Cover Letters

Perhaps the only thing job-seekers dread more than writing a resume is writing the cover letter to go with it. True, a resume requires good, solid writing and attention to detail, but a cover letter is addressed to a particular person--whoever is in charge of hiring--and requires the job-seeker to answer the most important question on that person's mind: "Why is this applicant the best qualified candidate for the job?"

How well you write a cover letter may play a large part in how effective your resume will be. A good cover letter may get you an interview; a bad one may make your resume little more than an afterthought.

Cover Letter Content

The cover letter is your chance to sell yourself to a potential employer as the best candidate for a specific position. As such, it's just as important as your resume. In fact, you should never send out a resume without one.

The most important thing to remember is that your cover letter serves a separate function from your resume and should not be used to repeat the details of your resume, such as work history, education, or personal objectives. The resume is about you, your experience and your skills. The cover letter is about what you can do for the employer.

An effective cover letter should accomplish three things:

  1. Introduce Yourself and Your Reason for Writing The first paragraph needs to grab the hiring manager's attention. Say exactly why you have sent your resume: you are interested in the company and you want to fill a need they have. Demonstrate your interest by indicating any connections between the employer and yourself. Show that you work in the same field, that you share a common professional interest, or that you have been following the company or industry in the news.

    If you were referred to the company by a mutual friend or associate, mention them; the hiring manager may feel more obligated to respond to your letter. (Don't profess to know more than you do, however. If you make inaccurate statements regarding the company or the industry, the hiring manager will see right through it.) When offering to fill the company's need, be specific as possible. Don't just mention the job position, describe what the company requires from that position.

  2. Sell Yourself In the second part of the letter state (briefly) the skills you bring to the table that will specifically meet the employer's needs. There is no need to go into great detail; your resume should take care of that.

    Instead, use this section to highlight how you will use your talents and experience to benefit the company. Don't use it to indicate how you think you'll benefit from being employed--with a stack of resumes on her desk and positions to fill, the hiring manager isn't concerned with your personal fulfillment. Keep your use of the personal pronoun "I" to a minimum. Try to use it in this sense: "Here's how I can help you."

  3. Make a Plan Close the letter by indicating what you would like to happen next. Don't leave the ball in the employer's court; take action! Tell the potential employer where you can be reached, either by phone or by e-mail, but don't wait for a call. Indicate that if you don't hear from them within a few days, you will follow-up with a phone call to make sure your resume and cover letter have reached the intended recipient, and to arrange a face to face interview. Be assertive but polite. (Some job seekers may want to use a paragraph to explain anything that's not apparent from the resume, such as large gaps in the employment history.)

Formatting Cover Letters

There is no one "official" format, but here are some basic rules to keep in mind when composing a cover letter:

  • A three line block in the top right hand or left hand corner of the page containing: your home street address; city, state and ZIP code; and the date. (The date may be separated from the block by one line.)

  • Another three line block, flush left, one space below the date and one space above the greeting. This block contains the addressee's full name and address, including city, state and ZIP code.

  • Use a colon after the greeting, not a comma. The greeting should address a specific person in a formal manner. "Dear Ms. Harper:" is perfect; "Dear Jennifer:" is not.

  • Use a personalized salutation (not, for example, "To Whom It May Concern"). Make an effort to find out who will be receiving your letter. If necessary, telephone the company and ask. If you do not find a specific name, address the letter to "Hiring Manager," "Human Resources Manager," or simply "Manager."

  • Paragraphs should be separated by a line of space; indentation is not necessary.

  • You may use bullets and bold print in the body of your cover letter to organize and highlight information, and make it easier to read. If you do decide to use them, do so conservatively.

  • The closing should read "Sincerely," followed by your signature underneath, then your full name in print underneath that. Always leave enough room for your signature between the closing and your name when you print your cover letter.

sample cover letter

Cover Letter Writing Tips

How you write the cover letter is as important as the message it delivers. Your letter is an example of how well you communicate, and no employer wants to hire people who can't do so effectively. With that in mind, here are some tips on making your cover letter look and sound professional.

  • Personalize the letter. Whenever possible, address your cover to the individual responsible for filling the position. A generic salutation sends the message that you aren't familiar with the company; such an impression won't convince the reader that you're enthusiastic about the job. Likewise, "To whom it may concern" will probably concern no one. And "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam" are ill advised--don't risk alienating or offending your reader.

    If necessary, make a phone call, visit the library or use the Internet to find out the name and title of the person who does the hiring. Then make sure to get the spellings correct. Remember, the hiring manager will be looking for people who set themselves apart. Take the time to find out who's in charge and you may be that person.

  • Be natural. Use simple, uncomplicated language and sentence structure. Don't try to sound like someone else, particularly if that means using unnaturally formal language, convoluted sentences and words you've never used before (perhaps misusing them in the process). You may mean to impress, but you'll often sound awkward. Write as you would speak. Be formal, but don't be a stiff. Say things in a simple, straightforward way, and don't rely on a thesaurus. As with your resume, use action words to create dynamic sentences.

  • Be specific and get to the point. Your cover letter must be intriguing enough to get the reader to look at the resume, but should be only an introduction to the resume, not a repeat of it. Make sure you answer the question, "Why should I hire this person?"

    Avoid using clichés, like "I've taken the liberty of enclosing my resume," or "I'm a people person." It's difficult to sell yourself as unique if your letter reads like every other one in the pile.

  • Be positive. Don't complain about your boss or describe your present or previous work experience as "boring." Nobody wants to hire somebody with an attitude. Above all, don't sound like you're begging for a job. A hiring manager may wonder why you're so desperate.

  • Be confident, but not arrogant. Don't be negative or too humble. Tell them you're qualified for the job, but don't demand it. Don't profess to know more about the company than you really do. Explain why you find the company attractive (there must be some reason or you shouldn't be writing) and leave it at that.

  • Be polite and professional. You may be a comedian with your friends, but a potential employer should be treated with respect.

  • Be efficient. Don't waste space (and the reader's time) on unnecessary details. Respect the employer's time--make sure every sentence has something to do with explaining your interest in the company, illustrating how you'll fill the company's needs, and how you'll contact the company in the near future.

  • Type your letter, but beware of the dangers of word processing. If you send a similar letter to several companies, make sure that you change all customized statements accordingly; no company wants to read how much you'd like to work for their competitor. Carefully read each letter before you sign it.

  • Be available. Remember to tell the employer how to reach you. Give a phone number which will be reliably answered by either a person or an answering machine. If possible, include an e-mail address.

    Do not leave the ball in the employer's court. Indicate what reaction you expect from your letter and how you will follow up. For example, don't end with "I look forward to hearing from you soon."

  • Proofread. Check carefully for grammar and spelling mistakes, then check again. Typos and grammatical errors say a lot about the kind of work you do. Don't depend entirely on the spell-check function of your word processor; if you use "there" for "their," for example, spell-check won't notice. Keep a dictionary handy for proper word usage and consult a style manual for grammar questions.

  • Sign it. If you forget this, the employer may feel like you've sent a form letter.

  • Package it nicely. Print your resume and cover letter on the same paper stock; the uniformity will look professional. Use only printers that produce neat, readable text with no stray marks or smudges. If possible, avoid using a dot-matrix printer or a manual type writer.

  • Keep one for yourself.Make a copy of each letter sent, and keep it for future reference.

What Experts Say About Cover Letters

"... you need to make it easy for the employer to buy. You need to clearly state when you will be available to talk to the employer. Be specific: give telephone numbers where you can be reached both at work and off work. You could have a tremendous background and see yourself very well, but if the employer can't reach you, everything could be lost."
--LOLA M. COXFORD, Resume Writing Made Easy for High-Tech

"Because you can use your cover letter to highlight certain aspects of your resume, the same resume can be used to pursue different job opportunities. The beauty of the cover letter is that you can gear it to each particular company that is the recipient of your resume by stressing your most important qualification."
--ADELE LEWIS, The Best Resume for Scientists and Engineers

"A resume without a cover letter is like an unannounced salesperson showing up at your door. If you are going to let in a perfect stranger, you at least want to see their credentials. This is exactly what a cover letter does--it introduces you, a total stranger, to the reader. It must be compelling, personable, and brief. It needs to specifically relate to the position in question. Remember you only have eight seconds to convince the reader to invite you in."
--BARBARA B. VINITSKY AND JANICE Y. BENJAMIN, How to Become Happily Employed

"No cover letter should carry the salutation: 'To whom it may concern.' It will concern no one if you don't personalize it. The surest way to get the information is to find the name in trade journals or in The Standard & Poor's Register, The Dun & Bradstreet Directory, or other directories. Failing all that, call the company and ask for the name of the appropriate person."
--KENNETH AND SHERYL DAWSON, Job Search, The Total System

"If there is a catch-22 situation in job hunting, it involves the cover letter. Even in situations where it is not requested, you should attach a cover letter to your resume. However, a review of the cover letter is one of the most common methods by which candidates are eliminated form the process. The cover letter is rarely anything but a liability, but you must include it because its absence is worse."
--JEFF B. SPECK, Hot Tips, Sneaky Tricks & Last-Ditch Tactics

"Poor grammar, bad punctuation, and misspelled words suggest that the applicant is either poorly educated or simply doesn't care about the impression created. The chances are unusually high that the employer is going to forgo reading the accompanying resume and quickly move on to the next job applicant."
--RICHARD H. BEATTY, The Perfect Cover Letter