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Cover Letters - What to Say and What Not to

Everyone who sends out a resume, whether in response to a job posting or unsolicited, should include a short cover letter. Everyone!

This is true regardless of the delivery medium, whether it be through the mail, over a fax machine, through an online application, through email or delivered in person. It's also true if a cover letter wasn't expressly requested by the employer. Everyone! Every time!

While it is true that some cover letters go unread, the rules for creating proper and effective cover letters are so simple, so uniform and so easy to follow that there just aren't any excuses for failing to follow them. 

Cover Letter Structure

Avoid all grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors.  Even a single mistake may compromise your entire argument.

Your cover letter should answer the question "what can this person do for us?" It should be used to highlight items from your resume, not to communicate what you hope to do for yourself professionally. The hiring process is by its nature a selfish undertaking; employers don't care about your career goals outside of how they could directly benefit their organization. Each cover letter should contain three sections. I call them...

  1. Why Am I Writing This?
  2. Why Are You Reading This?
  3. Now what?

It's really this simple, and with the exception of a few hyper-creative occupations (like, say,  graphic designer or children's writer) where deviation from the rules is expected and commended, the same format works for everyone. Conformity is king.

Why Am I Writing This? (recommended length = 2 to 4 sentences)

First, you should always try to address a cover letter to a specific person who can actually hire you. This is ideal. If you can't obtain this name, address the letter to any relevant person within the organization whose name you do know. Your final and least desirable option is to address the letter to the company in general. Try to avoid this.

Remember that hiring officials typically run multiple job postings in multiple locations and mediums at the same time. Help them out! Your first sentence should always state who you are and why you are writing to them. If you are responding to a specific job posting, state the name of the job (including any job reference number provided by the company) as well as the specific posting source. If you are sending cover letters and resumes to organizations in a specific industry in hopes of tapping the "underground" job market, sugar coat your language a bit but nonetheless tell them why you are writing and describe your area of interest.

Finally, if someone in particular referred you to the organization in particular, state this information here. If you were not referred to the organization by someone in particular, instead convey in a single sentence why you are interested in their company and any knowledge you have about their outfit. This first section should never exceed a single paragraph.

Why Are You Reading This? (recommended length = 3 to 5 sentences)

This is your opportunity to outline why you'd be a good candidate for hire. That is, after all, the only area of real interest to the employer. If you are applying for a specific position, take from your resume two or three points of particular interest and expand on them. This is your chance (possibly your only chance) to add color and life to key items on your resume. Focus on specific accomplishments and skills that you understand to be of particular importance to the company. Don't simply restate what's on your resume; they have that right in front of them already. Highlight! (More on what not to say later on.) If you are submitting your resume for general consideration only, gear this section towards the area of interest you guess to be the best fit between their hiring needs and your skills and abilities. This second section should never exceed two paragraphs. Job seekers submitting their cover letters and resumes online should generally try to limit this cover letter section to just one paragraph as online correspondence is typically expected to be more concise.

Now What? (recommended length = 2 to 3 sentences)

Your closing paragraph should briefly accomplish three things: express your willingness to furnish more information if the employer desires it, inform the employer how and when they can contact you, and thank them for their time. Applicants with significant experience may choose to "turn the tables" in this section and actually take the liberty of suggesting a specific time and date for a follow-up phone conversation. This is generally acceptable for higher level positions only.

Cover Letter Pitfalls? Mistakes to Avoid

Don't stray too far from this model when composing your cover letter. You may get away with it, but it's safer to stick to this tried and true, three-section formula. Some blunders, in fact, are often fatal. Here are some mistakes to avoid at all costs:

  • Don't ever exceed a single page. Cover letters should be 3 to 4 paragraphs long and fit on a single typed page. Every single sentence you type should further the overall goal of the letter. If it doesn't, then omit it.
  • If mailing or handing off a resume, don't use inappropriate stationery. The only papers acceptable for this purpose are traditionally colored (white, ivory, gray) cotton fiber papers with a weight of at least 24. Any other papers are inappropriate.
  • Don't mention your shortcomings. Cover letters should never be used to compensate for perceived weaknesses. If you have weaknesses in your abilities or work experience, the organization will easily sniff them out on their own. It's your job to point them to your strengths, not to highlight your shortcomings.
  • Avoid cliches. It is expected that cover letters be concentrated and clutter free. Overused filler such as "I give 100% all of the time" and "I have a can-do attitude" do nothing to further the cause of your cover letter and only serve to dilute any meaningful information you have included. Steer clear of silly cliche pleasantries as well. There are easily dozens of variations to the phrase "If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call." Choose words that actually mean something. (Do you think a hiring manager would hesitate to call you if you don't include that nonsensical sentence? You are applying for a job after all!)
  • Don't resort to gimmickry. Unless you are applying to a modeling agency or theatrical unit, including a photo is inappropriate. Enclosing gifts and trinkets is unseemly.
  • Eliminate directional language. These are unnecessary phrases within letters that tell readers where to physically look for information such as "you'll see on my resume enclosed" or "as mentioned in the above paragraph." They are insulting to the reader; if they are paying attention to your writing (and they will if your cover letter is concise and well written) then they'll be committed to the content and be able to find this information without your help. Directional introductions such as "I am writing this letter to inform you of my intent" should be eliminated as well. Don't waste readers' time by including hollow sentences like this in your letter; they know exactly why you wrote your cover letter.
  • Again, avoid all grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors.  Use the grammar and spelling check features in Microsoft Word in combination with proofreading from a friend or family member before releasing your cover letter.

Chris Alfe is a staff writer for thingamajob.com.  He has ten years of experience in staffing and human resources and currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland.

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