Application Cover Letters
Resumes, they are truly one of life's necessary evils. Although we may moan and groan about having to make one, we all know that it's better to pick our minds for the right things to say rather than having to pick through trash for our next meal. The most notorious part of any application, however, is the cover letter, i.e. writing more than a few sentences, or checking boxes. Fear not, oh intrepid job-seekers, for help is on the way...
Why are cover letters important?
To answer the question posted above, let's begin with a relatively straightforward analogy. Would you buy a car if you were only told its make, color, gas mileage, and special features? Of course not, you'd want to go to the dealer and look under its hood to make sure it's not filled with cardboard. A cover letter is the employers' opportunity to peek under your hood and catch a glimpse of your superior mechanics. It's the vehicle that enables you to go beyond the 150 or so words you've written on the application; your first opportunity to "show" employers that you are an efficient model, one that is worth taking for a test drive during a subsequent interview.
In fact, few employers would seriously consider a resume that does not include a cover letter, because it is essentially useless if he or she does not know what kind of work you want to do and are capable of doing. A cover letter answers these questions and makes a lasting first impression on the employer, even before you set foot on company grounds.
What makes a good cover letter?
No spelling, grammar, or typing errors; none. When writing a cover letter, double check to make sure you haven't made any typos that will make you look lazy or incompetent. Above all, do not rely solely on Spell-Checker to catch your mistakes, as it's very easy to make an error regarding "two, too, vs. to" and my personal bane "form vs. from."
Typing errors are jarring to whoever reads your cover letter, and many say they will automatically reject applicants who do not take the time to edit their writing, as such behavior makes them question the candidate's work ethic.
A good cover letter is one that sounds natural, but eloquent; entertaining, but informative. You never want your cover letter to sound like something you found out of a book. Don't make your first paragraph a boring introduction. Instead, use it to hook the employers' attention. In the latter part of the letter you'll get to tell them why you are writing and how you are qualified for the job. Here are some great examples from cover letters sent to the Detroit Press.
- "I'll eat anything for a good story." The letter details a feature story written by the applicant concerning edible insects, ethnic cooking and a taste test of a fast-food franchise's latest venture.
- "They said it couldn't be done, but I did it." This describes a story written under extreme deadline pressure when telephones and computers were down
A good cover letter should never leave the employer wondering what you can do for them. When writing, make sure you avoid ending with clichés like "Enclosed please find my resume" or "I look forward to hearing from you." Employers are aware that your resume is attached and know that you would like to hear from them because that means you're being seriously considered for the job. Instead of a qualification summary, think of your letter as that which will make your employer want to know you better. Be yourself.
- Think about yourself and your experiences. Think about how you can relate those experiences to the organization for which you want to work. Which talents, skills, personality traits, and accomplishments should this employer know about?
- How did you learn about this job? If through a personal contact, mention the name. If through an advertisement, write down where and when you saw it, and make sure you address all the points listed in the ad.
- Consider what you know about the organization and what attracted you in the first place; mention this in the letter.
The Proper Format
The ideal cover letter should be one page long in standard business letter format (by not indenting you paragraphs, you have a little more room). Leave wide margins (minimum 1 inch).
Paragraph One: It's the most important, so make it count. Start out by telling how you heard about the job - friend, employee, newsletter, advertisement, etc. Show a little excitement, then move on to a few key strengths you have to offer the company.
Paragraph Two: Describe your qualifications for the job - skills, talents, accomplishments, and personality traits. When writing, think about how you can contribute to this company.
Paragraph Three: Describe why you think you'd fit into the company - why it would be a good match. Companies feel good if the candidate shows a specific interest in them, even before they are hired.
Paragraph Four: Ask for an interview, and suggest a time and a way for you to follow up. Also give them your contact information.
What every good letter writer should do
- Address the letter directly to the person who can hire you. Resumes sent to the personnel department don't always get to the right person. Be sure the name is spelled correctly and the title is correct. Formality is always appreciated, so use things like "Mr.," "Ms.," "Mrs.," "Dr.," or "Professor."
- Use terms and phrases that are meaningful to the employer.
- Send an original letter to each employer, and make sure every letter is tailored to fit the organization for which you want to work. Don't use the same letter for every company.
- KISS (keep it simple stupid): Use uncomplicated sentence structure, ruthlessly eliminate all unnecessary words, and write like a journalist: to the point.
- Keep your letter brief; never more than one page. Each paragraph should have no more than one to three sentences.
- Tell the employer exactly how you can contribute to the company.
- Distinguish your cover letter from others by giving examples that amplify and prove any claims you make.
- Write in the active voice, it makes reading the letter more exciting.
- Personally sign the letter, preferably in ink.
Mistakes to Avoid
- Don't depend on the employer to take action. Request an interview, and tell the employer when you will call to arrange it, and then follow through. Those who wait for the employer to call them will have a long wait.
- Don't leave any grease or other sticky substances smeared all over the paper
- Don't be so creative that you become absurd. A perfect, real life example of this comes from Killian Advertising's "Cover Letters from Hell" Website:
"Twas 4 weeks after Christmas
And all throughout Killian and Company
Human Relations pondered over
Who would be the next intern/employee?
When out in the mailroom there arose such a clatter
Employees from all over crowded to see what was the matter
Back in my apartment with a smile laid back
I knew once they'd opened my letter; there was no turning back."
Following these simple tips will help you create a dynamic application letter. Happy hunting!
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