Given the state of today’s economy, many people are looking for work. Other than the regular crowd of job-seekers, the recent graduates, the job-changers, and the youth seeking jobs while they go to school, the job market is being flooded with people who have been laid off.
Companies with positions to fill have many applicants from which to choose. What this means is that your cover letter and resume are very important.
Your cover letter, in particular, is often your first interview with a company, the first chance for a hiring agent to get to know you. A good resume cover letter can help you make a good impression and get an interview. A weak cover letter might cause your resume to be placed in the reject pile.
Many of our clients have asked, “What do I put in my cover letter?” And nearly all of our clients have needed assistance with organizing the content of their letters. Below, we will address both of these issues. If you come seeking our help with your resume and cover letter, great. However, the brief guide below should get you started on writing a successful cover letter.
Cover Letter Content and Organization
Paragraph One: Introduce yourself and state your intentions. This 1 to 2-sentence paragraph tells the reviewer who you are and why you are submitting your cover letter and resume. For companies with multiple job openings, this paragraph also tells the reviewer which pile to put your resume in. Your name is at the bottom of the letter in the signature line, so you don’t need to repeat it here. Instead, describe the type of person you are.
Example: As an experienced sales and marketing professional, I am interested in the position of regional sales manager with the XYZ Company.
Paragraph Two: Summarize your qualifications for the position. Focus on your abilities, not your specific skills. (Abilities are personal characteristics; skills are specific behaviors you can perform. You can learn skills, if needed, but abilities tell what kind of person you are.) The description of your abilities lets the reviewer know if you will be able to learn the skills and how you will perform in a professional environment. However, be careful of using “buzz words” without illustration. You can briefly address your professional history in this paragraph as a way to illustrate your abilities. 3 to 4 sentences should be sufficient.
Example: I am a creative, yet focused, professional with strong managerial skills. My knowledge of system integration, coupled with my leadership abilities, has enabled me to identify and enact efficiencies in even the most complicated organizational environments. For example, in my most recent position, I created new quality control processes and instructed inter-departmental teams on their use. Although I am a “company man,” I am also an individual thinker, seeking new opportunities for the company to reach target markets and surpass financial goals.
Paragraph Three: In this paragraph, you answer this question: “Why are you applying for this position?” In answering this question, you address two issues. First, describe how this position fits your abilities and interests. In a sense, you are saying that this position is appropriate for who you are now. Second, describe how this position will help you advance your career goals. This tells the reviewer that you have a strong interest in the position and will do what you can to succeed and grow. Again, 3 to 4 sentences will be enough.
Example: The leadership and marketing perspective required for a regional sales manager align with my abilities and experiences. I am enthusiastic about expanding my broad knowledge of the market and diverse populations, two aspects of this position I find particularly exciting. Furthermore, this position will assist me to advance into progressively higher responsibilities, and it will provide the satisfaction I earn by succeeding in new and challenging responsibilities.
Paragraph Four: The final paragraph is short, 1 – 2 sentences only. In this paragraph, you bring your resume cover letter to a close by thanking the reviewer and by calling for action. You say “thank you” because that is polite and professional. (After all, the person has read this far and deserves your gratitude.) The action step is essential. Here you answer the question “What’s next?” Will you call the person? Do you want the person to contact you? Do you want to set up an interview? State the action as the final sentence.
Example: Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to meeting with you to discuss how I can support the mission of the XYZ Company.
Other Considerations for Your Resume Cover Letter
Delivery: Paper, e-mail, or fax. Call the personnel agent (or other contact) to ask how to send the resume and cover letter. Although e-mail is very popular, don’t assume—ask. Fax is not recommended unless specifically requested. You cannot control the quality at the other end. Also, if the company wants a paper copy, send it by mail. If you are sending your cover letter by e-mail, send it as an attachment as a PDF file.
Fonts: Times New Roman or other serif font. This looks professional, and it is easier to read than a non-serif font, such as Arial.
Letterhead: Yes. Use a letterhead if you have one. However, don’t use one that is overly stylistic, i.e., too cute.
Layout and format: Use a standard business letter format, complete with date and recipient’s address. Remember to use a colon, not a comma, after the recipient’s name in the greeting. Use 1-inch margins for the letter content.
Recipient: The phrase “To Whom It May Concern” is not appropriate. Send it to a person by name or by position. For example, send it to “Dear Thomas Hardy” or send it to “Dear Sales Division Director.” Using the name is preferred, but the second option is acceptable if you cannot find the person’s name after a serious attempt.
Paper: (This only applies if you send the cover letter and resume by mail.) Use the same type paper for the cover letter and the resume. Choose professional, strong, slightly-off white paper. The paper should be easy to read, so avoid paper with background graphics, watermarks, or obvious design elements. The content, not the paper, will promote your qualifications.
Length: Neither longer nor shorter are preferred. The appropriateness of the content is more important than the length of the letter. With that said, though, 1/2 to 3/4 page should be enough, even if you use a letterhead. If you go over 3/4 page, see what you can cut or condense. Concise writing is persuasive, vigorous writing.
Writing Mechanics: Spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word usage should be perfect. Reviewers will respond positively to well-written content, consciously or unconsciously. On the other hand, errors in writing mechanics create an immediate poor impression of your professionalism.
Assistance: Get it if you need it. Some job seekers need someone to write the letter for them. Others need editing for clarity, organization, and persuasiveness. And some simply need help proofreading to ensure perfect use of mechanics.
Two Last Comments
The advice above is based on our work with successful job-seekers. Many cover letter formats are available, and many people and organizations offer recommendations, so don’t take this advice as the final, definitive word on the subject. This format has worked for our clients. Find what works best for you.
Finally, if you are currently looking for a job, or if you foresee the need in the near future, I wish you well. This is a tough time, but jobs are available. Don’t get discouraged. You can do it.
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