Writing a Cover Letter

Many job seekers put a lot of hard work into their resume, spending countless hours refining it. In order to perfect their resume, they will pore over it tirelessly, shaping it to target a particular employer’s needs until it generates a proper, clear message. Then, after all this work, they slip up. They have a resume that is a work of art, but they attach it to a generic cover letter. There is no use sweating over a professional resume, only to mail it with something that starts off “To Whom It May Concern” and just goes downhill from there. Just like resumes, cover letters must be prepared with care and attention to detail, or all that hard work could go down the drain — along with your hopes of getting an interview.

A cover letter needs to have a specific layout and carefully prepared, focused content. The layout consists of six main parts:

  • Contact information and date
  • Salutation
  • Introductory paragraph
  • Body paragraph
  • Conclusion paragraph
  • Thanks and signature

Before we get into what each section consists of, it is vital to look at content. The best tip is this: write your resume first. When writing a resume, you must target it to a specific company and the exact job they are looking to fill. This is the key idea of resume writing. After you have matched your skills, accomplishments and education with a company’s needs and written a resume just for them, you will be prepared to write the cover letter. Instead of a generic cover letter with only the address, date, contact person (if you know who it is, and you had better know!) and job title changed, you will write a focused cover letter each time, based on the company’s needs and how they match up with your skills. Writing the resume first helps you organize the information you need.

CONTACT INFORMATION AND DATE

At the top of the letter, you will write your contact information. This should usually be on the left side of the page. Some writers will centre it or justify it to the right, but keeping everything on the left is more conservative and professional as opposed to being flashy. You will list your name on the first line, then your address on subsequent lines. For convenience, you can list your email and/or telephone number on the next two lines, but this is a matter of personal preference.

After you have listed your contact information, skip a line and list today’s date. Do not abbreviate; spell out the day and month. Then skip a line and list the company’s contact information. List the name of the person you are sending the letter to and their title on the next line (more on this later). From there, you will list the company name, then their address. If their job posting specified anything else, such as an “ATTN” line where you list the job title (for example: “ATTN: Systems Administrator opening”), put that on the last line.

Please note, if you are emailing your resume, you can omit this part, but please stick to proper letter format for the rest.

SALUTATION

This is the part where you greet the recipient. Many web sites and books will give you the following guideline: “Dear Mr. or Ms. Last Name, (leave out if you don’t have a contact).” This is absolutely wrong. You should do everything you can to get the name and title of the person you are sending your resume to. It’s usually as simple as a courteous telephone call to the company, such as “good morning, I’m sending in a resume to apply for the assistant technician opening. Could you please tell me who I should address my letter to?” Nine times out of ten, this approach works. Even if it doesn’t work, you could try to research the company online to try to get the information. Just do your best to get a contact name. To a professional, receiving a letter addressed “to whom it may concern” can be as off putting as those time you receive mail addressed to “occupant.”

INTRODUCTORY PARAGRAPH

In this paragraph, you will state your reason for writing. You should include the position you are applying for and where you found out about this opening. It can be as simple as, “I am writing to apply for the position of Team Lead, as listed in this weekend’s Brisbane Times.” If you are simply cold-mailing looking for openings in your field, you could writing something to the effect of, “I am writing to inquire about possible Information Technology openings at COMPANY NAME.” If you were lucky enough to be notified about the opening by a current employee or another professional, by all means list that right away. “I was told about the opening by your VP of Sales, John Jones” is an excellent way to open communications. Whatever the circumstances, this paragraph is your place to tell the recipient exactly why you’re contacting them.

BODY PARAGRAPH

This is where your resume comes in handy. In the body paragraph, you will introduce yourself and list some of your qualifications. When you wrote your resume for this company, you made sure to target some of the company’s needs when listing your past experience. You will do the same thing here. Pick a few of the most relevant job duties listed in the opening and use this paragraph to call attention the experience, skills and education you have that covers them. No need to be long-winded; like your resume, your cover letter should state its case without wearing out its welcome. Tell them who you are, what you can do to suit their needs, and move on.

CONCLUSION PARAGRAPH

This is your wrap-up paragraph. You will do a few things in this section, all geared toward making a connection with the reader and calling them to take further action. First, you must thank them for their time and consideration. It never costs anything to be courteous, but the profit is great. Next, you will call attention to your resume, which should prompt them to read it. A simple “attached please find my resume for your review” or something similar will suffice. Finally, you will point them to your contact information, which serves to hint that you would like an interview. You can write something to the effect of, “please feel free to contact me at the telephone number or email address I have listed if you require more information or if you would like to schedule a time to meet to further discuss this position.” By doing this, you will subtly point them to the next steps in the process.

THANKS AND SIGNATURE

You can close with a “sincerely” or even another thank you, such as, “again, I thank you for your time. Sincerely,” and then end with your name after a few spaces for your signature.

Some applicants will work hard on their resume but treat a cover letter as an afterthought. Spending a little more time crafting a cover letter that is just as targeted and well written as a resume will give that added push you need to get that interview.