Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How To: Write an Effective Cover Letter

Well the time has come... I have been neglecting writing a post about Cover Letters, and today it is finally here. For me, writing a cover letter is the HARDEST part of the job search process. I am sure I am not alone in this, and as a result I have decided to provide my readers with a "how to" guide for writing a cover letter. 

Writing a compelling cover letter is a critical component of an effective job search for college students and recent graduates. A well thought out cover letter will show employers that you are a motivated candidate and place high value on their employment opportunity.

A quality letter will convey to employers both why you are interested in the job or internship and how your background will enable you to excel in the position. Lastly the cover letter serves as a writing sample and will demonstrate to employers that you can communicate logically and effectively.

Many times in the job description, the employer will mention specific things they want the job applicant to include in the cover letter, so be sure to read the description closely.  Unless the description says specifically not to, do not send a resume without a cover letter. The cover letter is an opportunity for you to market yourself in a way your resume does not. 

Step #1: Get In, Get Noticed, Get Out
The goal of a cover letter is to give a hiring manager enough information to consider you as an interesting candidate.  A common pitfall of cover letters is giving too much or irrelevant information.  A good cover letter is economical at three sections, usually one paragraph each, and includes the following:

First Section–Introduction and connection to organization’s mission
Second Section–Summary of your skills/background as they pertain to the position
Third Section–Thank you, contact instructions, and closing

Sticking to this format ensures that you are providing all of the key information sought by the hiring manager, while keeping it to a length that is accessible and easy to read.

Step #2: Personalize Your Opening
The golden rule of cover letters is simple: create a personal and unique cover letter for every job application.  A one-size-fits-all approach to a cover letter is sure to land your application at the bottom of a hiring manager’s pile.

Personalizing your letter begins with the greeting.  If a specific contact name is not provided in the job description, do not open your cover letter with “To Whom It May Concern” or, even worse, “Dear Sir.” Do research on the organization’s web site to find the right contact.  You may find the name of the director of the department in which your desired job is located or you may find someone in human resources.  As a last resort, address your application to the Executive Director of the organization. This shows that you took the time to research the organization and will always be viewed more favorably than an impersonal greeting.

From there, explain why you are passionate about the mission of the organization.  Communicate the substance behind your passion; instead of stating, “I always wanted to help people,” try “Because I was raised with amazing educational opportunities, it’s personally very important to me to make sure that other people have access to those opportunities as well.” The more personal and compelling your connection to the organization’s mission is, the more likely your cover letter will be read in its entirety.

Step #3: Connect the Dots
In the second section, create a connection between your skills and background and the job requirements.  Remember that your cover letter accompanies your resume, so do not simply re-state all of the information already listed on the resume. Use your critical thinking skills to really analyze the job description.  Beyond the specific qualifications listed, what can you determine about what this organization is really looking for in this role?  Use your cover letter to demonstrate how your skills and experience match with what they want.

Avoid general statements like, “I know I am the best person for the job.” It is more effective to let your skills and experience demonstrate the strength of your qualifications.

Remember to also address any cultural or personality attributes sought by the hiring organization.  Include examples that illustrate personal traits such as leadership, teamwork, flexibility, or other qualities valued by the organization.

As many hiring organizations value diversity, freely identify yourself as a person of color, having multicultural experience, and/or possessing attributes that could add to the overall diversity of the organization.  In many cases, illustrating your fit with an organization's culture is just as important as your skills and experience.

Step #4: Close with Style
The third section is all about wrapping up your cover letter neatly and elegantly. Use this opportunity to thank the organization for considering your application and to reiterate your enthusiasm for the position, organization, and mission. This is also where you can provide instructions on how and when to contact you, generally a phone number and email address.

Remember that you must ensure that you have a professional email account.  You can create a free account on Gmail.  Generally, your first and last name or initials (or some combination of both) are acceptable.  This is the contact email address you should include in both your cover letter and resume.

Step #5: Do a Test Run
Before you send your cover letter to a potential employer, check the job description for any specific instructions.  At the bottom of most postings, there are generally instructions for how the organization would like to receive applications.  For example, do they want to receive cover letters as attachments or in the body of the email?  Do they want you to include a list of references with your application?  Or do they want you to answer a specific question in your cover letter?  Be sure to follow the specific instructions for how to submit your application and what to include in your cover letter. This demonstrates your attention to detail, another very important characteristic for most hiring organizations.

Now comes the time to employ your “editor”— ask the best writer you know to proofread your cover letter for typos, grammatical errors, and any inappropriate wording such as humor, slang, or emoticons (happy faces have no place in a cover letter or any other professional communication!).  Also check for adequate variation in sentence structure. Do not begin every sentence with “I have” Remember, this is a real-life example of your writing ability, a skill that is highly valued by almost every nonprofit position.

Finally, test sending the cover letter in the format desired by the organization to your own email account.  This will allow you to make any adjustments in formatting before sending your application to the actual organization.  As a general rule, keep formatting to a minimum so that it will be preserved across different email or word processing programs.

Example of Cover Letter Structure

Your Address


Contact Person’s Name
City, State Zip Code
Dear Dr. Mr./Ms.__________________________:

Section 1
[one paragraph long]

Section 2
[one paragraph long]

Section 3
[one paragraph long]

Your signature
Your full name (typed)

I hope my how-to helps you write a rock star cover letter. It takes practice but once you get the technique, down your cover letter will serve as a huge asset to your resume.

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