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Cover Letter Guidelines
If given the opportunity, you should always submit a cover letter along with your application for employment. In this article, we break down what is a cover letter and provide you with a format or approach to writing one.
To start with, a cover letter works in tandem with a resume. The resume is a snapshot in history. It tells what you did and (in most cases) your effectiveness in doing it. See our article “Guidelines for Writing a Resume” for more information.
The cover letter allows you to explain your resume. That is, it allows you to elaborate on your professional history by explain why you did those things, how you were able to do them, what that means for your ability to bring value in the current position, and what you ultimately hope or strive to achieve.
Succinctly put, your cover letter provides an opportunity to make a persuasive statement to the employer. Just like any persuasive statement, you should follow a persuasive structure. In communications language, this is generally an inductive message. That is, you present information in a manner that pushes the reader toward a logical conclusion. Below is our proposed format for presenting information in a manner that convinces the hiring manager to grant you an interview.
Format for a Cover Letter
The cover letter is a formal letter and should those aspects of formality. Below are the applicable sections.
Heading (Title): Place the title, “Cover Letter” or “Cover Letter for John A. Smith” at the top of the page. Because the contact information is on the Resume, you do not need to include it in the Heading.
Date: Center align the date two spaces below the heading. Use the following format, November 15, 2019.
Margins: Maintain a margin of greater than 1 inch all around.
Inside Address: The inside address is the specific address information for the intended recipient. It goes three spaces below the title (one space below the date) and is left-aligned. Begin with the name of the individual. The next line should be the individual’s title. If you do not know who will receive the letter, begin with the generic title, “Hiring Manager”. Then put the internal address of the individual. If you are mailing the letter, this is the street and office should be on one line, the city, state, and zip code will be on the next line. If you are faxing the letter, it should be the individual’s fax number. If you are sending via email, it should be the individual’s email address. The last line will indicate the sending method. For example,
123 Cooper Street
Small Town, New York 55555
Sections of the Cover Letter
Greeting (or Salutation): If you know the individual’s name, begin with the word “Dear” and always includes the person’s last name. If you do not know the individual’s name, begin with “Sir or Madam”. End the salutation with a comma. If you want to be highly formal, you can end it with a colon. The Greeting should be one space below the last line of the address. Likewise, there should be one space between the greeting and the body of the letter.
Now, let’s take a look at the various sections of the body of the cover letter.
Remember, the sections of the cover letter should relate to the persuasive purpose of the letter. The sections we recommend are as follows:
- Why you are interested in the position.
- Why you have followed the path laid out on your resume.
- How your skills, experience, and abilities will benefit the employer.
- What you aspire to achieve.
- Closing Statement
Let’s take a look at these individually.
The introduction is just the first sentence or two of the letter. In this sentence you have two objectives:
- Indicate that you are interested in the position,
- Grab the attention of the reader.
These are not easy things to do in just one or two sentences. It requires stating that you are applying for a position in a way that grabs the attention of the reader. Here are some tactics for doing so:
- Exclamatory statement / Hyperbole: “On August 1, 2019, I learned that ABC company listed the position of my dreams”. Or “It is an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to apply for the position of marketing analyst with ABC company.”
- Professional Reference: “When speaking with Jane Smith, VP of marking, I was extremely excited to learn about the position of Financial Analyst.”
- Dedication: “After months of actively monitoring available positions in ABC company, I was very excited o learn”
The idea is that engaging an individual at the beginning of the letter will cause her to read the letter with greater attention and interest.
Why You are Interested in the Position
Immediately following the Introduction (first line or two), you will continue to explain why you are interested in the position. In reality, you are using this paragraph to endear yourself to the reader. Generally, this is your opportunity to say nice things about the employer. Remember, this is a “you” message – meaning that everything in the message is directed toward the hiring manager. Show her that you understand the mission, values, interests of the company. This has a conscious or subconscious effect on the reader. They begin to see you as being a good fit with the company’s mission and culture. For example, you might write, “I am very excited by the possibility of joining such an innovative and employee-focused company. I highly respect the environmental sustainability aspects of the company. Also, the increased focus on team-based projects and a flat hierarchical reporting structure is incredibly innovative.”
So, to write this paragraph, you are going to need to do research on the company. You need to know the things about which the company is most proud. You can generally find this information on the company’s website. It will have its mission and values clearly stated. You may also want to look up recent news about the company. If there is a major event or some other positive press coverage, you can mention this as well. Once again, it demonstrates that you have done your research, you understand the company, and that you will be a good fit in the organization. All of this is in line with the objective of putting the company at the center of the cover letter (rather than just focusing on yourself).
All of this happens in a paragraph with 7 or less lines. The next paragraph, is where you begin to explain why you have done the things shown on your resume.
The “Why” About You
As previously stated, a resume is a snapshot in history. It does not tell the reader who you are or why you have done these things. For example, you can explain why you studied a specific topic in school or why you chose to work in specific positions. You can elaborate on why you have a particular career interest and what inspired you. By doing so, you want to make reference to your abilities and the skills/experience you have acquired.
- Note: You do not want to repeat what is in your resume. You can make reference to specific positions or experience, but you do not want to repeat the specific things on the resume. For example, you might write, “as you can see on my resume, I have extensive experience in the customer service industry.”Ultimately, you want the reader to actively read and refer back to your resume as they are reading.
You should be able to do this in less than 6 lines. At that point, you will transition the letter back into a company-centered message. You will state how your ability and experience will make you a valuable asset to the company.
Benefits to the Employer
You can finish out the second paragraph with a couple of lines on how your skills, experience, and abilities will benefit the employer. You should generally refer back to the specific requirements of the position. Try to match aspects that you have explained about yourself (motivations, evidence of dedication, unique experiences, acquired skills, etc.) to the required and preferred skills in the jobs description. For example, “My experience with SalesForce.com will allow me to effectively manage client relationships for ABC, Inc.” Another example would be, “My diverse experience in social media marketing will make me a valuable member of the content development and strategy team”.
As stated, you combine the “Why” About yYou and the Benefits to the Employer into the same paragraph. You should be able to do all of this in less than 10 lines. Remember, a cover letter that is too long is less likely to be read in full.
The next paragraph is largely optional. You may want to state what your career aspirations are. The important thing to remember is to choose a position that exists within the company. I generally recommend choosing a position that is a natural career progression, but two promotions ahead of the position to which you are applying. This signals several things. First, it shows that you understand the company structure. Nothing is worse than stating that you aspire to a position that does not exist within the company. The employer can suppose that you won’t stay long. This brings us to the second objective in stating to what you aspire.
Stating your aspirations to a position that exists within the company shows that you have aspirations to remain in the company. Creating the perception that you intend to remain at the company signals commitment. Turnover is a major cost for companies. No employer wants to train and employee just to lose them to another company. Both of these assurances are a major benefit for the employer. So, even this part of the resume continues to make this a persuasive message for the employer.
Lastly, I want to add that you must remain humble. The only employee that a company hires to change things is the CEO. Any other employee is expected to be a valuable member of a team. As such, you should state that you will be a good team member. I recommend writing something like, “I hope to grow professionally and learn from the team of talented professionals within the company”. Once again, this makes the paragraph squarely a “you” message.
All of this should be kept to less than 5 lines.
The last paragraph is the closing statement. The closing statement should be confident, yet humble. I recommend writing something like, “I appreciate the opportunity to apply for this position. I look forward to speaking with you in the near future. I can be reached at 555.555 – 5555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The signature block should contain a salutation and your name. The salutation should be one of the following: “Respectfully”, “Sincerely”, “Yours Truly”. If you have specific credentials to include behind your name, you can include them after a comma. You should leave one line between your salutation and name. You will sign your name immediately above your name and below the salutation.
Jane A. Smith, CPA
There are two places where you can place the salutation and signature. You can align them on the left side of the page. Alternatively, you can align them in the center of the page. Note, you cannot simply click center-align in word-processing software. You must manually align the first letter of the salutation and your name one space to the right of the exact centerline. Most word processing software has a rule function to aid with the alignment of text. To make certain you go it right, print out the cover letter and fold it in half (fold right and left sides. It will leave a line down the middle of the page. The first letter of the salutation and name should align to the right of the fold line.
Because your cover letter will always accompany your resume, you should indicate that your resume is an attachment. Do this by placing an “Encl:” at the bottom left of the page, left-aligned, and one line below the name. The “Encl:” symbol means enclosure.
You will then indicate all of the enclosures that accompany the cover letter. These might include:
resume, references, proof of work, writing sample, etc. If you just include a resume, write the word resume after the Encl: as such:
If you have multiple attachments, number them below the Encl: as follows:
3. Proof of Work
As you can see, the cover letter was a perfect complement to the resume. It says all of the things your resume cannot, including:
• I want a job with you because I think you are so great.
• Here is why I’ve done what I’ve done and how my experience will be valuable to you.
• This what I aspire to in your organization, but I look forward to learning and growing from you.
• Please call me.
As you can see, the cover letter is primarily a “you” message. It is constructed to be persuasive and create an opportunity for you.