By Chris Martin
When you’re applying for a job or submitting your resume to a prospective employer, it is vital that you have a strong cover letter. With a potential job offer at stake, it’s understandable that you may put pressure on yourself to produce a high-quality piece of prose for every cover letter you write. But oftentimes, people end up with writer’s block because they really don’t know quite what to say.
The very first rule about formulating a cover letter is that the letter alone will not get you the job. The best-case scenario is that it will entice an employer to take a closer look at your resume and/or qualifications. So while an informative cover letter is important, you don’t have to set supremely lofty standards for it. And here’s the good news: you can write an effective cover letter even if you do suffer from a touch of writer’s block.
You can start by learning what not to do in a cover letter. Adhering to these rules will put you ahead of a significant portion of job seekers. So make sure that you avoid:
- Misspelled words
- Bad grammar
- Incorrect capitalization and punctuation
- Texting abbreviations (like LOL)
- Non-essential acronyms (like ASAP)
- Unorthodox or colored fonts (your signature may be an exception)
Another practice to avoid if possible: addressing your letter to a nonspecific entity, such as “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” A job posting will almost always identify the company’s contact person or department. If you’re sending an unsolicited cover letter, take some time to figure out who is in charge of hiring or who supervises the division you are targeting. Usually, a simple web search or a phone call to the company will yield this information.
Your first paragraph should introduce yourself and state the position you are applying for. Include where you saw the job posting or what precisely steered you toward this company (a referral, a newspaper article, etc.).
Your second paragraph should be a brief listing of your qualifications and experience. This paragraph will often be the same for different cover letters, and that’s okay. But if you feel that you are uniquely qualified for a given job or to work at a specific company, be sure to state why in this paragraph. These claims must be backed with some sort of supporting statements, such as previous job duties or pertinent training or credentials. In other words, simply saying “I will be your best employee” won’t cut it.
Another tactic is to try and initiate a conversation with the addressee. A sentence with a question about the specific job requirements, company mission, or customer base might elicit a response – which is exactly what you’re aiming for.
The third and final paragraph should contain details about any other information that might be relevant to you – a reference, a website that displays your portfolio, or just a statement saying that you will provide more information upon further request. Then disclose your contact information and offer to follow up the letter with a phone call or email in the immediate future (and then actually follow up!).
Again, don’t feel bad if several of your cover letters are exactly the same or very close to it. Each one will only be examined by one company or person, so it’s all new to them. Also, a single page is adequate; most people won’t take the time to read cover letters longer than that.
What is essential is that each cover letter be relevant, informative, and free of mistakes. In other words, a cover letter might not get you the job, but it can do one of two things: pique a company’s interest if it’s a good one, or eliminate you from consideration altogether if it’s a bad one.
Chris Martin is a web writer on topics ranging from social media and IT asset management to home improvement and credit card comparisons.