Going Beyond “To Whom It May Concern”: The Art of Writing a Winning Cover Letter

February 20, 2013

……………………………By Guest Contributor Rachel Pryzby

Cover LetterAfter you read my first guest post (Resume Greatest Hits: Questions I Get Asked Most), you’re probably on your way to creating a solid resume that effectively markets your skills and achievements. A cover letter, on the other hand, is a completely different animal, and one that doesn’t get as much attention as the resume. This post will outline the main components of writing a cover letter that will keep you on your reader’s radar… and hopefully help you land an interview!

To start, some readers may be wondering what exactly a cover letter is. In short, it’s…

• A narrative about your experience, skills, and accomplishments and (this is the important part!) how they relate to the position at hand
• A sample of your written communication skills
• An opportunity to show the employer that you are applying for their specific position

Before you begin writing, it’s important to realize that a cover letter is not just a formality. This is your chance to speak directly to the people responsible for hiring decisions—it’s a chance to make a strong first impression!

Greeting: Aim for professional, but personal. Whenever possible, use a real person’s name instead of “To Whom It May Concern” or “Sir or Madam.” This will give you a greater chance of having your cover letter actually read, and not tossed in the “no thanks” pile. Do your research by thoroughly reading the job posting and website or calling the company to get the name of the person responsible for hiring. If you absolutely cannot find the name of the responsible person, address your letter to a group such as “Search Committee.”

Introduction: Introduce yourself—this could be in the form of an elevator pitch. Briefly explain which position you’re applying for, why you’re interested in applying, and what specifically you have to offer. If you learned about the position from a shared colleague or from previous experience with the company, this is a good place to mention it. Essentially, outline what you’ll tell the reader in the rest of the letter. Entice your reader to continue reading.

Body paragraphs: The body is the meat and potatoes of the cover letter. These paragraphs can be written in a variety of ways, but the main points you’ll want to hit are:

• Show them that you’ve done your research. A decent cover letter discusses qualifications. A great cover letter discusses why you are a good match for the company and the position. This does not mean reiterating statements from their website. Rather, you should show that you’ve carefully read the job description and that you understand it in the context of what they’re trying to accomplish. Consider this: rarely, if ever, does a company post a job and hire someone just because. There is almost always some kind of deficit or issue driving the job posting. It’s a tall order- I know- but your job in writing the cover letter is to discern what the employer is looking for and show that you can be the solution to their problem. Of course, you may not have much background knowledge about the company while you’re writing your cover letter. That’s okay. If you can, do some sleuthing around on the web and through your contacts to try to get into the hiring manager’s mind.

• Share relevant information about your background and skills. Sell yourself. Don’t simply reiterate your resume content—in your cover letter, you can expound on the bullet points you mentioned in your resume. It’s your chance to contextualize your experiences and tell a story. Carefully consider what kind of a candidate the employer is looking for and speak to that description.

• Be personable. Think about it: if you were choosing candidates to interview, would you call a candidate who wrote a stale, sterile cover letter? Or would you be more likely to consider someone who was able to professionally integrate their personality into their application materials? Depending on the position, it may be relevant to share your goals, or a personal story that would allow the hirer to see you as a fit for the company.

Conclusion: Reiterate the main points of what you wrote in the body of the letter. Thank them and be genuine. If there is specific information you were asked to include about salary requirements, your availability, etc., this is a good place to do it. If you state that you will follow up with them, make sure to actually do so.

Formatting: I always advise clients to format their cover letter the same way as their resume. You can even use your resume heading in your cover letter. If you’re sending your cover letter as an attachment, shoot for one full page. If you’re sending a cover letter in the body of an email, a good rule of thumb is that all your text should be visible in one screen length.

Write, edit, repeat!: After you’ve finished writing a first draft of the letter, try reading it as though you are the hiring manager. Have you answered all the questions and prompts asked in the job posting? Are your examples pointed and relevant? Does the cover letter complement the resume? Would you call you for an interview? Hopefully, the answer to all of those questions is a resounding “Yes!”

Rachel Pryzby a career coach, resume writer, and owner of Resume by Rachel.

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Terri Tierney Clark

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