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How to Write a Cover Letter for a Job

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For many jobseekers, writing a cover letter is one of the most challenging parts of the employment search process. Some even question the need for a cover letter in the digital age, when so many companies are using software to review resumes and identify the best candidates. Cover letters are still important, though, and should serve as an introduction to you and your experience. Use the letter to highlight why you are an ideal candidate for a position and ask for an interview.

The Parts of a Cover Letter

Typically, a cover letter consists of three major parts:

  • The opening, in which you indicate why you are writing and introduce yourself
  • The body, in which you highlight the most relevant points from your resume and connect the dots for the reader as to why you are ideal for the job
  • The closing, in which you ask for an interview, list the items you’ve included with the letter (such as your resume, writing samples, etc.) and thank the reviewer for her time. 

When a reviewer finishes reading your cover letter, she should feel compelled to read your resume and also have a good idea as to whether you are someone who should be called for an interview.

Writing the Letter

Ideally, your cover letter should enhance your resume, not rehash it. In other words, rather than listing the positions you’ve held, focus instead on how the skills you have gained in those positions can benefit the employer.

Before you begin writing, consider your audience and the objective of the letter. Remember that the letter and your resume aren’t going to get you the job, but rather get you an invitation to an interview. With that in mind, what are the most salient points from your background that will spur the reader to schedule a meeting? Detail the benefits you can bring to the company, and the evidence of those benefits. Always focus the letter on the company and what you can bring to the table, not on you and your needs and desires.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Keep in mind that most hiring managers will be reading dozens, if not hundreds, of cover letters and resumes, so you want yours to stand out – in a good way. That means avoiding some common pitfalls of writing cover letters.

Don’t cut and paste from the job description. While you should tailor your letter to the specific position and use certain keywords from the posting, don’t copy the post word for word. Avoid a generic introduction like, “I would love the opportunity to …” or similar.

While showing some personality or sharing a relevant anecdote is often welcome, don’t use gimmicks or attempt to be too clever with your cover letter. You are writing a professional letter, so maintain a professional demeanor. At the same time, avoid using generic descriptions or superlatives. Words like “hardworking,” “experienced” or “successful” don’t tell the reader much about you. Instead, share specific examples that demonstrate how successful and experienced you are, using quantifiable achievements when possible. You are not a generic candidate, so don’t send a generic letter. Be dynamic and engaging, and demonstrate your energy and enthusiasm.

Finally, keep your letter focused on the job you’re applying for and your experience. Avoid getting too personal, and never discuss your salary requirements unless specifically asked to in the job posting (and even then, keep your answer as vague as possible, listing a salary range) or why you are leaving your current position.

Pay Attention to the Details

Before you send your letter, carefully proofread it to ensure it’s grammatically correct and free from typos. Use a professional, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial in 10- or 12-point type. Keep the letter concise and to the point, and never longer than a single page.

  • Be brief. Most likely there will be many cover letters received for each position. The hiring manager will likely skim quickly over each cover letter. Make sure there is something in your letter to catch the manager's attention and to keep him interested in you. Don't write more than a one page cover letter. The second page will not be read. Use good paper and make sure you spell the hiring manager's name correctly.
  • Be truthful with what you say in the cover letter. If you use a reference make sure he is aware of it. Don't drop a name just to impress the hiring manager. References will be checked. Check your cover letter for spelling and grammar mistakes.

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.