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Student Life

How To: Write a Cover Letter

Kris Vetter | Managing Editor | 03/30/2011

Whether you’re applying for a summer stint, a once-in-a-life-time internship, or your first job in the real world, cover letters are a must. A cover letter is the first (and sometimes only) impression you have on a potential employer. A good cover letter piques interest and gives memorable specifics in addition to highlighting your qualifications.

Before you write the body of your letter, setting up a proper format is beneficial. Since most employers review a steady stream of applications, you want to place information in their proper places so it is easy to find. At the top of the page, center your full name (middle initial is optional), street address (including state and zip code), phone number and email address on three lines.

After your contact information, leave a line a white space and left align the date by spelling out the month, using an Arabic numeral for the day, and including the year: March 30, 2011. Leave a few more lines of white space before listing the information of the application recipient: full name, title, company, full street address.

You’re about to begin your letter, but don’t forget to address your recipient. Avoid writing “To whom it may concern.” If you browse the job ad or the company’s website, you should be able to find the name of the person who reviews applications. A simple “Dear Mr./Ms. Doe,” will suffice. Never use “Mrs.” since this assumes that the woman is married. You may use a comma or a colon after this address, although a colon is becoming more popular.

Now for the body. The rest of your letter should also be left aligned, without indents at the beginning of paragraphs. Instead, leave a blank line to signify new paragraphs.

The first paragraph acts as an introduction and should be only 2-3 sentences long. This is where you tell the potential employer what position you are applying for, using the specific title. Break out your networking skills and mention a mutual contact, if you have one (you should ask/tell your mutual contact that you are referencing them, in case the employer mentions it to them). Keep this paragraph brief and concise, but attention-grabbing.

The second section of your letter should cover your qualifications. When writing this section, keep a copy of the job listing handy so you can make connections between your abilities and their desired qualifications. Don’t just list skills. Instead, show how you’ve gained them through experience and how they will benefit the company. Use as many specifics as possible, such as your schooling or job-related experience. Do not just repeat your resume; interpret it.

In this section you should also stress how you can help the employer, not the other way around. After all, businesses are concerned with improving their company, not improving individuals who might just use the job to get somewhere better (the exception to this is internships). If you want to make a deeper impression, reference something you found while researching their website that wasn’t listed on the job listing, but is still applicable. This way, the potential employer knows you researched the company instead of blindly applying.

You should also break up this section into several paragraphs, or even bullets, which is easier to read than a big block of text. Remember that cover letters are only one page long, so keep this in mind while writing about your qualifications. It’s easy to indulge when you are talking about yourself. But remember that a cover letter is just a highlight. You can go into further detail when you get the interview.

In your final paragraph, thank the recipient for considering you for the position. Tell them exactly how and when you will be following up; two weeks is typical, but if you are emailing or faxing the application one week is acceptable. Offer to provide further information if they require it.

End your cover letter with a simple complimentary close, such as “Regards,” “Sincerely,” or “Respectfully yours,” followed by a comma. If you are mailing or faxing your cover letter by post, leave four blank lines before typing your name. Sign above your printed name in blue pen, so the potential employer knows the cover letter isn’t just a copy. If you are emailing your cover letter, type your full name two lines after the closure. You can also include your email address and phone number, if desired.

Hold on, you aren’t done yet. Re-read your cover letter and look for any informal phrasing, misspellings, or punctuation errors. You want your letter to sound and look professional and educated. If you send off a letter with errors, your potential employer will notice your lack of attention to detail and communication skills — which are typically two skills an employer wants an employee to have.

Once your letter is spotless, send it off. And don’t forget to enclose your resumé!