Elements of a Cover Letter

Following the header and company contact information, your letter has three primary components: the introduction, the body, and the closing. Each has a distinct purpose.

Writing Preparation

Before you begin, make some notes about what you want to highlight. Which of your accomplishments best position you for the particular job? What aspects of your personality do you want to express? Instead of trying to craft the perfect letter the first time, just start writing. You can edit later. For now, write ideas as they come to you. It may also be helpful to take some time after you have written your first draft of a letter. Even leaving the writing for a few hours or overnight can give your mind a chance to rest. You never know when the right wording may come to you.

It may also be helpful to start with the easier parts of the letter first. There is no rule saying you have to write the letter in the order that it is read. If the closing line comes more naturally to you, start with that. Sometimes it helps get ideas flowing just to fill in the name of the addressee and company.

One of the more difficult parts of the letter to write will be the body, where you will do the hardest "selling." This section will highlight the specific accomplishments and skills that you offer an employer. There is a common phrase used by creative writers: "Show, don't tell." For example, rather than telling a reader that the main character is angry, the writer might show it by having the character throw a plate at a wall. The action does the "talking" and is much more engaging for the reader. Similarly, when presenting your accomplishments and skills, focus on the showing. Rather than telling your reader that you work well with others, show how you led your project team to a second, multimillion dollar contract by serving as project manager. As with your résumé, focus on using action verbs. If using a bullet list, ensure that each line opens with a similar structure, which is often an action verb followed by the result or outcome of that action.

No matter what format you decide to use for your cover letter, keep your writing tight and concise. Wherever possible, cut, cut, and cut some more. Take this example from the local news: "Over the next year, one in three people over the age of 65 will suffer a fall." In other words, "One third of those over 65 will fall next year." Seventeen words are cut down to 10. Whenever possible, use one word instead of two or more. For example, instead of writing "in an accurate manner," write "accurately." Use active phasing as much as possible. Also focus on shorter words instead of longer ones. Instead of "utilize," say "use." Do not try to impress your reader by scouring the thesaurus for words that you think will make you look smarter. You will only end up with a jumble of words that confuses your reader, if your reader stays with your letter long enough to get confused. Because your letter is more likely to be skimmed rather than read through thoroughly (at least the first time), you will lose your reader in a matter of seconds if you opt for lengthy, perplexing, and superfluous declarations.

The Introduction

The opening of your letter is where you want and need to hook your reader. Just as an advertisement seeks to gain your attention, so too should the opening of the letter. This does not mean you need to open with grandiose claims or statements; however, when possible, include information to let the reader know why you are writing and how you can meet the needs of the reader.

To avoid redundancy, and to get to the “good stuff” more quickly, you can use the subject line of an e-mail to state the position you’re applying for, and a "RE:" line or similar header between the company contact information and the opening paragraph on a hard copy letter. You can even add a brief description of your qualifications in these lines, noting that you’re an experienced [job title/position] with 10+ years’ expertise.

Avoid beginning your letter with, "Please see the enclosed résumé in response to your posting on Monster for the position of X listed on January 1st." It’s not much of an attention-grabber is it? Using the subject and "RE:" lines, you can include the position title at the top of your letter and then focus on selling yourself in your opening paragraph.

The Body

Once you have your reader's attention, you have the opportunity to dazzle your reader with what you can offer a prospective employer. The body of your letter will focus on your accomplishments. This is where you will review your résumé and company research. Avoid repeating word-for-word what your résumé says; find a way to reword your accomplishments, or introduce new ones related to the specific position you are aiming for. Because you will have done some company research, you can gear your letter toward the needs of that company, showing how you are a perfect match for the position. Demonstrate that you are familiar with the company and that you are the right person for the job. The idea here is that what you have done in the past is a reflection of what you will do in the future—show off your abilities and how you can take what you know to move forward.

When writing the body of the letter, aim to keep it tight and concise. Today’s reader will not take the time to read several dense paragraphs. A short lead-in paragraph, followed by bulleted or similarly listed information can be a great way to include what you need to include while effectively drawing attention to your achievements. Let your results stand out.

The Conclusion

The conclusion of your letter is where you explicitly state why you are writing—to gain an interview. Ask for the interview or state that you look forward to meeting in person. Rather than "I look forward to hearing from you," try something along the lines of "I will be contacting you within the next week to see when we can meet." Is it more aggressive? Yes. Do you want the interview? If you prefer something a little more subdued, a closing along the lines of "I look forward to speaking with you to further explain what I bring to the position" is better than a vague ending. When composing your conclusion, take into consideration your personality and the position. Those in sales and marketing may want to use a more assertive approach that reflects how they will be assertive with making new contacts. Regardless of the position, if you say you will be contacting the person in the next week, you need to make the call. (This approach also gives you legitimate reason to bypass the person answering the phone, because you can now say that so-and-so is expecting your call.)

Layout

How you format the letter will depend on your preferences, the type of position, and the information that needs to be included.

A paragraph style is exactly how it sounds. Each part of the letter is written in paragraph form. Just because you are using this form, however, does not give you license to ramble on. Keep your sentences short, but vary the length of each just a little. Keep your paragraphs short as well. Remember to keep your reader in mind. If your job were to screen applicants, reading tens or even hundreds of cover letters per week, would you take the time to wade through a lengthy letter? Screeners look for any reason to put your application in the rejection pile. Do not make it easy for them.

Cover letters using a bulleted list typically open and close with a paragraph style; the body of the letter is presented in bullets. Again, do not make the mistake of copying bulleted points directly from your résumé and pasting them into your cover letter. Hiring managers do not need or want to read your information twice. Variations can include a mix of paragraphs, lists, and even charts or graphs. Again, let the position and your information guide the format.

Tone

Your résumé does not give a hiring manager much insight into you as a person, what your personality is like, or why you are corresponding with him or her. Your cover letter, on the other hand, is an opportunity to show that you are a real person. While it is important to remember that your cover letter is still a business document, you can use this opportunity to give a glimpse of who you are. How you present yourself and what you show your reader will be up to you; however, there are some things to keep in mind.

Both your personality and the position for which you are applying will factor into the tone you use in your cover letter. Someone applying for a demanding sales position would be wise to use a more assertive tone in their letter than someone applying for a social services position in a long-term healthcare facility. You can use these factors to your advantage by determining what you want your reader to know about you. Are you an outgoing, strong personality who is not afraid of cold calling prospects? Do you convey a warm and comforting tone, showing an ability to communicate with families who are facing difficult end-of-life decisions? What can you demonstrate through your personality and attitude that can help polish your first impression? Take the time to experiment with how you write your letter and how you approach your prospective employer. Ask a few friends or colleagues (as appropriate) to read the letter. What impression do they get from your presentation? Take notes and make adjustments until your readers are left with the impression you want to leave.