Cents and SensibilityA Guide to Cover Letters – With Colors!Mary Dacuma

Last week, I said that I would explain how to craft a good cover letter and thank you letter. In the process of doing this, I realized that these individual topics required more explanation than I anticipated. In an effort to avoid overwhelming amounts of info, I’ve decided to focus on cover letters this week and thank you letters next week. Sorry! Don’t be mad. I shall pay you back with interest – after thank you letters, I will cover tricky questions you might often hear in job interviews, rounding out an unintentional, but nonetheless helpful job-hunting series. See? It all works out. Now about those cover letters…

Are cover letters necessary?
It depends (worst answer, I know). I’ve heard recruiters say they never read it. I’ve heard some say they skim it to make sure it sounds professional and fits the job description, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I’ve seen instances when a great cover letter led to a job interview. And I’ve had some colleagues email me cover letters just to tell me how horrible they are.

It’s hard to predict how important your cover letter will be to the person who is reading it. For all you know, it might be forwarded to a few other people before you are called in for an interview. So as a general rule, unless you are told not to, include a cover letter and make sure it is well-written. If you are applying for a position that requires a lot of writing, expect that your cover letter will be taken into heavy consideration. In all other situations, you are still better off having a cover letter that nobody reads rather than having a bad cover letter or no cover letter when it actually mattered.

How do you write a cover letter?
Your cover letter is you initial impression and your introduction as a living, breathing applicant, not just a resume posted on a job site. Thus, it is important to have a solid cover letter that answers the question, “Why are you the best fit for this job?” You can format this like a business letter and include an intro, body and conclusion. As a sample, here is the cover letter I wrote for the position I have now. I color coded the sections to help break it down.

Date – Make sure this is the right date. Sometimes we forget to change this between copying and pasting from old cover letters. To be safe, if you are using Microsoft Word, insert the date and make sure it auto-updates.

Salutation – If you don’t know to whom you should address your letter, “Dear Sir or Madam:” is fine. If you do have a contact, please make sure you have his/her name spelled properly.

Intro – this is the most important paragraph because depending on who reads it, this might be the only paragraph he/she reads. Introduce yourself. State the position for which you are applying. You may want to mention how you heard about the opening, especially if it was through a special alumni database or through a connection with the company.

Thesis – This sentence sums up why they should hire you. I strongly suggest highlighting traits that are taken from the job description. For example, if the company wants a detail-oriented, organized event planner and you tell them that you are highly creative with strong leadership skills, you’ve given them two great traits that have nothing to do with what they wanted. Your other qualities are certainly assets. But you want to show that you’re not just the best person for the job, you are the best fit for the job.

Body – Take this opportunity to explain what’s on your resume, not just repeat what’s on your resume. Elaborate on your work history and responsibilities. Talk about specific projects and state how your experiences have prepared you to take on the position for which you are applying.

Closing – Reiterate why they should hire you. Mention any enclosures to your resume, including your resume, writing samples or any other requested materials. Then politely request an interview, thank the recipient for his/her consideration, cross your fingers and hope for the best!

Proofreading your cover letter
Proofread your cover letter multiple times. Then have a friend proofread it, too. It never hurts to have another pair of eyes when you have been staring at a document too long. Be particularly wary of the date, the salutation and the position/company/industry. Getting that last bit incorrect because you copied and pasted from a former cover letter all but destroys your chances of getting called in.

I hope I’ve provided some clarity on the topic. If you have questions or additional tips, feel free to post them in the comments. Best of luck!

Image by Shutterstock

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  1. I have also heard that a great salutation is “Dear Selection Committee”. thanks for the advice…cover letters are the most dreadful things in the world!

  2. Thanks for the advice! I think that cover letters are really helpful from an applicant perspective because they allow you to explain yourself.

  3. I’ve heard it recommended that your cover letter should show some more “personality” and state why you would be great for such and such job outside of your past experience/skills. There’s no point in writing all the same stuff that they can see in your resume, right? So use it as a way of showing what you know about the company and why you want to work there. What are your thoughts on that?

    • I agree. I wouldn’t completely cut out the information already on your resume. Your cover letter can explicitly illustrate why your past experience is important to the position. However, your cover letter is also a good time to explain what you can’t list on a resume at all. So if you know your personality and interests are aligned with the company or position, you should include that.

      Mary Dacuma | 5/30/2012 11:05 am
  4. At first I thought that the article meant I should write a coloured cover letter in order to make a better impression.. skills to erase from the cv: attention to details ;)