Most resumes are accompanied by a cover letter or cover email. Written in business style, cover letters and cover emails should contain an expression of your interest in working for a company, an abbreviated introduction to your career and a short, compelling paragraph detailing why you would be a perfect fit for a current or future opening. Cover letters must follow the application directions that the employer stated in the job posting.
Cover letters, like resumes must be targeted for each position you seek or contact you make. Deciding what to put in the letter remains tricky since you do not want to repeat your entire resume, yet you will want to make a strong case for a company to, in fact, look at your skills and experience to see if they fit any open positions.
Cover letters and emails are employed in a variety of circumstances, ranging from applying for advertised jobs to serving as a "letter of introduction" to companies where you want to work, requesting networking leads or informational interviews. The targeted audience may be different, but the general approach remains the same.
Cover Letter Audiences
Cover letters serve different readers. Typically, cover letters are targeted at specific job openings in a company. These "application" letters match your qualifications to a position's advertised requirements.
Another variation, the "prospecting" letter, is used to contact employers who haven't advertised or published job openings. You may have cold-called a company and gotten the name of someone you want to contact with a letter, resume and follow-up call. These letters call for describing your skills and matching them to the perceived needs of the employer based on your research.
The "networking" letter, in contrast, first refers to the person who gave you the referral before asking for an informational interview or, in the case of an opening, consideration for the position. It's fine to ask in a networking letter for recipients to share more contacts at other companies if they're willing.
Whenever you use any of these letters remember to include a second attachment - your resume.
Tips for Writing Strong Cover Letters
Printed Cover Letters: Use a standard business letter format. Below your name and address - or masthead - will be the date, followed by an empty line, then the recipient's name and title, street address, city, state and ZIP code.
Email Cover Letters: Subject line - use the exact job title and any position reference numbers that are often included in job openings followed by a dash and your first and last name. Make sure that your document name matches the name you put in the subject line. Sign your email with a professional closing.
Address a Person: Always address the letter to a specific person by name and title. Even if responding to a job that states "no phone calls" consider calling to politely ask the name of the hiring authority or search through your LinkedIn network to see if one of your contacts knows the name of the hiring authority. You may not always be able to identify the name of a specific person. In this case, send the letter to the title of the recipient (Production Manager, Maintenance Supervisor, Office Manager, Human Resources or Search Committee).
State Your Intent: In general, your letter should state your interest in the job. In the case of a letter of introduction, simply state you would like to work for the company. Use the first paragraph to express your energy, enthusiasm, skills, education and work experience that could contribute to the company's success. Use the second and third paragraphs, or a list of bullet points, that exhibit your talents, experience and achievements. These can be brief summaries of what you illuminate in greater detail in your attached resume.
The T Formation: Consider the "T" letter format, which first names the specific requirements an employer has asked for in the job posting and your corresponding qualifications. If you have collected a list of likely qualifications for the positions you seek, you can do the same thing. The strategy might look like the following. An advertised position asks for experience managing, writing, marketing and accounting. You could in the middle section match your skill set to those abilities, as in the following example:
Managing: Supervised a department of 10 employees at Marketing Inc. in Minneapolis for five years that won three national awards.
Writing: Crafted more than 150 brochures and print ads, including several that won national awards.
Marketing: Led a total of 12 campaigns integrating social media, print, Web, and radio for three different clients over the past three years.
Accounting: Completed several financial classes toward an MBA and understand major accounting software systems.
The Final Paragraph: Use the final paragraph to mention you will make a follow-up call within a week, perhaps within a few days, to confirm the document has been received and to ask for an interview. Thank the person for taking the time to read your letter. Use a formal, professional closing.
One More Look: Be sure to proofread your letter to check content, grammar and spelling, and ask someone else to have a look, too. Sign printed cover letters in blue or black ink. In writing the letters, avoid appearing too familiar, overbearing, humorous or cute. Avoid starting too many sentences or bullet points with "I" if possible. Keep sentences short and to the point. The entire letter should be one page composed of three to five paragraphs. Remember, your resume will fill in details.
Mail First Class: Skip business class envelopes and use 8 1/2" x 11" mailers so you don't have to bother folding your letter and resume. A larger envelope keeps the documents flat and crisp and will be worth the extra cost.