Advice for Writing Cover Letters

For someone new to the job market, it can be difficult to determine what to include on both the résumé and cover letter. You may feel that you have no experience to include, and your work experience could be non-existent or very limited.

I Put All My Best Information in the Résumé. What Do I Say in the Cover Letter?

When composing your cover letter, keep its purpose in mind: The cover letter is written to a specific position and asks for an interview. While you will probably not make many, if any, changes to your résumé each time you send it out, your cover letters will be different each time. Maintaining the right focus will help you determine what to include in the letter. The type of letter will also help you focus: Are you writing to a recruiter or to a blind advertisement? What you know of your audience will also help you focus your letter. Finally, your company research will guide you toward a direction appropriate for that particular opening or desired opening.

Just as you did when writing your résumé, review everything you learned about yourself through your assessments. What are your core values? What is your personality profile? What are your best skills? Why are you drawn to this profession? Put all this information in front of you, and review which aspects from your assessments are best suited to this particular position at this particular company. These are the areas you want to highlight in your cover letter.

Are you still feeling as though you are repeating exactly what is on your résumé? If you are feeling absolutely stuck, use the same information in the body of your letter, but word it differently. Look for information that you can summarize in one sentence instead of the two or three bulleted points you have on your résumé. Did you work summer jobs in sales? How much did you contribute to the bottom line overall? Were you repeatedly in leadership roles on school projects? Instead of listing each project, combine your experience in one pack-it-with-a-punch sentence. And if all else fails, focus hard on presenting your best accomplishments in a new way, but be wary of overusing your thesaurus.

As someone new to the working world, you will be focusing on your educational background, volunteer activities, summer or part-time jobs, and any clubs or memberships that may be applicable. Review your background in all of these areas to see which should be stressed in the letter you are composing.

How Long Should My Letters Be?

Generally speaking, aim for one page for all your correspondence. Of course, some circumstances may warrant more than one page, but if you find yourself going over the "limit," first review your letter for anything that can be cut.

Does everything you have written support your goal? If not, cut it out. Are you using wordy phrasing? For example, "due to the fact that" can be rewritten as "because." Look for any wording that can be rephrased. If you do find that you need more than one page, use discretion.

Are you one of those students who, on occasion, adjusted margin or font sizes to reach the minimum page requirement on a paper? Everyone adjusts these settings on occasion for various reasons. However, if you are trying to squish a very long letter onto one page and decide to use this option, be forewarned. Just as you want your résumé to have enough white space on the page to make it easier on the eye, so too do you want your cover letter to have adequate white space. Too many words will immediately turn off most readers and land your résumé in the reject pile before it is even read.

In general, aim for one-inch margins all around. You can adjust the top and bottom margins to as little as a half inch if necessary, but try not to reduce your right and left margins. Never use a font smaller than a 10 point. A range of 10 to 12 is acceptable. Anything smaller or larger makes you look amateurish. Watch for fancy fonts. Some print much larger or smaller than a typical font. When in doubt, err on the conservative side when it comes to fonts. And just as in your résumé, avoid mixing multiple fonts in the same letter. The exception is the header—you want to use the same header as you did on your résumé. Then use the same or a very similar font in the body of your letter that you used in the bulk of your résumé.

I've Been Staring at a Blank Page for Hours. Now What?

Writing a cover letter, or any type of letter, can be intimidating at first. The good news is that the more you do it, the better you will get. If you are really stuck, try a few of these tips to help you get going.

Freewriting

This method has been mentioned throughout this section. In this technique, you put the pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and just start writing. It does not matter what comes out; you can pull out the good stuff later. Just start writing, making notes on the points you want to make. As you write, more ideas will come to you as you go along. Try to ignore that internal voice that wants everything to come out perfectly the first time. This is just a time to help you put your thoughts on paper. Some you will use, and some will go in the trash. The point of this exercise is to get your brain moving and to get something out on the page—this in and of itself may help reduce many anxieties because you will be taking action rather than just worrying. When you are done, review what you have and pull out the best material. You can then go through your letter point by point, rewording as necessary. Remember that it may take a few drafts before you get your wording just the way you want it.

Record Your Letter

If you are more comfortable communicating orally than in writing, you may want to record yourself talking about what you want to say in your letter. You can then play it back and type it into your computer. When you are done, rearrange and reword as needed.

Review Samples

Read through sample cover letters. While you do not want to use anything word-for-word because it will not be your own "voice," you may find something that is close to what you want to say or that sparks an idea for the perfect wording.

Hiring a Professional

Some people simply feel that they cannot write a letter of the quality they want or need. If you choose to use a professional, find a member of a professional organization. You will also want to research any credentials held by the professional you choose.

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