How to Write a Professional Cover Letter

Updated on December 17, 2017
Michael-Duncan profile image

Michael has been employed in various local and international business organizations and governments.

A cover letter is a business document in every sense of the word. It therefore must be treated as such. It serves to introduce and complement the resume as well as academic and professional credentials. The letter presents the employer a glimpse of you as a person - how well you communicate, and your professionalism as a candidate.

Structure and Precision

The purpose of the cover letter is to request for an interview. It helps the employer determine whether to proceed with your resume and other credentials you have submitted in order to learn more. This is the starting phase of your application. Therefore ensure yours is purposeful, specific and objective. Avoid generalizations and focus on the title or position you are seeking after and are qualified in. Steer clear of making statements like I am interested in working in Sales. While it is commendable to aspire for a role in sales, it is a such an extensive field. The inevitable question will be which sales position exactly are you after? Another related error worth evading is the indication that you are interested in any open position the company has available. This will dampen your prospects by making you appear general, unfocused and unprofessional. Be precise about the direction of your career, such that it leaves no doubt in the mind of the prospective employer.

Remember, employers are aware of the fact that many prospects have no idea of what they really want to pursue, so accordingly they are quick to discard the unripe fruit from the basket. Including goals and agendas which are not in line with what the business is sourcing for currently is a sure way of getting your application rejected. Even if you have the education, knowledge, skills and experience, there is need for you to convey them in writing such that it is clear the business is not there to meet your wants or expectations, but rather you are putting yourself forward to serve its cause. The prospective employer needs to see convincing proof of how the objectives of the organization are going to be achieved by your recruitment.

In her book, Cover Letter for Dummies, Joyce Lain Kennedy points out the following: The resume focuses on you and the past. The cover letter focuses on the employer and the future. Tell the hiring professional what you can do to benefit the organization in the future. Avoid describing how being employed or working for the company will boost your career and professional development. This may be accurate, but it is not the purpose of the cover letter. The aim here is to communicate in summary, the change and innovativeness you intend to contribute to the business, and not the other way around. Remember the cover letter is addressing two crucial questions: the reason why you are seeking this particular job and what you intend to do to benefit the company or organization. Place yourself in the mind of the employer and view the letter from his perspective. Does it meet his revealed expectations as per the announced position?

Start by typing a draft on your training, education and the experience you have acquired over the years. Add details of your personal abilities, attitude, characteristics and gifts which complement the role of the job that you are applying for. Stick to the qualities and accomplishments that showcase you as being the best qualified person for the job. This is your unique selling point (USP). If you have not been employed or had a job before, write about how your background, past experiences or what you have been exposed to in life can help to add value to the role. This initial procedure is not to have a perfect script, but to just jot down the main points. After you have finished, it will be easy to later join them together into sentences and form paragraphs.

Due to the urgency that job-seekers sometimes have, it is tempting to mass-distribute a resume and cover letter to as many businesses and employment agencies as possible. The reasoning behind this is that the more people who get to receive the job-seeker’s documents, the higher the chances of getting hired. In the past, I have used this method myself to submit over a hundred applications, with little effort at properly adapting each to suit the job being offered. Needless to say, I did not succeed, despite months of persistence and the fact that I had some very good qualifications. Just as is the case with the resume, the cover letter is not for duplication and mass redistribution like a media blitz, neither is it to be randomly broadcasted in the hope of netting a few prospective employers out of the masses. The contents of the letter need to be carefully customized and tailored to fit the job opportunity at hand and the specific requirements of the business. Blasting your cover letter and resume everywhere is not a good idea, as it reduces your chances for a genuine prospect. Take time instead to make each application specifically relevant to the context of the job offer and the business.

Typography and Readability

The cover letter should be written in clear language without any ambiguity. It is not an essay about your professional life, so remember to keep it brief. The ideal letter will contain a wealth of information about you without using too many words. The primary aim of the cover letter is to introduce the resume for which additional details are reserved.

Surveys have shown that the recruiter or hiring manager spends about 15 seconds perusing each cover letter and resume. Therefore, there is need for you to display excellent writing in order to leave a lasting impression. If you have written it well and it has an arresting quality, the employer will be inclined to come back and review it again.

Be meticulous in proofreading the letter to ensure no typographical mistakes exist and that the sentence construction, grammar and punctuation are all accurate. This includes making sure that the company name, department and address are spelled correctly and that you are using the proper legal name of the company and not an abbreviation or an acronym. The objective of making your cover letter thorough, comprehensive and professional is to make you stand out from the crowd and be noticeable. It is to leave the impression that you are not just one among many candidates or even a good one at that, but the only one for the position.

After you have completed writing the letter, don’t dispatch it immediately. Just as is the case with your resume, leave it for a while, then come back later and review it from the beginning. You may likely find there are still corrections to be made and additional areas of improvement. Stepping away from the work will enable your mind to acquire a different perspective such that you will be able to see more clearly what had not been so obvious before.

Do not submit your application until you have thoroughly understood the job description and ensured that the content of both your cover letter and resume match the details requested. A good indicator of the effectiveness of your application is how thoroughly it answers the requirements advertised for the position. Still, not every ability or quality the employer desires in a candidate will be listed in the advert or description. There are other professional skills called employability skills which are not so obvious, but are just as relevant. These include: problem-solving, planning and organizing, learning, enterprise, teamwork, discipline, self-management, initiative, technology and communication.

It is necessary to include your skills in these fields within the cover letter and resume so that your presentation is complete and the employer is provided with all the details he or she needs to make a conclusive decision. Employers would like you to demonstrate a balance between your professional and personal life. So beyond showing your work-related skills, education and experience, let your cover letter speak about your integrity, flexibility, reliability, credibility, and motivation.

Marketing You

Before you create the cover letter and submit it to prospective employers, take some time to evaluate yourself in the eyes of the business. Consider the state of your LinkedIn profile, your social networking accounts and profiles, the type of email addresses you use, and so on. Your identity and reputation online as well as data that exists in cyberspace about you speaks volumes concerning the type of person you really are.

The language and construction of the letter should be such that it portrays you as someone who knows your field well and that there is substance in what you have to offer the company. Don’t write just to provide information, but to compel a reaction. As noted earlier, avoid trying to give all the details as this will make it too long, but write it in such a way that the reader will want to call you in for an interview and find out more. Remember, in the words of Sophia Amoruso, who was one of the world's most successful fashion industry icons: A cover letter can connect the dots between where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re trying to go.

Include phrases that describe your field of work and your specialized experience plus one or a few outstanding accomplishments in summarized form. However, don't just stick to professional qualifications, but include personal characteristics as well. Use facts or statistics of your best achievements in the past. Remember the contents of the letter should be convincing such that they move the employer to realize what a fateful flaw they would be making by failing to contact you. Show the business that the search for a candidate ends with you.

Another method you could use is to repeat what the employer has indicated in the job advert as a description in bold in the second or third paragraph. Ensure you have studied thoroughly the requirements of the job before writing the cover letter as this is a direct response to what the business wants in a candidate. If you are still not completely comfortable with this, you could hire a professional to help you write the ideal cover letter to accompany your resume. Alternatively, you could purchase books or research online guides or materials which to help with the composition and presentation of your cover letter.

Briefly illustrate something you did in line with your chosen profession that brought about positive results and changed a situation for the better. Ask yourself, what was the specific challenge involved and how did you make a positive change? For example, if you have a unique gift in sales and have closed multiple deals in the past, you could convey this aspect concisely in the letter, using glowing examples. If interior design is your thing, throw in a statement or two concerning the places where your designs have been featured, be they in shows or in actual completed architectural constructions. Don't describe yourself as a good or influential team manager. Show instead how as a proven leader you have leveraged abilities and skills to inspire others into action. Avoid the use of generic adjectives and instead be thorough in your description such that there is no room for speculation.

So put in captivating statements, but don’t oversell yourself. Ensure that what you write is honest and sincere and can be proven later by the employer if the need arises. Remember that you are doing the work of a marketer and the product you are selling is you. The cover letter puts you in the driving seat to put together a unique promotion. Remember it is an introduction, but you are the final product! The content should move the reader to the extent that he or she wants to meet you in person. As Daniela Bachelder puts it in her book, How to Brand Yourself:You can’t market yourself as a brand without defining your core values and characteristics that are distinguishable and unique to you.

Enlist the opinions of others. Involve your family members, relatives and friends in your decision to pursue a new career position and let them review your cover letter and check if there is room for improvement. These are your immediate socializing agents who can equip you well with a clear picture of where you stand in terms of strengths and weaknesses, so seize this opportunity and use it to your advantage!

How to Create a Video Cover Letter

Outlining the Cover Letter

1. Contact Information and Date

If you are using the US format, your contact information and the date should appear on the top left side of the page. If you are using the UK format, these should be aligned at the top right side. Double-check to ensure that the details you include here are accurate, correctly spelled and up to date, i.e. address, email, mobile phone, fax number, website (if available). This curbs the rejection of the application on grounds of your being unreachable.

Your full name

Your full mailing address

Your City, state, and zip

Your Telephone number(s)

Your Email address

Today’s date

Example:

Matthew Powers

1453 Purple Grove

New York, NY 65450

(333) 444-5555

September 21, 2017

2. Prospective employer’s contact information

Whenever you communicate with the employer, remember to use their full name and address without abbreviations. Ensure that the person you are addressing the letter to is responsible for the hiring or recruitment process.

Your addressee’s full name

Their professional title

The organization name

Their mailing address

Their city, state and zip

Example:

Mrs. Clare Herford

Executive Director

Thrive Systems Inc.

8723 Suffork Road

New York, NY 8888

3. Salutation

If you are unaware of the recipient’s identity, avoid addressing the letter with: To Whom it May Concern, To Human Resources, Dear Team, etc. These do not come across as being professional. If it is not possible to establish who the recruiter or hiring manager is either by research and contacting the company, then it is preferable to start with Ladies and Gentlemen. However, the best option whenever possible, is to personalize the contents by including the recipient's names as this avoids giving the impression that the letter lacks originality or is being used for mass distribution. Alternatively, you can skip the salutation altogether and start typing the rest of the content.

Dear Mr. (full name here) or Ms. (full name here)

Example:

Dear Mrs. Herford

4. Title

Re: Application for Employment as (...insert position and reference)

5. Opening paragraph

The cover letter should be attention-grabbing and appealing in the very first paragraph so as to motivate the prospective employer to read through and get into your resume. Here is where you introduce yourself, engage the reader’s attention and clarify the job you are applying for. Depending on the nature of the application, in this section, you can either name a job opening that is already advertised, request for one, or enquire if an opening is available. Capture the reader’s attention with your opening statement and then refer to the position. Note that if the opening line is generic and tasteless, the recipient will not feel motivated to pay attention to the rest of the documents you have submitted.

Was the job advertised? Then hint on how you came to learn about it; for example: This is in reference to your advertised position for Managerial Assistant as advertised on your employment portal. If you found the ad in the classified section of a newspaper, indicate the name of the newspaper and the date. The same applies to magazines and periodicals. Whether it was posted on the vacancy board of the office, or you got it through an employment agency, or from a telephone conversation, make sure you share the source with the recipient.

6. Secondary paragraph(s)

Highlight the key points that would convince a prospective employer to call you in for an interview. Describe your education, work experience, attitude, and personal skills. Here, you can include your interest in the company or your chosen field of work as well as exceptional or outstanding roles you have had in previous positions. As you are clarifying why you are best suited for the opportunity, be unique and original and don’t make this a shorter version or duplicate of your resume! You can highlight the special features of your resume, but don’t attempt to summarize the resume here.

If the employer has indicated that your salary expectations should be included, you can enter the details in this section. In order to be as relevant and practical as possible, research the salary that is compatible with the position. You could check out sites such as Salary.com and PayScale.com. It is recommended to indicate the expected salary in form of a range instead of a single figure (for example "$45,000 - $50,000" instead of "$45,000").

Bear in mind that you could also use a bulleted format, or what is known as the Executive Summary instead of the standard paragraph format. This can be used in the case where you prefer the employer to view the main points of your communication at a glance.

7. Closing paragraph

This should be written in such a way as to elicit a response from the prospective employer. Remember than even if you have not included references due to confidentiality reasons, you can still assure the reader that they are available upon request. Here, you could also indicate the date and time you intend to contact the company in order to schedule an interview. Or if you prefer to have them make the decision, let them know they can reach out to you in order to arrange an appointment at a time best suited or feasible to them.

8. Signing Off

Conclude the letter in the order listed below. "Enclosure" indicates to the reader that there are additional attachments letter. Here you can specify what supportive documents you have attached to your application, for example resume, academic and professional certificates. Alternatively, you could leave it blank.

Yours sincerely, Sincerely yours, or Yours truly

Your typewritten name

Your handwritten signature

Enclosure (Encl.)

Examples of Cover Letter Phrases

  1. This is in reference to your advertisement in the New York Times dated April 24th 2017.
  2. As my resume shows, my education, experience and achievements match the requirements of this position.
  3. During my second year of working with XYZ Incorporated, I initiated developments which resulted in an addition of 43 new clients to the business for the period that ended…
  4. Please accept this letter as an expression of my interest in the position of...
  5. I believe my skill-sets are correctly aligned with your requirements.
  6. I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss my potential contributions to your company.
  7. I look forward....to hearing back from you....OR.....to your reply.

Applying Via Email

Before you dispatch the cover letter and accompanying documents, ensure you familiarize yourself with the submission guidelines of the company. It is common practice that when submitting an application via email, the cover letter is either included in the body of the email or as an attachment together with the resume. However, if they have specified that you must include the cover letter and resume in the body of the email, then do not send it as an email attachment. Moreover, some will accept applications for unsolicited jobs, while others are strictly against it as they view it as a form of spamming. So acquaint yourself with the guidelines thoroughly.

Also, check whether they have mentioned specific content they want to see included in the cover letter. Consider the format that has been specified by the company. For example, some prefer that documents be submitted in MS Word text format, others as PDF. Some would like to have both. Find out if the company has specified which document version they would like to have the application sent in, e.g. Adobe X. Bear in mind that there are certain cases where the documents need to be forwarded both electronically and as hardcopies.

If you are applying via email, it is advisable not to fill out the “to” field until you have completed and proof-read the contents thoroughly. This is to avoid the risk of erroneously sending an incomplete email and dashing your hopes of a professional first impression. This can also disqualify you from being called into an interview. Ensure also that any communication you send is transmitted from a computer that has been scanned and cleaned of all viruses.

In case you are applying to several companies, avoid saving your cover letter and resume with a name that shows it, for example “Translation Jobs Cover Letter1”. This will give the impression that you are not very clear concerning the career pathway you desire to pursue and are experimenting, therefore your application will lack professional appeal. Instead, you can save the cover letter and resume with your name and the name of the company for which you are applying, for example “Matthew_Powers_Cover Letter_Thrive_systems.pdf”. Indicate also, in the body of the email, the version of the document you have used, for example MS Word 2013.

In the Subject line of the email, it is necessary to include the reason for the communication, the job position for which you are applying and the reference number indicated in the job advert, for example: Re: Application for Employment as IT Support Consultant (REF NO: 555550000055).

Be careful about submitting copies of sample letters that are available online. While these may provide a good structure or formatting ideas for you to draw from, they are not original, and chances are that employers have already seen many of them since they process countless applications at a given time. Since these will not strike the employer as being impressive or unique, move past them and compose your own original letter. Even though copying someone else’s letter is easier and faster, it is not worth losing your credibility as a candidate because the employer recognized your wording as something they have seen before. That said, some useful cover letter examples exist online which can be studied as a guide. For instance, check out this list of over sixty examples that was compiled by Susan Ireland.

Unless otherwise instructed, don’t limit yourself only to sending out emails. It has been stated that 75% of traffic that goes to generic addresses like careers@ or info@ is junk mail. Therefore, it is likely that your application may also end up in the junk folder along with many others, while you wait in vain to receive a response from the company. Likewise, don’t place too much stock on clicking on the ‘Submit your Resume’ or ‘Apply for this Job’ button next to online adverts. Go to the next step and try to also connect with the business offline.

Applying Via Post or Fax

If you are sending out your application by post or fax, have the documents arranged such that your cover letter comes first, your resume comes second, and your supportive documents last. Do not staple the hardcopies together as some employers find it cumbersome and time-consuming if they have to un-staple all the hundreds of documents they receive in form of job applications.

The recommended length of the cover letter is at least three paragraphs and it should always fit in one page. Don’t include any fancy colors or fonts and avoid using colored paper. Using these methods may make your cover letter stand out, but not in the right way. So simply stick to black, regular font on white paper.

If your documents will be delivered by hand or post, it would be good to head out to a stationery shop and procure a plastic folder with a pressure binder spine for your cover letter, resume and/or copies of your academic and professional certificates. This will enhance the presentation and make it all the more professional.

There are various nice designs you can use. However, ensure that the letter is in the correct format. The standard size used for cover letters is 8.5 by 11 inches. In terms of color, you can use white or light beige paper and preferably, print the letter using a laser printer. Older printer versions like dot matrix compromise the professionalism and quality of the document.

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Applying Via Online Portals

Though some companies have a HR email address, they also specify in the submission guidelines that they do not accept applications sent via email but only those submitted through their online portal. Other companies have their own pre-designed templates hosted on sites where the applicant is limited to only providing details asked. In this case, you would have to copy/paste the cover letter you have prepared into the description or dialog box provided on the site of the company. Sometimes companies prefer this method as a security precaution against opening their systems to viruses that are transmitted via email attachments.

Some job-seekers find it better to have their resume hosted on a website such that they only need to send the link to the prospective employer when making an application. The employer is then able to access the details from the linked website and download any supportive documents they wish to review. This method can be helpful due to the fact that the formatting is maintained and what the employer sees exactly what has been posted by the job-seeker. However, one disadvantage is that it would be difficult to customize the application for a specific employer if the same link is being used to apply for positions in other companies at the same time. Further, there is the risk that personal data will be exposed to multiple parties who may have nothing to do with the job offer, but would rather use the data for malicious purposes.

Powerful Words for Your Cover Letter

 
 
A
Accomplished, Advertised, Arranged, Achieved, Advised, Assembled, Acquired, Analyzed, Assisted, Adapted, Appraised, Audited, Adjusted, Approved, Augmented, Administered, Arbitrated, Authored.
B
Budgeted, Built.
C
Calculated, Conceived, Coordinated, Catalogued, Conceptualized, Copyrighted, Charted, Conducted, Corrected, Closed (A Deal), Consolidated, Corresponded, Coached, Constructed, Counseled, Compared, Consulted, Created, Compiled, Contacted, Cultivated, Completed, Controlled, Composed, Convinced.
D
Debugged, Detected, Discovered, Decreased, Determined, Dispatched, Delegated, Developed, Distributed, Delivered, Devised, Documented, Designated, Diagnosed, Designed, Directed.
E
Edited, Enhanced, Examined, Elicited, Enlarged, Exceeded, Eliminated, Established, Executed, Empowered, Estimated, Expanded, Engineered, Evaluated, Explained.
F
Fired, Flagged, Formulated, Founded.
G
Gathered, Generated, Guided.
H
Headed, Hired.
I
Identified, Initiated, Interpreted, Ignited, Innovated, Interviewed, Implemented, Inspected, Invented, Improved, Installed, Inventoried, Increased, Instituted, Influenced, Instructed.
J
Justified.
L
Lectured, Lobbied, Logged, Led.
M
Maintained, Mediated, Motivated, Managed, Modified, Manufactured, Monitored.
N
Negotiated.
O
Obtained, Ordered, Overhauled, Operated, Organized.
P
Patented, Prepared, Programmed, Performed, Presented, Promoted, Persuaded, Presided, Proposed, Placed, Processed, Provided, Planned, Produced, Purchased, Posted, Proficient.
Q
Quantified, Qualified.
R
Recognized, Reorganized, Researched, Recommended, Repaired, Restored, Reconciled, Replaced, Reviewed, Reduced, Reported, Revised, Referred, Represented, Regulated, Rescued.
S
Scheduled, Sold, Suggested, Screened, Solved, Supervised, Selected, Steered, Supplied, Served, Streamlined, Systematized, Simplified, Studied.
T
Taught, Tracked, Transcribed, Tested, Trained, Translated, Traced.
U
Updated, Utilized.
V
Vended.
W
Won, Wrote.

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