Attach as a separate document or include it in an e-mail? What file type? Does anyone actually read it? The customs of cover letters have changed since you learned the basics in 9th grade. Learn what to say and how to format your cover letters in the internet age.
11 June,2012By Megan McLachlan / Illustrations By Andrew Snavely
It used to be that cover letters were submitted in an envelope along with a resume–both in paper form–with a lag time of three to seven business days in the mail.
However, in today’s modern world, cover letters are as instantaneous as a text message, and sometimes just as vile, failing to represent the best possible version of people to prospective
employers. Because everything has an “e-” in front of it nowadays, there are some different cover letter customs than there were 30 years ago. Do you attach a cover letter? And what do you send in the text of the email if you attach one?
As an editor/hiring coordinator who gets her fill of cover letters, I can tell you that I’ve seen everything from writers applying for “shits and gigs” (their words, not mine) to honest but beautifully brief letters that make me wish I could send an e-hug.
Before I tell you how to write a cover letter, here are some attachment tips:
Personally, I prefer reading a cover letter in the body of an email and the resume being attached.
However, if a prospective employer recommends separate cover letter and resume attachments, in the text of the email, you should provide some sort of brief message mentioning who you are and what you are attaching to the email.
Never send a “blank” email with attachments. Would you open a box on your doorstep, addressed to no one?
Format can be Microsoft Word or PDF. PDFs are generally better because no one can edit them (plus, spell checker won’t pop up, highlighting mistakes you may have missed).
Finally, if attaching said cover letter, make sure it is separate from a resume attachment. It’s much easier for hiring coordinators to find a resume if they don’t have to scroll down through a cover letter to get to it.
Here are some tricks on how to write a killer cover letter:
1. Get the right format.
There are plenty of templates available to you just by a simple Google search. Typically, in the lefthand corner, you want your name/address/phone number/email address, and then a couple of space bars down, you want the name of the person of interest you’re writing to/his or her position/address. Then, a couple of more spaces down, greet the person of interest either as, “Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name]” or (if you don’t know the person’s name) “To Whom It May Concern.”
2. Be brief and to the point.
You don’t want to write Harry Potter fan fiction, here. State your name, maybe where you went to school, and how you came to learn about the position within the company. If you’re not sure whether a position is available, then be honest and write, “I’m inquiring about whether any such positions are available at this present time or in the near future.”
3. But don’t be so brief that the employer learns nothing about you.
“I found this ad on Craigslist and thought, ‘Why not?’ Yours, Megan.” A good rule of thumb is three paragraphs: an introductory one, one that goes into details of your capabilities and how they relate to the position, and then one final one that offers a conclusion of some sort.
4. Address what you can do for the company/prospective employer.
If you can access a job description, use that when it comes to listing your duties, matching up what you can do with what is required. This attention to detail will be appreciated by the reader, as it shows you did your homework. It can also help make you appear to be the most viable candidate. Your information aligns specifically to what they’re looking for, versus another applicant who includes skills or experience from a more generalized cover letter.
5. Tailor the letter to a specific company, position, and person (if able).
Think about how you feel when you receive a mass text message that says, “Merry Christmas, everyone!” It feels a little empty. Now imagine what it would be like to receive a cover letter written with the same vagueness: “I’d like to work for your company because I’m interested in whatever it is you guys do.” This could be sent to a million different companies; plus, it shows a lack of interest (see no. 4).
Find examples of previous company work that you like or can align yourself with or juxtapose the companies values with yourself in some way. Employers don’t just want someone who is capable of performing the job, they need someone who will be a good fit at the company.
6. Include Twitter/Facebook/social media information (if appropriate and relevant).
If you tweet about field-related topics, employers might appreciate your tweets and dedication to your career. Including your Twitter handle, Facebook link, and other related information can go right below your name in the signature line.
7. Have someone else take a look at your cover letter.
It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes on something. They might be able to catch errors you’ve glossed over.
When crafting a killer cover letter, think of it as like an “elevator pitch.” You want to get in as much pertinent information as the length of an elevator ride and floor them before you get to the ground level.
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Megan McLachlan currently resides in the Pittsburgh area where she freelance writes, drinks coffee, and obsesses over popular culture. She was an English major, but doesn't think she wasted her life. Yet. Her blog is megoblog.com.
Don’t stick to a template
You could easily Google “cover letter template” to get some ideas on how to write it. Don’t.
“You need to think about your audience,” said Kristen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of career and professional development at Harvard Business School. “Who’s reading it? How do you capture their attention enough so they move you from one pile to another?”
This is your time to show your communication skills and your personality. You must make the case that the other 99 percent of applicants don’t have what you have. Following a template, or otherwise putting little effort into making your letter stand out, suggests you’re just another applicant.
Don’t rehash your résumé
Focus on the organization you’re writing to and the job description of the open position. If you nail your cover letter, the hiring manager will end up reading your résumé anyway, so don’t waste precious space duplicating it by going down the list of where you’ve worked.
“It’s to complement your résumé, not repeat it,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Cover letters where you’re just rewriting the content of your résumé aren’t effective.”
Instead, you could list some specific examples of projects you’ve worked on, and explain what you learned from them and how that knowledge would apply to the open position. Or you could offer some new ideas, showing from the start that you understand the company’s goals and would bring creativity.
(Related: Getting past the first cut with a résumé that grabs digital eyes)
Don’t state the obvious
Read your letter again, and zap any clichés or platitudes that don’t say something meaningful about you, the position or the company.
As an example: Don’t say you’re a “hard worker.” Everyone says that, and it would be easy to lie about if you weren’t, making it a meaningless sentiment to include. It merely takes up space that could be better spent on something that actually sets you apart from the other candidates.
“It’s not even worth saying,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “You’ll show you’re a hard worker by going above and beyond in writing a letter.”
Do your research
This requires going past the first page of Google results.
You could go to a library to sift through professional databases that might have more information, or get coffee with someone who works at the company you’re applying to. Show a familiarity with recent projects, acquisitions and public statements. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a few sentences to show you’ve put time into it could go a long way.
If you’re not preparing for something as crucial as a cover letter, why would they trust you would prepare for an important meeting?
Focus on what you can offer them
A lot of applicants spend too much time talking about why they love the company, Ms. Fitzpatrick said.
“How many letters does Apple read that say, ‘I couldn’t live without my iPhone’? Probably a lot,” she said. “So you want to show you are unique and you’ve done your research.”
You do want to make it clear that you respect the company and explain why you’re interested, but the focus should be on what you can do for them.
“You want to avoid too many ‘I’ statements — ‘I know this,’ ‘I did this,’ ‘I can do X, Y or Z’ — because that’s too much about what you’re going to get out of this opportunity,” Mr. O’Neill said.
The company isn’t posting a job for charity, or to improve your life; they’re trying to fill a position they consider essential. Convince them that you’re the one who would most help them, not that you’d benefit most from it.
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