What is a 'Cover Letter'
A cover letter is a written document submitted with a job application explaining the applicant's credentials and interest in the open position. Since a cover letter is often one of only two documents sent to a potential employer, a well- or poorly-written letter (or email) can impact whether the applicant will be called for an interview.
Breaking Down a Good 'Cover Letter'
A good cover letter complements a resume by expanding on resume items relevant to the job, and in essence, makes a sales pitch for why the applicant is the best person for the position. Career experts advise job seekers to spend time customizing each cover letter for the particular position, rather than using a generic missive. Although this requires extra effort, it can be very helpful in allowing an applicant to stand out above the competition.
Common Cover Letter Mistakes
A perfect resume is often sabotaged by a poorly thought-out or mistake-heavy cover letter. Whether you are including the letter as per required submission guidelines, or you simply want to emphasize your interest in the job, make sure that you avoid making these seven blunders. (For more, see 10 Resume Red Flags.)
- Getting Names Wrong
Although you are probably applying to a number of different jobs in your search, you obviously don't want to share this information with hiring managers; you want them to think their position is The One. But nothing screams "form letter" than to have the wrong company name or position on the cover letter, probably because you forgot to change it from the last job you applied for. This bit of carelessness is not only sloppy – it's probably the surest way to not get an interview.
- Restating Your Resume
The purpose of the cover letter is to identify your skills and explain how your previous experience is applicable to the desired position. Simply restating all of the facts on your resume, without going into an explanation of why your expertise and background are pertinent, defeats the purpose, and in fact makes it redundant. The cover letter has to build on the information presented on the resume, not just summarize it.
- Unreasonable Length
Keep your letter tight. Although you may have much useful information to offer, keep in mind that recruiters will often go through hundreds of applications. They simply do not have time to read through a three-page missive, even if you feel all of the information is important. The absolute maximum length for a cover letter, including the headings, should be one page. Typically, it should be shorter. (What changes when you're looking for a job online? Find out in 5 Tips For Finding Your Perfect Job Online.)
- Adding Unnecessary Information One trick to keeping the letter succinct: Focus on your relevant qualifications to the role. If applying for an accounting position, the fact that you have graphic-design skills should not be prime focal point. It's also best to leave off positive but personal things like your IQ – while undoubtedly important for any role, adding it to your cover letter is just plain weird. And recreational accomplishments, interests and hobbies are rarely worth mentioning, unless they relate in some way to the job or company: If applying to a sporting goods manufacturer, for example, saying that you're an avid golfer could add an interesting personal touch.
- Identifying Weaknesses
Speaking of unnecessary information: Talking about your shortcomings is not only complete waste of space, but also counterproductive. While "What are your greatest weaknesses?" is a common interview question, there's no reason to bring them up ahead of time. Your cover letter is all about identifying the strengths that make you so right for the role.
- Sounding Arrogant
Although you're trumpeting your strengths, try to ensure that your cover letter does not portray you as arrogant. Excessive overuse of the words "I", "me" or "my" can make you sound conceited (not to mention having a limited vocabulary and poor writing skills). Yes, the cover letter is ultimately about you and your accomplishments, but you have to find a way of saying "I'm the best" without actually saying it. (For more, see Top 8 Ways To Get Your Resume Thrown Out.)
- Spelling and Grammar Mistakes Typos and grammatical errors are a key issue, signaling you didn't even bother to proofread your own letter. And no, you can't rely on your computer's spelling and grammar checks – because it won't catch words that are correctly spelled, but incorrectly used (like "it's" and "its"). Also unprofessional-looking: typographical inconsistencies, like conveying a dash with "--" in one place and with "—" in another. This lack of attention to detail is frowned on, no matter what your field.
How to Write a Great Cover Letter
Your cover letter provides information to a prospective employer on who you are professionally. This includes your job interests, professional goals, knowledge and skills gained over the years, career goals, and achievements. The cover letter should be a one-page document that provides clear and concise details as to why you want the job. To create a great cover letter that will grab the reader’s attention, be sure to follow the following rules:
- Personalize Letter for Each Role
For each role that you apply to, whether within the same company or with different companies, personalize your letter to the advertised role. Your cover letter should not be generic. Not only include your strengths and skills, but also explain why you’re the perfect candidate for the job position. This means that for each job that you apply to, you have to write a new cover letter. The company wants to believe that you took the time to read about and understand the role. It may be tedious and time consuming to write multiple letters, but it will be worth it in the end.
- Include Contact Information
Ensure that your cover letter has the name of the individual hiring a candidate for the role. It could be a department manager or the HR lead. In any case, make sure you have information on who the hiring manager is by either checking the company’s website or calling in. This way, you can open the letter with a proper greeting. Be sure to add your contact information on your cover letter, even though it may already be included in your resume.
- Use Simple Words
You want to clearly communicate your worth and why you should be considered for the job position that you’re applying to. Using complex words and sentences would most certainly fail to convey your intentions with the company. If the manager or HR representative reading the letter cannot decipher your ‘big’ words, s/he will probably not bother with the rest of your application.
- Quantify Accomplishments
Remember that the cover letter should not rehash your resume, rather it should provide more information on areas on your resume that are relevant to the job that you are applying for. For these areas, be sure to quantify your accomplishments. For example, while your resume may state that you used a marketing analytics tool to drive more clients to sign up for your employer’s services, a cover letter will expatiate on this by adding that your strategy brought in an additional 200 clients monthly and increased revenue to $10,000. This way you can set yourself apart from the other job candidates with vague accomplishments.
After you’ve written the letter, proofread it multiple times to ensure that there are no typos or grammatical errors. Also, ask a trustworthy person to proofread as well and recommend any areas that should be added or excluded from the letter.
- Your name should be in bold 14- or 16-point font.
- Your address and other contact information should be in normal 12-point font.
- The font of your letterhead does not need to be Arial or Times New Roman, like the rest of your letter, but it should be professional looking and easy to read. The most important thing to remember is to include up-to-date information so that you make it easy for the employer to contact you.
- You may want to include an extra line under the letterhead to create visual appeal and to separate the letterhead from the rest of the letter.
- From here on out, use 12-point Arial or Times New Roman throughout the entire letter, set your margins to one inch, and use single spacing. Be sure your font is black, and if you're printing your letter out, use standard-sized paper (8 1/2” by 11”).
Address the recipient. Be sure to refer to the recipient by his or her proper title (Mrs., Mr., Dr., etc.). If you’re not sure who the recipient is, write, “To Whom It May Concern:” or “Dear Sir or Madam”; however, it is always best to address a cover letter to a real person to make it look like you’re not sending form letters.
- You don't necessarily need to include how you became aware of the position unless it was through a mutual contact or recruiting program—in which case you should make the most of the connection.
- If you are writing a letter of interest (also known as a prospecting or inquiry letter) in which you are asking about positions that might be available, specify why you are interested in working for the employer.
- Make your qualifications jump out at the reader by researching the company to which you are applying for a job and tailoring your letter accordingly. This will also be useful if you get an interview. Some questions to keep in mind as you write are
- What is the employer's mission? What do they promote as the one thing that sets them apart from their competitors?
- What kind of customer base does the employer have? Who is their target audience?
- What is the company's history? Who founded it? How has the business evolved? What are the main highlights of the company's performance over the past few years?
Include a positive statement or question in the final paragraph that will motivate the employer to contact you. Make this closing paragraph between two and four sentences. Direct the employer to your enclosed resume and make sure you specify that you're available for an interview. Finish off by thanking the recruiter for their time and consideration, and welcome them to get in touch with you to continue the conversation.
Write an appropriate closing. It’s a good idea to thank the reader for his or her time. After that, write “Sincerely,” “Respectfully,” or “Regards,” leave several spaces, and print your name.
Add your signature. If you will be submitting your cover letter digitally, it’s a good idea to scan and add your signature, write it in with a digital writing pad, or make a digital signature stamp with appropriate software.
Make a notation of the enclosures. If you enclose something, such as a resume, with a letter, you should indicate that the letter contains enclosures by making the notation “Enclosure” or “Enclosures” at the bottom of the letter.