optimize their dining experience. I genuinely enjoy serving customers and I appreciate the value of fine dining, and therefore am always cheerful, positive, and sincere in my work.
I am also a regular diner at Montgomery’s, am already familiar with the menu, and I love the restaurant’s cuisine. I am confident that I would be an asset to your restaurant and an excellent server.
Thank you for considering me for this position. My resume is enclosed, and I hope to meet with you soon.
66 Oak Hill
Providence, RI 55555
August 15, 2015
Mr. Alexander Smith
Lexington Middle School
35 Main Street
Scituite, RI 55555
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am a 2010 Music Education graduate from Utah State University interested in applying for the band teaching position you have posted on teachers-teachers.com.
I am currently the music teacher at Farmington Elementary. My primary responsibilities include teaching fourth and fifth grade students woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments, teaching general music classes for grades K-5, preparing the students to perform in various concerts throughout the school year, and collaborating with other teachers. This position, along with my student teaching and thorough education at USU, have prepared me with the patience, creativity, passion, and enthusiasm needed to make music fun, enjoyable, and beneficial to young students. When I had my first saxophone solo in the 6th grade, I practiced every single day to ensure an excellent performance. My practice paid off, the solo was a success, and I learned that through hard work and passion for music, I could do something amazing. I want to teach this same diligence and passion to the students at Lexington Middle School.
Thank you for considering me for this position. Please do not hesitate to contact me for further information. I hope to meet with you soon for an interview.
3697 Carroway Lane
Dansbury, ND 55555
January 15, 2015
Mr. Eli Stringham
1156 W 7000 E
Westbrooke, ND 55555
Dear Mr. Stringham,
For several months now I have had interest in obtaining an internship in marketing with Kilian Shoes. As a user and personal advocate, I admire the brand for the high quality shoes, apparel, and accessories it produces.
As a student of marketing at the University of Connecticut, I have the opportunity to learn from PhD marketing specialists and professors who have excellent in-field marketing experience. I have learned the value of good brand management, proper consumer insight, and innovative strategy. I have developed excellent communication skills and enjoy working with idea creation. I am highly motivated and work well in a team environment to accomplish goals and objectives. I have risen to the occasion when the opportunity has presented itself to lead my team on projects to help drive the team toward meeting its goals. I have learned effective ways to reach out to a target audience and promote a product that is beneficial to them. I enjoy the idea of building on a brand to create a higher level of interest among its target audience. Because of my excellent teamwork skills, passion for marketing and running, and understanding of the Killian Shoes brand, I would be an immediate asset to your team.
I am excited at the prospect of working with Kilian Shoes this summer. Thank you for your consideration.
4579 Springhill Boulevard
Franklin, UT 55555
August 15, 2015
Mr. Frank Doyle
Owner, Frankie’s Landscape Maintenance
35 Main Street
Mendon, CO 55555
Dear Mr. Doyle,
I am an experienced landscape maintenance professional interested in applying for the team manager position you posted on yardworkpros.com.
During the past five years working in landscape maintenance, I have learned how to mow, trim, blade-edge, trim bushes, and fix machinery properly and efficiently. In addition to these basic skills, I am proficient in sprinkler repair as well as off-season jobs such as Christmas light installation and snow removal. I am accustomed to working long hours, working well with a crew, and paying attention to detail in my work. Although I work quickly, I do not sacrifice quality for speed. I understand and value the importance of working with customers to make sure they are pleased with the results of my work.
I am confident that my experience has adequately prepared me to manage a team in accomplishing professional landscape maintenance work. Thank you for considering me for this position. Please contact me with any questions. I hope to meet with you for a personal interview.
Here are some more great examples to check out.
Once It’s Written…
Match your resume.
Since the cover letter and resume go together, you want to be consistent and make sure they match visually. This will show your attention to detail and professionalism.
Here are some great rules of thumb to consider:
- Use the same font(s) in both your cover letter and resume.
- For in-person submission, print both on the same high-quality paper.
- Match the formatting. For example, if you use lines to separate sections in your resume, use those lines in the header and footer of the cover letter. If you use an accent color in your resume, use it in the cover letter. Whatever format you choose, use it on both pages.
It’s important to save your cover letter (and resume) as a PDF file if you are submitting it electronically. If they don’t have the same program or version of Word that you have, your format could be altered in the transfer, and all of your hard work put in formatting would be a waste. If you save your cover letter and resume as a PDF, it will definitely be received in its original format.
Naming your file.
If an employer receives 50 cover letters and resumes and they’re all named, “myresume.doc”, he’s going to have a hard time distinguishing who they belong to. Include your full name in both the cover letter and resume titles. For example, “Cover letter for Ashley Smith,” and “Resume for Ashley Smith.”
Printing for in-person submission.
Spend a few cents extra and print your resume on high quality white or ivory paper. Print the cover letter and resume on separate sheets of paper, never print double-sided. Avoid stapling your cover letter and resume together. The best option is to submit them in a folder. Even if you don’t need to submit a paper copy of your resume when applying, it’s a good idea to have a few copies on-hand when you go to an interview (for you or the interviewers to refer to).
Writing Your Next Cover Letter
As discussed earlier, each cover letter you write should be tailored to the company you are applying for. However, you don’t have to start completely from scratch every time you write one. Obviously, your contact information will stay the same and the employer’s will always change. You could keep the final paragraph the same for each employer if relevant (thanking the employer for hi time, hoping to meet soon for an interview).
The main difference between letters will be in what experiences and skills you focus on. Look at the job description for each job you apply for, and determine which parts of your work experience are most relevant to the skills and abilities they are looking for. Hone in on these experiences and put others on the back burner. These will likely be a little different for each job, but there will be some overlap. You can use the same pyramid-style outline for all letters, just personalize the specifics to match what each company is looking for.
Use this guide to write some outstanding cover letters, and you’ll be in those job interviews before you know it.
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