Job Search Series – Writing an Effective Cover Letter

I consider it a good rule for letter-writing to leave unmentioned
what the recipient already knows,and instead tell him something new.
~Sigmund Freud

Guest Post by Lyn Leis

Now that we’ve addressed your most important job search tool in Five Steps to a Modern, Effective Resume and Putting Together Your Resume, this post is about your resume’s right hand man – the cover letter.

Your cover letter introduces your resume to a hiring manager when you don’t have the opportunity to do so face-to-face (e.g., at a job fair, networking event, information session, etc.). Some job/internship applications require a cover letter; but even if they don’t, it is still strongly recommended that you write one.

You’ve tailored your resume to the specific position to which you are applying (as covered in Five Steps to a Modern, Effective Resume), and now the cover letter allows you to narrow that picture down even further, and present the information and background that is most directly related to the position. It also lets you present information not contained in your resume.

How to Use a Cover Letter

Your cover letter should accomplish a number of things:
  • Introduce yourself and identify the position for which you are applying
  • Pinpoint your experiences and skills that make you qualified for that specific position
  • Describe the reasons you are interested in that particular employer and/or position
  • Address any concerns you anticipate (e.g., a major required skill that you lack) and describe how you will overcome those obstacles, or how you compensate in another area
  • Answer questions asked in the job description (e.g., availability, salary history, etc.)
  • Demonstrate your written communication skills

To this end, you should start from scratch and write a brand new cover letter for each application. The work you put into your cover letters up front will pay off later; employers want to know that you are considering their companies specifically, that you have researched the company and read the job description thoroughly, and that you have put thought into how you will fit their position. It takes time and effort to develop a job description, have it approved, and post it in the appropriate places, and recruiters want to feel like you put in time and effort to read and understand those descriptions.

Cover Letter Format

  • Format your cover letter as a traditional business letter, even when you are emailing it. This should open with the date, and follow with the name and full business address of the company, including a name and title for the specific contact, if you have it.
  • Use “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Hiring Representative” for the salutation, if you do not have a contact name. “To Whom It May Concern” is considered too removed and outdated. Use a comma and not a colon in the salutation.
  • Use the same heading, font size, and margins that you use on the resume you’re including with this application. This gives your documents a uniform appearance and helps contribute to your brand.
  • Keep your cover letter to less than one page, even if your resume is longer.

The most common type of cover letter is the traditional three-paragraph letter. In general, you should use the paragraphs as follows (use your judgment in formatting your letter differently, but be sure to address all of these elements):

Paragraph 1: Identify the position to which you are applying, or explain your exact reason for writing. State where you found the position listed. Indicate if you were referred by someone. You can use the end of this paragraph to state something specific about the company/position that interests you, or something about your background that makes you particularly qualified.

Paragraph 2: Respond to the job description by identifying your directly matched skills, and one or two of your directly related experiences (but don’t repeat your entire resume). If you are transitioning to a new field or career, identify your transferable skills and their related experiences. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you’ve read the job description, understand what they’re looking for, and can describe how you meet those qualifications. If you do this effectively, you’ll not only demonstrate that you’re qualified for this position, but that you have strong analytical skills. If you’ve not done so (or if it needs further elaboration) in Paragraph 1, you can also use this paragraph to state the reasons you’re interested in this particular organization/position.

Paragraph 3: Close the letter and state anything that you have left out so far (including your interest in this job/organization – have I emphasized that enough?!). Use this paragraph to address logistical questions that may have been asked in the job description, such as salary requirements, work schedule, or relocation. State that your resume is attached or enclosed, and thank the recruiter for their consideration. Sign your letter “Sincerely, (your full name).”

It is often advised that applicants ask for an interview in their cover letter. If you do, I recommend a phrase such as “I look forward to speaking with you further about this position.” Asking for an interview outright can be redundant and/or presumptuous to a recruiter. It is assumed that your reason for applying to a job posting is to obtain an interview, so you do not have to state it outright. Be careful also of language that assumes you will have an interview, or that the company would be lucky to have you on board.

Tell Your Story

The format of the cover letter itself is simple enough, but expressing all of these elements in a cohesive letter that flows and transitions well, and tells your story, can be challenging.  As you look over your resume and cover letter, ask yourself if it is clear why you are applying to this position now. Is it exactly on your career path, and are you looking to advance? Are you seeking a position that lets you utilize a different skill set, or work with a different population? Remember, recruiters want to feel that you want this specific position. If it’s at all unclear how this fits into your career path, a recruiter might fear that you are interested in this position temporarily while you continue to look for a more long term prospect.

A common example of this is when someone applies to a position that is at a lower level than her current one. People often do this to transition to another industry, or move to a job that helps them make use of a different skill set. However, if you don’t describe this desire to transition, a recruiter may not fully understand why you are interested in this particular opportunity.

As with your resume, hiring managers will spend very little time looking at your cover letter. Therefore, it’s not enough to draw the dots; you have to connect them too.

Lyn Leis is associate director of career and professional development at a private college.

2 thoughts on “Job Search Series – Writing an Effective Cover Letter

  1. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Thank you for reading and for your comment, Layce. You are correct that each cover letter should be tailored to the position to which you are applying, and that is the reason Lyn Nelson made the point so strongly in her guest post.


  2. Layce says:

    In addition, a cover letter should be tailored to the company and position you are applying for. The easy way out is to just make one size fits all letter but that will reflect laziness lack of attention to detail. Writing is tailoring to what you perceive for the moment, it does not come from a standard equation. – Layce of


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