• Think about yourself and your experiences. Then think about how you would like to relate your experience to the organization you’re writing to. Which of your talents, skills, personality traits and accomplishments should this particular organization know about? Brainstorm a list for yourself.
• What do you know about the organization you’re writing to? What attracted you to it in the first place? Maybe it’s personal (a friend worked there), or maybe you are impressed with what the organization does or admire their unique work philosophy. Do some research about the company online or through trade magazines, etc.
• Whom are you writing to? It’s always best to write to a real, live person (with a title) if you can, so if you’re not responding to an ad that includes a specific contact, try to look up the name of someone in particular to write to. Be sure to spell both name and title perfectly. If you cannot find a specific person to write to, try “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Human Resources.” Avoid gender-specific salutations such as “Sir” and “Ma’am.”
THE RIGHT FORMAT
Busy people don’t want to read long letters from people they don’t know. The cover letter should be one page long, and in standard business letter format. This means that you may indent your paragraphs or not – but not indenting gives a bit more room. Leave wide margins (minimum 1 inch) and use a clean, simple font like Arial or Times New Roman. Don’t be tempted to use a tiny font just to fit everything on one page; 10- or 12-point type is best. Write clearly and avoid hyphenated words at the end of a line.
COMPOSE THE LETTER
• Paragraph One: The first paragraph is the most important. Because it will be the first thing your potential employer reads, it has to make a great impression. Start out by telling how you heard about the job – friend, employee, newsletter, advertisement, etc. This is especially important if you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance. For example, if a friend recommended that you write someone he knows at a company, don’t start with “My friend, John Kamau, told me you have a job opening so I thought I would write.” That will not “wow” anyone. Instead, try something like “I was thrilled when my friend, John Kamau, told me there was an opening for an assistant photographer at your company.” Show a little excitement and passion for the potential employment; then follow this with a few key strengths you have that are pertinent to the position you’re looking to obtain.
• Paragraph Two: Here you should describe your qualifications for the job – skills, talents, accomplishments and personality traits. But don’t go overboard. Only pick the top three talents or characteristics that would make you stand out as a candidate. Your résumé is there to fill in the details. When writing this, think about how you can contribute to this company and why your specific skills, talents and accomplishments would be best for the company.
• Paragraph Three: Describe why you think you’d fit into the company – why it would be a good match. Maybe you like their fast growth, know people who already work there or you’ve always used their products. Companies feel good if the candidate feels some connection to them and has a good understanding of how the company works, even before he or she is hired.
• Paragraph Four: Mention the enclosed résumé, give them a reason to read it in-depth (e.g., For my complete employment history and applicable computer skills, please see the included résumé) and ask for an interview. Suggest a time and a way for you to follow up. Make sure you give the reader ways to easily contact you.
MAKE YOUR COVER LETTER STAND OUT
• Be yourself. A “formula” approach is fine, but each letter should reflect your personality and your enthusiasm. Let it shine through. Take pride in who you are and what you’ve done. The reader is looking for a human being, a person who knows what he or she can offer and can express it well.
• Clearer expression. Most people come close to expressing what they really want to say but usually miss the target. Take the time to craft your words and sentences to mean exactly what you intend and you’ll be in great shape. Ask others to review your letter/résumé to ensure that you’re communicating what you want to say.
• Write in the active tense. Active verbs are the key when writing cover letters and résumés. Instead of saying, “...my best attributes include team play and motivating people,” say “I’m a dedicated team player who can motivate people…” The latter promises a go-getter employee – someone who can take action instead of waiting to be led by the hand.
• Writing to a department or title. It’s always best to write to a real person with a real title. The exception to this is when you’re answering an ad and specific contact information is not provided.
• Using “Dear Sir.” Many cover letter readers are women. If you cannot get the name and title of someone to write to, it’s safer to use either a job title or generic title like “Dear Human Resources Manager,” or “Dear Sir/Ma’am.”
• Overusing “I.” It’s okay to refer to yourself, but not in every sentence. Remember to use “you” even more. Show the “you” to whom you are writing that you’re more concerned with meeting his or her needs than meeting your own.
• Exaggerating your experience. Don’t “stretch” anything you say. Be completely truthful while still presenting yourself in the best possible light.
• Forgetting to give the employer a way to contact you. Never forget to include your phone number or email address or both. How will the employer let you know about your upcoming interview if he or she can’t call and tell you about it?
• Forgetting to attach your résumé.