Write the Perfect Cover Letter

After I review a student’s resume, I usually follow up with the question, “How do you feel about cover letters?” And many times, I get a response somewhere on the continuum from confusion to anxiety to full-blown dread. For all the worry resume writing inspires, cover letters frequently lead to even more stress and uncertainty. But don’t despair! The truth is that anyone can write a great cover letter. Follow this guide to write the perfect letter every time.

Cover Letters Are Simple

I actually think cover letters are way easier to write than resumes. The reason? Every cover letter is pretty much the same. You will, of course, target the specific job you want. But you don’t have to worry about whether you need a CV, writing amazing bullet points, or finding the perfect format. Cover letters are extremely formulaic. You just learn the rules and follow them–that’s it.

What Is a Cover Letter, Anyway?

A cover letter is a short professional document that explains why you are sending your resume to an employer. In olden times, before the age of the online application, your cover letter would be on top of–that is, cover–the real-life paper resume delivered to an employer by mail or in person. Even though this information is now usually exchanged in digital form, most job postings will ask that you submit a resume and cover letter with your application.

Basically, a cover letter is a brief essay arguing that you are a great candidate for the job. The idea is to make connections between the posting and your resume, demonstrate your professionalism and enthusiasm, and convince the employer to bring you in for an interview. Think of it like this: amid a sea of resumes, how is a hiring manager going to see the relevance of your skills, education and work experience to the job they are trying to fill? The cover letter is your chance to explain why your resume matters.

The 4 Pieces of Every Cover Letter

Every cover letter has four sections: header, intro, body and conclusion.

  1. Start with a header in business letter format. That means your contact info, the date, and then their contact info.
  2. In a short intro paragraph, introduce yourself, state your reason for writing, and give a quick, 1- to 2-sentence preview of why you’re a great pick for the job.
  3. In the body section, make connections between the job posting and the experiences on your resume. Focus in on a few key qualifications from the posting (often items from the “preferred qualifications” section, if there is one) and explain how the experiences on your resume show that you have what they’re looking for. This section is usually 1-2 paragraphs.
  4. Finally, in a brief conclusion, thank them for their time, look forward to future contact, and sign off.

Cover Letter Example

Here’s an example of a cover letter. Click to view larger.

Take a look at this example of a cover letter. Can you spot the four sections listed above? Note the header in business letter format, brief introduction, body section making connections between the job and the candidate’s experience, and the conclusion looking forward to further contact.

The candidate uses clear, professional language and isn’t afraid to talk up his strengths. The letter directly targets the job posting, highlighting what’s important for this specific job.

Tips for Writing the Perfect Cover Letter

  1. Target the posting. Your cover letter should directly adders the specific qualifications, skills and experience needed for this job. Use the language of the posting. Beware–it is very easy to spot a generic cover letter.
  2. Relate everything back to your main argument. Your point is that you are a great candidate for the job. Explain how and why your education and work experience prove you will excel at this job.
  3. Express your enthusiasm. The manager should get the sense that you really, really want  this position.
  4. Use formal language. This is a professional document, so keep it formal and avoid abbreviations, slang, and so on.
  5. Highlight two or three key points. Your resume includes all your relevant qualifications. In the cover letter, you expand on just a handful. The idea is to zoom in on a few of the most important requirements and/or the qualifications where you really shine.
  6. Explain how you will benefit them. It’s great to express your interest and what this opportunity means to you. But the main emphasis should be why hiring you will benefit them.
  7. Address a specific person. Write the letter to the individual making the hiring decision, if possible. It’s okay to call and ask who to address the cover letter to. If you can’t find a name, say something like “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Search Committee” (these are considered a bit friendlier than “To whom it may concern”).
  8. Format appropriately. A cover letter should be in a professional font, one-inch margins all around, and no longer than one page.

Cover letters take time. But with some hard work and practice, anybody can write a great cover letter.

Are you stuck with your cover letter? Career Services can help!

Shalom Leo Bond
Career Development Facilitator
UNM Career Services