How to write a basic cover letter

I have gone through a lot of version of my cover letter since December 2012 when I was laid off. One thing I wish I could have taken in college but did not have time for was the resume writing class, which was supposed to have had tips on the application process. Still, here I am all the same, and I hope you can learn from my mistakes, although I’m sure there is a better way to write them than my best version. I’m always trying to improve.

Before I got into professional writing I used to not write cover letters, but I learned it is rude not to. A lot of applications platforms do not require a cover letter, but you should make sure to include one. It is a quiet way to show professional courtesy. At the very least, they will make your resume stand out from those that do not include them. Any resume can be submitted alone, but ones with cover letters are more interesting, even if they are not ultimately read (keep it simple, though, and they are more likely to be).

I have not really noticed any other reason for including a cover letter. Many are too long. They are very easy to make too complicated. They are a breeding ground for TMI that doesn’t belong, and wording them can easily become defensive. They raise questions you may not want to answer, or can’t, or put you into an assumptive role. There’s a ton that can go wrong with a cover letter.

Pardon my shorthand (I replaced all specifics with summary phrases to protect my own application history), but go ahead and follow along. I have included my worst, next best, and current best versions of my cover letter.

Old Version

It was easy to write these before I left college, because explaining that you need help with an internship to pass an internship is a whole lot easier than convincing a company they need you.

The old version of my cover letter looked like this:

Date:               24 December 2013
Subject:          Job query for Job Title
To:                   Hiring manager

I would like to apply for the Job Title position in City, STATE.

My strength is This, This, and This. I have worked across different genres including These fields since 2009. I can edit and write at varied levels of complexity including These Types Of Projects.

I gained part-time employment this month Doing This, but I still seek something more suited to my career goals. I meet These requirements for this position, but if it could lead to a permanent position then I would like to be considered. If my talents and your interest matched, I know I would be an excellent candidate.

Thank you for taking the time to review my cover letter and resume. I am excited about expanding my employment opportunities, and thank you for your consideration. I hope to hear from you.

Regards,
Your Name
Your Linked In Public Profile URL (linkedin.com/in/name)

So what was wrong?

  • “Job Query” is too wordy. Just use the Job Title you are applying for. They already know you are applying for it because you sent them this letter and resume.
  • Your cover letter should not be to the “Hiring Manager”, although this is passable. It is better to find the recruiter or hiring manager’s actual name and use that. I like to type “X. Surname:” for my greeting when I do that, if I do. Otherwise, I try to just avoid names.
  • Oh, “would like to”? You do, or you don’t, so don’t say that. “Would like” is future tense, which means you are too unsure of yourself to know whether you really want it.
  • Do not speak too highly of yourself. It shows an inflated ego. So what if you did All Of The Things? The prospective employer will decide for you what you’ll be doing anyway.
  • Do not speak conditionally, and do not tell them when to contact you. You are not hiring you, they are.
  • Do NOT thank the prospective employer “for their consideration”. (I will say why later.)
  • Do not “hope” to hear from them. Like “would like”, that sounds like you aren’t sure you want to hear from them.
  • “Regards” is abrupt and too formal.
  • Not enough contact information. A hiring manager will not look up your super awesome URL that you think looks so nice. Even if it is a professional profile, just including a URL to it is not professional. Include the classics: phone number, email. Address is not really necessary, although you should be sure to include at least your City and State on your actual resume.

Next version.

Middling Version

It was easier to explain why your internship was important, but if you’re trying to crack your way into the world as a new professional, it gets a little more challenging. (For example, you never want to refer to yourself as a “professional” anything. It undermines your credibility.) Most of what I learned, at this point, was that I should not try to make a Company hire me. Do not try to convince them. It doesn’t work.

Date:               9 January 2014
Subject:          Job query for Job Title in City, STATE
To:                   Company Recruiting and Placement Department

Greetings:

I am so glad Company is hiring for Job Title. My professional emphasis is This, I meet the requirements included in the ad on This Website, and I would like the opportunity to interview for the position.

I am currently employed at Company, but Am Including TMI Why I Would Rather Work For You. The positioned mentioned Does This For Me. The ad mentioned that Company specializes in This, and What I Do And Could Do For This greatly interests me. That Company covers simple to complex material is a bonus, as I can work across different writing levels and genres. My hours at Current Company are also part time and flexible; I am sure an acceptable schedule could be accommodated, or I can transition to Company if required since the tasks of this position are better aligned with my professional goals and employment history.

My compensation requirements are for a starting wage between $XX.00 and $XX.00 per hour based on previous experience. My highest salary was $XX.xx per hour for This, I worked for a nonprofit organization in This Field for $XX.00 an hour between 2009 and 2013, and I have These degrees in writing.

If my resume interests you, please email or call me before 9:30 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m., and Friday is open, so I can schedule an interview with you. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Your Name

Your Linked In Public Profile URL (linkedin.com/in/name)
Email Address
Phone Number You Actually Use

I almost feel like I cannot begin to explain how bad that cover letter was.

So what was wrong?

  • “Job Query” is too wordy. Just use the Job Title you are applying for. They already know you are applying for it because you sent them this letter and resume.
  • Avoided the name loophole on this cover letter, which let me just avoid names.
  • “So glad” enthusiasm shows desperation. The remainder of the first paragraph is more assertive, but it’s too wordy. Get to the point.
  • While this cover letter was proofread multiple times, a tense issue was missed. The issue did not interfere, and an interview was gained, be careful about tense agreement.
  • Do not speak too highly of yourself. It shows an inflated ego. So what if you did All Of The Things? The prospective employer will decide for you what you’ll be doing anyway.
  • While it is said that finding new employment is easier when you are already employed, do not talk about your current employment. Have an answer ready for why you seek different employment, but do not otherwise compare the two; it is not flattering to the new company, it shows lack of loyalty and pickiness.
  • Do not repeat what the company does unless it’s in passing to make a better point. They already know what they do.
  • Do not speak conditionally, and do not tell them when to contact you. You are not hiring you, they are.
  • The recruiter did ask for compensation requirements. That paragraph is moderately okay. However, the better part of that paragraph that helps it succeed is not the request for a certain amount, but that a range is given. Do not pigeonhole yourself with an exact amount until an offer of employment has been discussed, at which time, exact amounts may be talked over in terms of a “range”. Give them a range before you settle on a number that is slightly higher than you are pretty sure you’d be able to get anyway.
  • Again, do not dictate when they contact you. You are not hiring you, they are.
  • Do not end a cover letter with “Sincerely”—it sounds insincere. It’s the equivalent of saying “To be honest…” when you should already be expressing yourself honestly. In other words, it undermines your credibility, and is an outmoded closing anyway.

And, finally, the best cover letter version.

Best Version

My best version dispensed with a lot of everything. I composed this cover letter at the time that I was beyond giving a snit whether I got what I applied for or not. If I did, then great. If I didn’t, then I should just move on.

The key to this point in the employment seeking process is not not-caring, though, but to detach oneself from the outcome. If they want you, they will select you, simple as that. if they are interested, then they show this by interviewing you.

10 April 2014

Company name
Company address
City, STATE Zip

 

Greetings:

I am putting in my application for the Job Title position (Job ID) with Company in City, STATE.

Previously, I was the Job Tile for What Kind Of company in City, STATE. What I Did, which Helps Others By Doing This. I also Did This Impressive Task (such as coauthoring an article or something else of note), and Did This.

If you have anything to note about the application, such as having relocated since initially submitting the application, were this an update note, write that now.

If my work interests you, I would be pleased to contribute to your (i.e., technical writing) needs.

 

Thank you,
Your Name

Your Linked In Public Profile URL (linkedin.com/in/name)
Email Address
Phone Number You Actually Use

I’ve described two really bad cover letters. What, this time, did I finally do right?

  • Good header: date of resume submission; company and address; it is okay to just say hi with “greetings”, or omit any greeting.
  • “I am putting in my application for…” is direct and to the point. This line makes sure that your application is received and directed to the right people. Stating what you are applying for lets them know you know what you have applied for. Including the location makes sure that the hiring manager does not mistake, and knows you have not mistaken, the location to avoid awkward phone calls about coming in for an interview you didn’t mean.
  • “Previously…” Keep this short and sweet. Short and sweet, cannot emphasize this enough. If your paragraph is more than three lines on the page, then you’re doing it wrong. If it has more than 3 lines on the page, but should still be less than 7, then make those lines count. Keep it upbeat. My own line of work doesn’t much include hard results (e.g., “The grant proposal I wrote returned $XX,000.00”), but it has a very positive effect (“…which Helps Others By Doing This.”), and that is what I emphasize. Feel free to “sugar coat” with positive language, but do not embellish and make it up.
  • The third paragraph is optional. I included that note because this cover letter was one that I used when I resubmitted my materials in a Company’s system during their selection process, which came later than the initial submission, and I needed to update.
  • Keep it classy: “If my work interests you, I would be pleased to contribute to your (i.e., technical writing) needs.” I said I’d explain later: DO NOT SAY “Thank you for your consideration.” The phrase sounds professional, but it puts your application right out of the running, right then. It is passive, PAST-TENSE, and does not expect a return on application submission. As soon as I stopped using that line, I started getting more replies.
  • Do not thank them for their time, either. Not only is the phrase overused, but it implies that taking the time they have to on your application is not worth it. So, don’t say that.
  • The correct time to thank your reader is in the closing. Simply: “Thank you,” and end with your name. It’s polite, and it’s a gentle and positive closing.
  • Good relevant contact information: professional profile URL (electronic/online profiles or portfolios are great) if they happen to want more information, email address, and a phone number I actually use.
  • Also, notice the use of white space on your final cover letter. I single space everything, put an extra space between paragraphs, and a second extra space before and after the main content to set off the primary information. It looks good.

I hope this basic primer helps others get more replies to their application submissions. It’s taken more than 18 months of spotty unemployment for me to get the best version figured out.

I don’t know what better cover letters there are than that polite expression of interest in the position; I think the point of a cover letter is more to serve as a kind of file marker to keep the hiring manager’s brain straight so it’s easier to find a good candidate.

A cover letter sells itself. It is not for selling you… that’s for the resume to do.

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About jlnp

http://www.rookavrook.wordpress.com/about-jess
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