Create a Top-Quality Cover Letter

Your resume should always be accompanied by a cover letter. But don't just throw one together; in many ways your cover letter is as important — if not more important — as the resume, itself. A cover letter is the first thing someone looks at, your first chance to make a good impression — or a bad one.

Spend a few minutes thinking about what you want your cover letter to accomplish. Decide on one or two key points that you want the letter to accomplish, such as

  • Drawing attention to two or three highlights of your resume.

  • Balancing the fact that you don't have the exact background the recruiter is looking for (and point out reasons why they should interview you, anyway).

  • Explaining some parts of your resume that might raise questions.

Like your resume, your cover letter must look professional and adhere to standard business format (single-spacing, block paragraphs, etc.). If you're not e-mailing it, do use the same stationery and font as your resume. Below are the basic elements of a good cover letter.

Return address

If not pre-printed on your stationery, your return address should be aligned with the rest of the text in the letter. In standard business format, neither your name nor your telephone number belongs in the return address — but a cover letter is an exception to this rule.

Date

The date goes below the return address (with a blank line between it and the address).

Name and address of the recipient

Leave another blank line, and include the following:

Line 1: The person's full name (if you know it)
Line 2: The person's title (if you know it)
Line 3: The department (use if you can't access the person's title)
Line 4: The name of the company
Line 5: Street name and address (or box number)
Line 6: City, state, and zip code

Salutation

Use the person's first name only when you've been personally introduced and have already referred to that person by first name in conversation. Always follow the person's name with a colon, not a comma. When addressing a woman, use Ms. (this title is now standard in business for all women).

If you don't know the person's name, "To Whom It May Concern" will do.

Writing the opening

The opening paragraph should state the purpose of the letter and give the reader a compelling reason to keep reading.

Whenever you can use someone else's name to make a connection between you and the person you're writing to, do so. It is the best way to ensure that your letter and your resume get attention. But the connection must be legitimate: The name you use has to belong to someone the reader will recognize (and, of course, respect). Always ask permission to mention someone else in your cover letter. Here are examples:

  • I'm writing to you at the suggestion of Brian Mansfield, who said you're in need of someone who matches my background and qualifications.

  • I just returned from a weekend trip with your friend, Kristen Kowalski, who suggested I send you my resume.

  • I recently had lunch with your marketing manager, Jake Wiley, who told me that you have an opening in accounts receivable.

Next, try to put something into your opening paragraph (a fact or observation about the company) that isn't common knowledge. This statement tells the reader that you're eager to work for the company.

The meat of the letter

After the brief opening paragraph, you're ready to get down to the business of the letter. This section normally consists of two or three paragraphs that do one or more of the following:

  • Explain briefly your current situation — whether you're presently working, out of work, on assignment, and so on.

  • Tell the reader what you're looking for and why the position you're writing about interests you.

  • Expand upon or call attention to one or two points in your resume.

  • Explain (if necessary) aspects of your resume or background that are not obvious and that could possibly work against you.

  • Tell the reader directly why you qualify for the job.

As you write the middle section of your cover letter, remember that you're selling yourself. Think, "Here is what I can offer you." A cover letter should never focus on what you want or why you want to work for the company. It should focus on what your skills and how the company will be better by having you involved. Consider these examples:

  • I've always been keenly interested in art, and I know I would enjoy working for an art museum.

  • I've always been keenly interested in art, and the experience I've had as an art broker, volunteer docent, and gallery sales clerk have given me the skills to manage your museum's acquisition office.

Generally, you should discuss salary in your cover letter only if a job posting requests salary history or salary requirements. The exception to this would be when you're overqualified for a job but are willing to accept a lower salary than one would expect, based on your salary history. In this case, you can mention the salary range you're interested in to rule out any concerns that you wouldn't accept a salary offer.

Conclude by conveying your eagerness to meet in person.

Closing

Sincerely, Sincerely yours, Yours truly, and Cordially are all fine.

Electronic cover letters

If you're responding to a job opening posted online, you should still include a cover letter, especially if you're replying to a position listed on a company Web site. An e-mail cover letter can be sent as an e-mail message or an attachment. Although brevity is key with an e-mailed cover letter (keep it to no more than two paragraphs), as with the traditional cover letter, the message should still state your desire to work for the company; list reasons why you should be hired; and summarize your skills, accomplishments, and work experience. Use professional salutations such as "Mr." and "Ms." and always include your full name, telephone number, mailing address, and e-mail address.