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The main purpose of a cover letter is to motivate the reader to review your resume and, hopefully, schedule you for a job interview. A well-written resume introduces you and highlights the skills and qualifications you can bring to the position.
Start with Contact Information
You can format your cover letter with name and contact information across the top of the page, as is often done with pre-printed business stationery. It's also fine to put your name and address in block format as you'd do with a standard business letter.
Most prospective employers will contact you by phone or email, so be sure to include that information. Listing more than one phone number can be distracting, so use the one you're most likely to answer during regular business hours. However, don't use the phone number of your current employer. It makes a poor impression when a hiring manager sees you're job hunting on your company's time.
Make sure you have a professional email address. If you've been using something like firstname.lastname@example.org, it's time to create a new account that you can use for your job search and professional connections.
Cover Letter Format
Your cover letter should be a one-page document that complements but does not duplicate your resume. Use your cover letter to generate interest in what you can offer to a prospective employer. A cover letter should incorporate three sections: introduction, body and call to action.
Since you're writing a letter and not meeting face-to-face, skip the "Hi, my name is..." Briefly mention the job announcement and how you found out about it, then describe yourself and your interest in the position. For example, "It was with great interest that I read your advertisement in the Times for a veterinary technician. I am graduating with a 3.75 GPA this month from the two-year program at XYZ College. I would love the opportunity to talk with you about how I can put my skills to use at City Animal Hospital."
The body of the cover letter can be one to three paragraphs in length. Highlight your skills and qualifications without duplicating the language of your resume. In the body, you want to get the reader interested and eager to read more about you.
You might want to use bullet points to highlight your qualifications compared to those stated in the job announcement. For example, you might use the body section as follows:
- High school diploma
- Proficiency with MS Word and MS Excel
- Good communications and organization skills
- Reliability, with a proven record of good attendance
I can offer:
- High school diploma plus six credits in business from ABC Community College
- Proficiency with MS Word and MS Excel; typing speed of 70 words per minute
- Solid interpersonal skills and demonstrated ability to organize and multi-task
- Record of 100 percent attendance in my previous position
Call to Action
In your last paragraph, make a plan for follow up. You can invite the prospective employer to contact you in a sentence such as, "Please feel free to contact me by phone or email at your convenience." Better still, state what you will do to follow up on the submission of your cover letter and resume. You might say, "I will phone next week to see if we can schedule a time to discuss in greater detail the ways my skills and experience can be an asset to Acme Corporation."
Close the letter with either "Sincerely" or "Respectfully." Sign your name in blue or black ink. Avoid extra flourishes or juvenile-looking touches such a circle or heart dotting an i.
Cover Letter Template
Most people use Microsoft Word or Apple's Pages for word processing. Both software applications have cover letter templates that have all the formatting done for you. Although it is perfectly acceptable to use one of these templates, formatting a basic cover letter is easy to do for yourself.
There are many examples online of standard business letters and cover letters. As with your resume, avoid unusual fonts, bright colors and gimmicks in hopes of attracting the attention of a prospective employer. You'll attract attention for sure – but maybe the wrong kind. Let your interest in the position and your qualifications speak for themselves.
Paper and Printing
Use the same paper for both the cover letter and resume. Standard copy paper is fine, but if you want to upgrade the look of your resume, choose a fine quality business paper. Stationery and office supply stores typically offer business paper sold in packages labeled 20-lb., 24-lb., 28-lb. and 32-lb. The weight refers to how many pounds 500 sheets of the uncut paper weighs. The heavier the paper, the thicker the individual sheet.
Thicker papers usually have cotton or linen fiber content. Cotton papers have a smooth finish, while linen papers have a fine texture. The choice is yours. Stick with white or off-white paper. Ivory can sometimes look too yellow under bright office lights. Text on blue or gray paper can be difficult to read.
Choose a universal font such as Times New Roman or Arial. Standard business communications use 12-point text. Set the margins at one inch. Modern business letters use a left-justified block style, which means that you do not indent. Skip a line to designate a new paragraph. Do not justify the right margin, as doing so can split words or create distracting spaces.
Print your cover letter with black ink. Mail it in a standard No. 10 business envelope that matches your cover letter and resume paper. Do not staple or clip your cover letter to your resume. Stack the papers neatly and fold in thirds to place in the envelope. It's not necessary to mail your cover letter and resume in a large manila envelope. In fact, it could delay processing and handling.
Cover Letter Examples
There are many good cover letter examples on the Internet that can guide you in crafting your own letter. Look for examples posted by quality job sites such as CareerBuilder, Monster and LinkedIn. College- and university-based writing centers and career centers often post sample letters online with tips to improve your writing. Make sure you take only ideas. Avoid copying word for word.
If possible, go online to find good cover letter examples relevant to the job you're applying for. You may acquire additional terminology not in a job announcement that will nevertheless be meaningful to your prospective employer. Avoid overly-technical terms and industry jargon, however. The first person to read your cover letter may be an administrative assistant or Human Resources professional whose job is to screen candidates before forwarding selected resumes to hiring managers. You won't make a good impression if they can't figure out what you're trying to say.
Personalize Every Cover Letter
You may be applying for several jobs at once. Be sure to personalize each cover letter by addressing the prospective reader by name if possible, and mentioning the name of the company. Word processing software makes it easy to change a few key details to make every letter unique.
Study the job announcement and incorporate some of its language into your cover letter. For example, you might say, "Your job announcement in the Center City Gazette states that you are looking for an entry-level office clerk. I successfully completed two general business courses at ABC High School that helped me develop the knowledge and skills required for clerical work."
A good cover letter introduces you to a prospective employer and invites the reading of your resume.
Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for eHow.com, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.