How To Write a Cover Letter

How To Write a Cover Letter

February 20, 2014  |  How to, Writing Tips

The What

Writing a cover letter that stands out can be the difference between attaining the job of your dreams and not being considered at all. A competitive listing may receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants which means that the statistical chance of them choosing you is relatively small. Although a well written cover letter is not sufficient to guarantee that you get the job you desire, it is almost always a necessary component.

The covering letter is of huge importance and should be considered a vital ingredient as far as your application is concerned. This is why the “cover” letter is typically the first page and not an appendix (although it is becoming increasingly common to attach the cover letter as a separate document). Whereas your CV/resume is meant to offer the reader (i.e. the hiring staff or potential manager) a brief summary of your accomplishments and qualifications, the covering letter serves to demonstrate your ability to express yourself. In essence, the resume is akin to the foundation of a building which carries the weight of the structure whereas the cover letter is more like the finishing/interior design which is perhaps not the most vital component of a building but most certainly the attribute that attracts the eye the most.

The cover letter points out to the employer that you have the qualities the job requires, and it makes a statement about yourself and how suitable you are for the job. It should give that je ne sais quoi, the personal touch that your CV intrinsically lacks.

According to a recent study1 conducted in the United States, a full 42.9% of employers required the applicants to submit a cover letter for each and every position they applied to. Only 29.8% felt that cover letters weren’t important or that they simply didn’t have time to read them. The remaining 27.4% had no opinion in the matter. Another study 2 published by an American firm credited as the world’s first and largest accounting and finance staffing firm states that 91% of the executives polled for the survey felt that cover letters were valuable in the evaluation of candidates. Although historically, the cover letter was typically sent as a hard copy accompanying the resume sent through regular post (“snail mail”). Its use has nevertheless not disappeared with the advent of electronic submissions. As a matter of fact, the study cited previously also states that as much as 79% of managers agree that sending a cover letter online is now the standard procedure.

The 3 Types of Cover Letters

Categorically, cover letters can be put into the following groups:

1. In response to an application: This type of cover letter is written in order to secure a known job opening. It’s directed, well tailored and specific.

2. A prospecting letter: This type of cover letter is uninvited and is meant to describe, in general terms, your abilities and how these fit the company’s requirements and/or culture. You’re essentially inquiring about future positions.

3. With intent to network: This type of letter requests either information and/or assistance in your job search.

This article focuses on the first category as this is perhaps the most common and therefore the most useful.

The Why

The reason to submit a cover letter is fairly straightforward. The cover letter offers you a chance to stand out from the crowd and allows the employer to assess your background in a way that cannot be done by merely scanning through a CV. There was a time when one could easily land a job with a simple and to the point resume. Unfortunately, those days have passed. In order to be considered as a serious contender these days, one will need to submit a cover letter that can demonstrate why they should choose you!

Back in the good o’l days, a person could land a job easily with a very brief CV and no cover letter. Unfortunately, much more is needed in this day and age to land a job. It’s important to submit a well written cover letter even if the position you are seeking doesn’t require one. The only case in which you would avoid writing a covering letter is when it explicitly states that no such document should be sent. In any other case, it will either constitute a vital component necessary to be considered eligible for the position or at the very least, help improve your chances buy making you stand out from the crowd.

The How

Perhaps the most important element of the cover letter is that it should be tailored for the specific position that you are seeking. Avoid using a generic cover letter that you send indiscriminately to different positions. Instead, take the time needed to customize each message and be sure to highlight aspects of your career or educational background that are relevant for the position in question. There should be no ambiguity that the cover letter is directed specifically towards the person reading it.

Issues that have to be covered

– The purpose of your application
Are you seeking an internship, a full time position or something else? The reason for writing the letter should be explicit and clear to the reader in the first few lines.

– What makes you the best candidate
You need to highlight the skills that you possess, the experience you’ve gained and the knowledge you’ve acquired that makes you the perfect candidate for the position. To accomplish this, you need to read the job description carefully and make sure you understand what’s needed from you.

– How did you hear about the position?
Did you stumble upon it by searching for positions related to “x” or perhaps through a flier or through a referral? This should be evident in the letter.

– Earliest date you can begin
Are you available immediately or can you only begin at a specific date? This sort of information should be included in your letter, perhaps near the end of the message.

– Your personality
The cover letter needs to be able to offer a glimpse of your personality. Although it is nearly impossible to convey something as intricate as one’s personality in a few lines, it still needs to have that personal touch. It goes without saying that you won’t be able to compress you personality into a brief document spanning 1-2 pages. However, one should be able to at least gain a glimpse of who you are even if that glimpse only reflects one small fracture of the whole puzzle.

Layout

The layout of your cover letter is important, there’s no denying that. Having that stated, it is by no means as important as well written content. A lack in design might be overlooked but a clumsy written piece is most definitely going to be discarded. Here are a few tips to consider when designing your cover letter:

Font type: Times New Roman is a standard font type that delivers time and again. If you want to try something different, I would recommend Arial (but use a smaller font size), Calibri or possibly Myriad Pro. Avoid at all cost fonts that look comical or childish such as Comic Sans.

Font size: 10-12 px depending on the font. Certain fonts are inherently larger and can therefore justify a smaller font size and the reverse is also true.

Margins: The default margins in Microsoft Word are generally set to 1 inch (2.54 cm) all around (top, bottom, left and right). No need to tinker with it unless you know what you’re doing.

Number of pages: Always keep it between ½ page and 1 page unless you have a very good reason to deviate from this. In the survey cited earlier 3 19% of employers argued that the cover letter should cover an entire page,
46% insisted that it should only be half a page long whereas 24% indicated that the shorter the length, the better. The remaining 11% had no particular preference. The important lesson to take from this is to never surpass the 1 page length unless you have good reasons to do so.

Keep in mind that a cover letter that is sent electronically does have certain characteristics that separates it from its physical counterpart. For one thing, the signature block containing address information is typically placed below your name in an e-mail but at the top of the page in a hard copy. In the e-mail letter, you will have to consider writing a good and captivating subject line. Sometimes, this line has already been specified by the employer and in such cases, make sure you comply to their standards. If not, keep it simple, descriptive and interesting. An example of the former is “Refnr:250 – Proposal Engineer – John Johnson” and the latter: “SEM Expert Seeking New Opportunity”. Although there are many other ways to write it, it should always be clear what type of message it is.

Finally, the handwritten signature should always be included in a hard copy but is of course not necessary in an electronic application.

Content

The primary objective of the cover letter is to make sure the reader understands why you’re the most suitable candidate. In addition to this, the letter has to cover the following issues:

  1. Entice the reader to look at your resume
  2. Explain your motivations behind sending your resume: be specific.
  3. Discuss how you came to this decision. What lead you to apply for this particular position?
  4. Show that you have knowledge about the company and its practices. Show how your skills are relevant to the company’s overall goals.
  5. If you have been referred by someone working in the company, this needs to be included.
  6. If you’ve worked with the company previously, perhaps as an intern or as part of a project, this too needs to be mentioned.
  7. Use examples of your relevant knowledge/experiences that makes you suitable for the position.
  8. Invite the employer to call you or get in touch with you for further information. Unless the employer specifically says otherwise, you can initiate the contact yourself once the submission has been sent.
  9. Provide information answering any specific questions that the employer may have inquired about in the official job description.

Sample Cover Letter

The following section4 shows you a few sample cover letters.

The Who

The cover letter is typically sent along the resume and supporting documents to the HR representative or even better, directly to the Hiring Manager. The chances of getting hired are significantly higher if you can skip the middle man and directly send your application with the covering letter to the person who has the final say on who gets in. Unfortunately, a lot of times, the manager will simply redirect you to the HR department where your application will end up in a large pile with other applicants. That’s unfortunate but true. A way to circumvent this conundrum is to look up who the manager for the position is and then attempt to book an appointment with the individual at their office. This will distinguish you from other applicants and give you a chance to explain why you’re the most suitable candidate for the position. Make sure you have prepared some questions that you can pose to this person.

The Where

If the application is sent through electronic means, which is more or less the norm these days, you will attach the cover letter in the manner specified on the job description page. This typically entails sending the cover letter and the resume as separate attachments. In some cases, the cover letter is either attached or “pasted in” the submission form. Be sure to always be certain of how many words you’re allowed to use in the submission form. It’s not particularly fun to have produced a well written, well tailored cover letter which is longer than the required number of words specified by the company in question. If there are no such requirements, you may refer to “The How” section of this article for guidelines in regards to length.

The When

The best time to send your cover letter (along with the rest of your application) is typically on a Monday. Why, you may ask, one Mondays and not on other days? The reason is simple: Mondays mark the new work week and the chances are that the recruiter’s desk isn’t cluttered with new applications. This line of thought is supported by a recent study 5 showing that people who send their job application on Mondays have a much higher chance of getting accepted to the next stage in the recruitment process. This result is based on an analysis of over 500,000 job applications showing that job-seekers who apply on Mondays have the highest success rate (30%), compare this to Saturday applications that had the lowest success rate (14%). The reason for this phenomenon is not explained in the study but a common theory is that job-seekers who apply on Mondays are simply more eager than others.

In addition to the above, you should also consider sending the job application as soon as possible since early applicants have a higher chance of getting hired.

Final tips

Here are some concluding remarks.

– Proofread the document
It is of paramount importance that the writing should be free of grammatical mistakes. At the very least, you need to use the spell check feature included in most word processors. In addition to this, be sure to read it out loud; by reading it out loud, you will notice if a particular sentence sounds strange. When you feel content with the quality of the document, print it, grab a marker and start reading. The final reading of the document should, in my opinion, always be based on a printed version even if the application is sent through electronic means. Remember, the person who will be reading the document is probably going to print it out and for this reason alone, it’s important that it looks nice when printed.

– Let someone else proofread it
You can let either someone who is a friend or a relative read through your cover letter. You would be surprised what they might pick up that you may have overlooked. This is why it’s always a good idea to let someone else offer their insights. It may be that something that felt obvious to you weren’t as obvious to your friend.

Things to AVOID

  • Do not lie: No job is worth the depletion of your integrity. Always be truthful, the truth always comes out in the end anyway. Also, by lying you have to keep track of all your lies and everything that happens from the rest of your career will always be based on an untruth.
  • Do not spit out cliches.
  • Do not make claims that you can’t back up, even if they are truthful. If you say for instance that you can speak Spanish, you better be prepared to show that if asked.
  • Do not sell yourself short: everyone has strengths. Make sure you highlight those strengths as much as possible without using too many flattery adjectives

References

  1. Hilden, Eric (2010). The Center for Career and Life Development at Saddl
    eback College
    . Available here. Accessed 2014 Feb 20th.
  2. Robert Half (2012), Covering All the Bases. Available here. Accessed 2014 Feb 20th.
  3. Hilden, Eric (2010). The Center for Career and Life Development at Saddl
    eback College
    . Available here. Accessed 2014 Feb 20th.
  4. Virginia Tech, Cover Letter: types and samples (2013). Available here. Accessed on 2014 Feb 20th.
  5. Farnham, A. Monday Best Day to Look for a Job (2013). ABC News Blogs.
About the author

ABDERISAK ADAM is an author, blog writer and a PhD candidate in the institution of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology. He is also the owner and webmaster of www.study-habits.com, a website dedicated to the discussion of study techniques in the context of higher education. Adam is the author of a number of publications including 'The Study Guide PRO'. You can connect with him through Google+, Linkedin or by submitting a form.

 

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