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Cover Letters


What IS a cover letter and should you write one, particularly when many job postings state that cover letters are "optional"?


A cover letter is a 3 or 4 paragraph letter that provides an additional opportunity to highlight your skills, interests, and value to a prospective employer, as well as your interest in the hiring organization. It should be a supplement to your resume rather than a repeat of the resume -- and in fact, some of the most effective cover letters focus on information that's somewhat different from the resume. For example (and this is simply one approach): Perhaps the employer has emphasized that they're looking for an organized problem-solver who is calm under pressure. You have those skills and you've mentioned them in your resume. In the cover letter, you can state that you understand the employer needs an organized problem solver who's calm under pressure. Then, instead of once again listing that you have those skills, you can briefly describe a project that you successfully completed in a prior job -- something which will illustrate that you have the skills.


Is a cover letter necessary?  Some online statistics indicate that only about 50% of human resources (HR) personnel read cover letters. However, many HR experts advise that even if a cover letter is optional, you should take the time to write one, because with a good cover letter, there's nothing to lose and everything to gain. It's an opportunity to effectively talk about why you'd be an ideal pick for the job. If the letter reaches an HR department that doesn't review cover letters, there's no loss, because one assumes that all applicants are being treated similarly. But if the letter reaches an HR department that *does* read them, a good cover letter can distinguish you from other applicants and further advance your candidacy.


Bear in mind that there are two primary times when you should not write a cover letter: If a company has stated they don't want a cover letter and/or they've given you no way to upload one, it's important to respect their preferences.


Overall, three primary goals of a cover letter are:


  1. To show that you know about the company and appreciate their mission, values and activities.

  2. To demonstrate that you have uniquely strong skills for the job being advertised.

  3. To convey that you'd be a wonderful colleague -- professional, confident, amiable, and able to do high-quality work.


Some Cover Letter "Do's" (and 1 "Don't"):

  • Keep the letter to one page or less.

  • Each cover letter should be SPECIFIC to the job you're seeking.

  • It's beneficial to mention the organization in the first paragraph. Do that in a way which shows you've done research into and have some knowledge about the company.

  • Selectively use keywords from the job posting (a reminder that we talked about "keywords" in a prior session on resumes).

  • In the second paragraph (and third, if you have one), highlight your skills and experience as they relate to the job. Again, this is not a time to simply repeat your resume. Find a more in-depth way to talk about your most relevant skills and/or describe how you meaningfully carried out similar responsibilities at prior jobs.

  • Be professional, assertive, and positive.

  • PROOFREAD! Don't send a cover letter that has errors.

  • Here's the one "don't"!  Don't talk about experiences or skills that you lack (unless asked). There's no need for negativity and no need to point out any potential "shortcomings".


A Helpful Approach to Creating Cover Letter Content

Once you're ready to begin with the letter, here's one effective way to approach the process:


  1. First, go online and research the company. It's important that you have knowledge about them and that you sound interested in what they're doing.


  1. Next, carefully read through the job posting. As you do that, make a list of the qualifications / skills that the company is seeking. Then, make a list of the job responsibilities that they describe. As you make these lists, leave room for adding information.


  1. The information you're going to add is about you. Next to each point about what they want, write down your relevant skills as well as the relevant responsibilities you've had in prior jobs. Think about whether you might be able to write a brief success or problem-solving story to illustrate your suitability for the new job. While not mandatory, a relevant story can impressively illustrate your abilities. (To remind yourself about success/problem-solving stories, refer back to the lesson on Interview Skills.)


***You're now ready to write. Prioritize the information that will best "sell" your qualifications.***


The Structure of a Cover Letter

A. At the top of the cover letter, put your street address, city, state, and zip code. Below that, put the date. Then put the organization's information -- hiring manager's name (if you have it), company name, company's street address, and their city, state, and zip code. [If you're new to cover letters, please look at some examples online. There are a few website suggestions below.] 


B. For your opening greeting, use "Dear" plus the name of the person reviewing applications -- if that name has been provided. Use her/his professional title (e.g. Dear Dr. Smith or Dear Ms. Bennett). If no name has been provided, you can begin with something like "Dear Members of the Search Committee". Some career advisors suggest going online and looking for the name of an HR manager or calling the company to ask for a name. On occasion, this can be helpful. However, it's not always helpful, because many organizations receive hundreds of applications, and they don't want to receive a lot of phone calls. Re: finding a name online, you may find multiple names without being able to identify the people who will be reviewing applications. In short, if there's no name, it's typically better to simply reference the "Search Committee" or "Hiring Committee" in your opening.


C. Here are a few suggestions for the first paragraph: Indicate how pleased you are to apply for the position, specifying the actual job title. You may want to mention where you saw the job posted. [For example: I am extremely pleased to apply for the Retail Assistant position that I saw advertised on] This is also a good place to mention the company itself and make a couple remarks which reveal that you know about the company and you appreciate what they're doing.


D. In paragraphs 2 (and 3, if that's needed), focus on selective aspects of your skills and experience that relate to what the company needs and which demonstrate how you would be an asset to their organization. (There's more information about this in the section below: "A Helpful Approach to Creating Cover Letter Content".)


E. Suggestions for the final paragraph: You can again express enthusiasm for the position and state that you appreciate the opportunity to apply for the job. As well, indicate that you look forward to the possibility of advancing with the application process and thank them for their consideration of your candidacy.


F. Start your closing with the word "Sincerely" or the phrase "Kind Regards". There are other closings that also work, as long as you remain formal and professional.


QUICK TIP #1: HAVE SEVERAL VERSIONS  You need to tailor each cover letter to the job you're seeking, and starting cover letters from scratch for every job can be overly time-consuming. Thus, it's best to have several different versions of your cover letter that can be modified for different job applications. Remember to use the "Save As" function so you can preserve every version of your letters. Label each version with the name of the job / organization to which you're applying.


QUICK TIP #2: WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO OFFER?  One common mistake that people make in cover letters (and while interviewing) is talking about and asking questions about how the company will benefit *them*. While we certainly deserve jobs that meet our needs, particularly when it comes to pay, benefits, and work environment, there's an appropriate time to discuss those topics -- and during the period when you're trying to become the one person who gets the job offer, those topics shouldn't be the main focus. During that phase, you need to respectfully convince the organization that hiring you will benefit them! That having been said, take comfort in the fact that all phases of the job search process include mutual assessment. While interviewers are evaluating you, you're getting a sense of the people with whom you're speaking; you're observing other staff members; and you're experiencing the overall organizational atmosphere.


Quick TIP #3: FORMATTING AND STRUCTURE  A few additional comments: 1) There's more than one way to structure the paragraphs of your letter. For example, we've advised talking about the organization in the first paragraph. However, some people prefer to put those comments in the final paragraph. Use your best judgement. 2) Keep the letter to one page or less, use 1-inch margins (or close to that), and use the same formatting style (font, etc.) that you used for your resume. 3) If you're emailing the resume and cover letter (as opposed to uploading them through a website portal), it's acceptable to use the cover letter for the email content and then attach your resume.




* For a more in-depth look into resumes, cover letters, interviewing, and other job-search topics, Binghamton University has a very informative "Career Guide". You might want to save it to your computer as a PDF.  


MyPerfectResume is another site which offers interesting and detailed information on cover letters, resumes, and CVs.


* Colombia University's site has some useful cover letter information, and they also offer a checklist with a few helpful formatting and content tips.


* And here's similarly helpful information from the Harvard Business Review.

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