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How to Write a Cover Letter

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It doesn’t matter how dazzling your resume is or how qualified you are for the position if you don’t know how to write a cover letter. A generic or poorly written cover letter can scuttle your chances for dazzling your potential employer.

Your resume cover letter is your first (and in some cases, only) opportunity to grab an employer’s attention and let him or her know that your resume is worth reading. Here are some ways to make sure your cover letter will stand out from the rest.

How to Write a Cover Letter: Before You Start

First and foremost, update your resume. The skills and experiences you list on your resume should be applicable to the position for which you’re applying, and should reflect your strengths to your prospective employer.

Research the company or organization to gather material for your letter. Some useful items to research include:

  • The mission statement, as this is where the company generally promotes what they feel sets them apart from their competitors.
  • The customer base, as this will give you a good indication of the company’s target market.
  • The company or organization’s core values. Are they devoted to innovation? Tradition? Diversity? Service?
  • The history of the company, including when it was founded and how it has evolved over time.

Analyze the job description carefully. Make a list of the most important qualifications, and put a check mark next to the ones you have.

Get the name of the person to whom you’ll be writing. If you know somebody at the company or even in the industry, ask them if they can help you with the name. If not, contact the HR department.

How to Write a Cover Letter: Formatting and Content

Make sure you format the heading elements properly. If the letter is to be printed and mailed, you should:

  • Include your address in the top right corner, approximately 1 inch down from the top of the page.
  • Skip down four lines and type the current date.
  • Skip down four more lines and type the contact’s name, followed by the name and address of the company. If at all possible, your letter should be addressed to a specific person. You should only write to “whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam” if you’re left with no other choice.

If this is an online letter that won’t be printed out, you can omit the company’s address and the date, if you wish.

Write the body of your letter in three sections. Each section should be no more than one or two paragraphs, and the entire letter should fit comfortably on a single page.

  • Section 1 should be a single paragraph explaining to the employer why you’re writing. Be sure to state which position you’re applying for. If you heard about the position through a mutual contact or a recruiting program, mention that as well. If you’re not applying for a specific position, but simply writing a prospecting letter to ask about available positions, let the company know why you’re interested in working for them.
  • Section 2 should consist of one or two paragraphs outlining your skills and experience, and matching them to the qualifications in the job listing. Instead of focusing on what you hope to achieve at the company, show your enthusiasm and desire for helping the company reach its goals. Try to make a handful of good, solid points (no more than two or three), and back them up with specific examples from your resume. Use your research and relate some relevant details about the company. Not only will this set yours apart from the dozens of form letters in the pile, but it will let the employer know that you take the company (and the position) seriously.
  • Section 3 should be a short, closing paragraph of 2-4 sentences. Direct the employer to your enclosed resume, and be sure to mention any references or samples of your work that are available on request. Let the employer know that you’re available for an interview and, if you want to be assertive, state that you will contact him or her at a later date to set up a meeting time. Provide your own contact information and, most importantly, thank your potential employer for his or her time and consideration.

Conclude the letter the appropriate valediction. Use “Yours sincerely,” (if the letter is addressed to an actual person), “Yours faithfully,” (if your letter is addressed to no one in particular), or “Regards.” Skip down four lines and type your name. (For an online letter, you need only skip one or two lines.)

Sign your letter with blue ink. If you use black ink, your prospective employer may assume the letter is a copy.

How to Write a Cover Letter: Proofreading

Make sure everything is spelled correctly. Don’t just look for obvious misspellings, but check for potential homophones that might slip through the spell check. It can be quite embarrassing to realize, once the letter has been sent, that you typed “copyrighter” instead of “copywriter.”

Check your punctuation use carefully. Pay particular attention to commas and quotation marks. If you’re not comfortable using a semicolon, then leave it out.

Make sure haven’t used too many contractions. Avoiding them altogether may give your letter a stilted, unnatural feel, but using too many might set a tone that’s too informal and relaxed. Try to find a happy medium.

Keep your letter in the active voice, and own what you’ve accomplished. Make yourself the active subject of as many sentences as possible. However, vary your syntax a bit to avoid having every sentence start with “I...”

Don’t let your cover letter run more than one page. The idea is to grab the hiring manager’s attention and convince him or her to look at your resume. If your letter is too long, tighten it up and cut the fluff.

Make sure the tone of your letter is appropriately upbeat and informative. Part of knowing how to write a cover letter is understanding how to sell yourself and your skills in a positive way. If you can do that effectively, you should have no trouble getting that job interview.

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