Cover Letter 101

Cover letters can feel a bit like your job search thesis. It serves not only as your story, but a writing sample. Think of it this way, if you can’t write about yourself—a subject about which you are the undisputed expert—in an articulate and compelling way, how can you write something for a client or an organization?  Telling your story and selling your experiences isn’t always so easy so here are some tips to get you started.

1.  Tailor it.  Even companies and hiring managers want to feel special.  They can spot a templated cover letter from a mile away.  Avoid this by tailoring each and every cover letter you send.  In the first paragraph make sure to discuss why you are interested in the position and why that company/organization.  And not just that it’s a “great company” or you “like their mission.” Take it a step further – why is it a great company and what do you identify with as part of their mission?

2. Make sure it’s a final draft.  Cover letters, like resumes, often get tossed aside due to typos and other errors. Make sure yours is error free, your grammar and punctuation is correct, and you are using the proper business format.  The number one way to make sure your cover letter and resume make it to the trash bin is by including the wrong company name (you’d be surprised how much this happens)!  Double check you are submitting the correct version before you hit “send.”

3. Format for ease.  Send a pdf version if possible to avoid conversion issues.

4. Make it short & sweet. Cover letters should take up no more than a page, typically about 3 paragraphs.

  • Paragraph 1: Indicate the position  you are applying for and why you are interested in that position with that company/organization (see #1). It also includes a brief synopsis of your skill set.
  • Paragraph 2: This is the most important paragraph, summarizing the top 2-3 skills you bring to the table with specific examples.  This is the one that difficult to nail.  Package your experience/background/skills in a way that addresses exactly what the organization seeks in candidates.  Make sure the skills you discuss are relevant to the job description and the skills they are seeking. Do NOT just repeat your resume. Provide the context and connect the dots. Tell your story.
  • Paragraph 3:  Reiterate your interest and contact information.

5.  Avoid “To Whom It May Concern.”  If possible, determine the hiring manager and address it to them directly. This can often be researched online or via networking with contacts at that company or organization.

6. Email vs. Attachment?  If you are e-mailing a resume and cover letter, you have two options. You can put the cover letter in the message section of the e-mail itself or you can attach it (ideally as a pdf). If you attach it, make sure you include some type of message in the email body referencing the attached cover letter and resume. Of course, you should follow directions if an employer requests a specific way to send your cover letter and resume.

7. Eliminate the fluff.  Interpersonal skills… multi-tasking skills… enthusiastic… passionate. All fluff. UNLESS you are able to provide specific examples.  Instead of just saying you multi-task well, prove it.  Anyone can say they are enthusiastic even if they are the company Eeyore.  Prove your enthusiasm by showcasing your research into the position and company.

8.  Think about your story.  How does your combination of skills, education, and experience set you apart from the competition?

9.  Do your homework.  Make sure you not only research the company and position but demonstrate that research in your cover letter.  Part of this is knowing your audience and making sure that both the skills discussed in your cover letter, as well as the tone of your cover letter, align with the position and company/organization.  A cover letter for an investment bank will likely read differently than one for a start up.  Companies are looking for “cultural fit.”

10.  Be a problem solver.  At the end of the day, that’s what companies and managers are looking for.  They want someone who will make their job easier.  Prove that you can do that. 

How have you made your cover letter stand out?  Check out our webinar archive for cover letter related webinars like this one.