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What Are the Parts of an Application Letter?
Whenever you apply for a job, you’re typically directed to submit a resume and a letter of application, also known as a cover letter. If you dread writing cover letters, you aren’t alone – many people would rather avoid them altogether. They are an important part of the job search process, though, and the better your letter, the better your chances of getting the job.
If you break down the application letter into several parts, though, it is a lot less intimidating. The most important thing to remember is that the cover letter isn’t about you and what you want. It’s a letter of introduction, in which you give the employer a taste of what you are capable of and what you can do for their company. Tailor the parts of the application letter – greeting, opening, body, company knowledge and closing section – to the individual position you’re applying for, and you’ll be successful in getting calls for interviews and, ultimately, a great job.
Every application letter needs a greeting. How you open your letter indicates not only your level of professionalism, but also how much effort you put into researching the company and position. Therefore, a generic “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam” is likely to get your letter tossed in the trash before it’s even read.
Sometimes, you will get lucky, and you’ll have a name. Rarely does a specific name appear in a job advertisement, but it can happen. If you are sending the letter to a personal contact, or you’ve already made contact with the recipient, great. Just make sure you spell his or her name correctly, and stick with “Ms.” instead of Miss or Mrs. If you have a good relationship with the person already, you can safely use only their first name, but otherwise, be formal and professional and stick with “Dear Mr. Smith ... ,” etc.
If you don’t have a specific name, then you will have to do some research. Google and social media are your friends; many companies have corporate directories online where you can find a relevant name. Other companies deliberately make it more difficult to find individual employee names and contact information in order to protect the privacy and security of their workers. You can try calling the human resources office and asking for a name, but if all else fails, you will have to use a more generic greeting.
In this case, your best bet is to tailor the greeting to the job; for example, you might write, “Dear Senior Account Executive Hiring Manager.” By doing so, you’re indicating that you are applying for a specific job and that your letter was written for this specific person. Again, avoid bland greetings that could apply to anyone, and focus on showing your interest in this specific job.
You’ve probably heard the statistics about how recruiters only spend a few seconds reviewing applications. Knowing that the reader is likely to make a decision about whether to schedule an interview after only skimming a few lines of your letter, it’s important to make the opening paragraph compelling enough to spur the person to read on.
The first paragraph of your application letter should be just a few lines that tell the hiring manager why you are writing, highlight an accomplishment and show your enthusiasm for the position. It should be direct and to the point; don’t waste time going on and on about how you heard about the position or how you think you are perfect for the job. Employers aren’t really interested in what you think about your qualifications. Rather, they want specific details showing that you have the skills that they need.
For example, your opening paragraph might read something like, “As a sales professional with eight years of experience in the technology field, I am interested in your Senior Account Executive opening. I have consistently met and exceeded my sales goals, increasing overall profits in my region by 15 percent. I would love the opportunity to meet with you and discuss what I could do for your company.” If you learned about the position via a mutual contact, you could add in a line like, “Jane Smith suggested that I get in touch with you regarding this position, as she thinks my skills would be valuable to your company.”
Remember that the goal of your application letter is to get an interview, and that employers are interested in what you can do for them. Don’t open your letter by discussing how you are looking for a new challenge or that you believe or think that you are perfect for the job. Employers aren’t concerned about giving you a challenge or being a rung on your career ladder, so focus on how you can benefit them.
Once you’ve grabbed the hiring manager’s attention, it’s time to get into the specifics. Because you are sending this letter with a resume, don’t waste space rehashing everything contained in that document. Instead, the body of an application letter should read like a highlight reel. What are your most impressive accomplishments? Choose those that are most relevant to the position you’re applying for, and connect the dots for the reader. Show how you can bring value to the company, and that you have the skills and experience that they need.
After briefly summarizing your experience in a few sentences, highlight your experience via short bullet points, ideally containing quantifiable achievements. In other words, don’t just say that you increased customer satisfaction – prove it, and show how much. Use numbers, performance metrics, or quotes and comments from customers or your co-workers to support your claims. If possible, incorporate keywords from the job description to make it clear to the reader how your experience relates to the specific position. For example, you could write:
“Implemented a new procedure for processing applications that increased productivity by 20 percent and reduced customer wait times by 30 percent.”
Or, “Developed a business strategy that reduced excess inventory and save the company $100,000.”
If you have quotes from former colleagues, bosses or customers that give you a glowing review, don’t be afraid to use them. But don’t go overboard – one or two is plenty.
Above all, your cover letter should reveal your personality, and show not only that you’re qualified for the position, but that you are interested in it and enthusiastic about working for the company. Entrepreneur Seth Porges, in Forbes, advised job seekers to spend some time doing some research on industry trends or history to add some flair to the application letter. For example, you might write about a recent technological innovation and how you’re excited to be a part of how it’s changing the world, or talk about how your industry has changed since you first started in it. The idea is to show the recruiter that you care, that you know the industry and that you’re curious and willing to stay up-to-date.
Highlight Your Knowledge of the Company
Once you’ve highlighted your experience and demonstrated your enthusiasm for the industry and the job, it’s worth devoting a few lines to show that you have done your homework and researched the company. If something interesting happened within the company recently, such as a new product launch or acquisition, mention it and how you’re excited to bring your skills to the company to help during this transition. If that’s not possible, research the company website to uncover the corporate mission and vision, or review its annual reports to find out the goals and major projects taking place. Relate your experience back to what you find, and your letter will stand out.
Your final paragraph should summarize your skills (in one line) and focus on the next steps. Don’t ramble or repeat what you have already said, just succinctly state your case and ask for an interview. Although you may have been advised to tell the recipient that you’ll call to follow up at a specific time, that’s not advisable. For starters, it’s easy for the hiring manager to avoid your call. But more important, such a line can come across as pushy or arrogant, even if you think it shows that you take initiative. Instead, note that you would welcome the opportunity to meet with the recruiter to discuss your experience and potential contributions in more detail, and that you look forward to hearing from him or her. That way, you still include a call to action, but leave the control in the reader’s hands.
There are times when writing an application letter isn’t always so straightforward. For instance, if you are a student or recent graduate, you most likely don’t have a well of experience to draw from, and therefore have to get a little more creative in how you highlight your experience. Mention achievements from your summer jobs or internships, or point out coursework you completed that provides you with relevant knowledge.
Writing a cover letter can also be challenging if you have a resume gap or you are unemployed, whether it was due to a termination or by choice (such as you took time off to raise a family.) Employers are going to notice the gap, so you shouldn’t avoid it, but don’t make it the focus of your letter either. If you lost your most recent job, you might address it by focusing on what you’ve done since leaving, such as taking courses or working part-time. If you left for personal reasons, you might say something like, “Although I’m returning from a time away from the field to manage personal obligations, I have nearly two decades of experience in finance.” The idea is to address the gap, while still putting the focus on what you bring to the table.
However, be careful and selective about how much you share. Keep in mind, for example, that employers are prohibited from asking candidates about their marital status or if they have children. Sharing information about your family could inadvertently cause discrimination against you. By the same token, if you took time off from work and overcame a significant challenge, highlighting what you did and the lengths you went to to bounce back might show your strength, perseverance and determination, and impress an employer. Use your best judgment.
Don’t Forget the Basics
Your cover letter may be exceptional content-wise, but if it’s riddled with typos and grammatical errors, it’s going to land in the circular file. Put the same level of care and attention into your application letter that you do with your resume. Carefully proofread, and have someone else look it over as well to catch anything you missed. Make sure your contact information at the top of the page is correct, and don’t forget to sign the letter. It might take a little more time, but taking care of these details can make the difference between getting the job and more time pounding the pavement.
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer and editor, specializing in careers, business, education, and lifestyle topics. The author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), which covers everything from career and financial advice to furnishing your first apartment, her work has also appeared in Young Money, Lewiston Auburn Magazine, USA Today, and a variety of online outlets. She's also been quoted as a career expert in many newspapers and magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Parade. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.