Cover Letter 101: Here Are The Basics…

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a letter of application and introduction, typically sent alongside a resume. It is essentially an applicant’s chance to explain why he or she is the best candidate for a job in a way that a resume cannot. It is a condensed summary of your resume or CV, and a prequel to an interview.

Do I NEED a cover letter?

Cover letters are a topic of debate these days, in that some believe they are an antiquated part of the application process that is no longer necessary, while others insist that you must have one. We are here to insist that you must have one.

The cover letter is the first impression that trumps all first impressions, because it can determine whether you move onto the next step of the vetting process. Recruiters will often use cover letters as a way of screening and weeding out applicants to determine who is worth inviting in for an interview. Recruiters know what they are looking for in an applicant, so if your cover letter is poorly written and lacks the selling points they need, or, if you don’t have a cover letter at all, you’d be making their job much easier. No cover letter… next!

How should a cover letter be structured and styled?

A cover letter can be written in a variety of ways but most often follows this general structure:

  • Who are you?
  • Why are you writing?
  • What experience and skills do you have that are particularly relevant and useful to the role you are applying for?
  • What do you want from the person you’re writing to?

Once that basic structure is drafted, you can tweak and tailor it to the scope of the job and to who you are as a professional. Your cover letter should not be longer than one page, which is why it is truly an art. The further you get in life, the more experience you will have, and the more you will have to say in your cover letter. Regardless, you should not let your letter drag on to page two… so choose wisely!

Remember, hiring managers often receive hundreds of applications, all of which they must sift through to find the right candidate. While they don’t necessarily mean to overlook someone who just might be the right person, they are less likely to give you their time if you take too much of theirs. You’ve got about 10 seconds to capture your reader before they may decide to move on. If they look at your letter and see that it is too wordy and goes onto the next page, you may have lost them, ending up in the “no” pile.

This may compel you to decrease your font size and adjust those margins to make space for your extra words… don’t! Keep your margins in place, use a standard font style such as Times New Roman or Calibri, and keep your font size between 10 and 12 points. Anything smaller than that will look inappropriate, and any unusual font will be difficult on the eyes. Less is more.

What to include in your cover letter?

How are you supposed to truly communicate why you deserve an interview when you are working with such a small amount of space? You only include the necessities…

  • Your name and contact information at the top of your letter.
  • The name and title of the person you are sending the letter to.
  • A brief introduction of yourself, why you are writing, and how you heard about the job.
  • Your experience, qualifications and skills that are relevant to the job you are applying to.
  • An example of an accomplishment that would add great value to the job.
  • A reference to your included resume, and your desire to meet in person for an interview.

Cover letter don’ts

There are major dos and don’ts in the world of cover letter writing, but sometimes the don’ts are more important than the dos. Why? You don’t want to give them reasons to not want you. That said…

Don’t…

  • Ask what the job pays or mention what your salary requirements are. Money should only be discussed after you have had a round or two of interviews and you are in the negotiation phase. Asking off the bat is tacky, plain and simple.
  • Read samples of cover letters online and copy them because they sound good. Recruiters are fully aware of what a generic cover letter looks like. Avoid clichés and stick to what’s true to you.
  • Dwell on every ounce of experience you have if it is not relevant to the job you are applying to. Hiring managers will be more impressed with what you can bring to the table than hearing about how many jobs you have worked, particularly when they have nothing to do with the one you want.
  • Give up all the details. Give the hiring manager something they can chew on, not chow on. Leave them wanting to know the rest of your story. A teaser, in a sense.
  • Be too dry and simple. You don’t want the hiring manager to get bored and move on before they’ve gotten to the bottom of the page.
  • Make your margins and font small just so you can fit more on the page.

It’s true, cover letters aren’t a walk in the park… but the more you practice, the better you will get! Stay tuned for a more in-depth overview of what SHOULD be included in your cover letter and how to communicate it, as well as a sample to get your wheels turning.