April 23, 2023

Art & Science of Writing a Cover Letter

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is small text saying who you are and why you are writing, followed by a sales pitch of what you have to offer and then a closing in which you propose steps for further action. These three components often amount to three
or four paragraphs, but there are no hard and fast rules about exactly how you break up the information.


Why should I write a cover letter?

The key objectives of a cover letter are to:

  • Inform the employer of your interest in the job.
  • Persuade the employer of your suitability for the job.
  • Make you look professional.
  • Build goodwill.
  • Obtain an interview.
  • Write the structure of your interview.
  • Demonstrate your writing and research skills.
  • Offer a little window into your personality.


Myth & reality about a cover letter

If you think you don’t need to put much effort writing a cover letter, or don’t need to send them at all because nobody reads them, think again.

True, human resources recruiters, headhunters and department heads don’t have time to read both the letter and resume. So they skip right to the resume. Others are so tired of boring letters saying the same old thing that
they simply don’t bother to read them. As a result, some job search coaches will tell you, “Oh, just write a few sentences and don’t fuss over the letter too much. It won’t get read anyway.” Well, for every person who says the
cover letter is not important you’ll find another who says it is. Many prospective employers view the cover letter as a way of getting their first impression of you.


The cover letter reveals:

  • How well you communicate what your experience and qualifications are.
  • Persuade the employer of your suitability for the job.
  • Briefly your level of professionalism.
  • Clues to your personality.
  • How detail-oriented you are.

To make the best first impression, you need to know exactly what a cover letter is and to put some thought into it before you start writing. You also need to understand what to include — and not to include — and to be aware of some
cardinal rules of cover letter writing.


Five things to think about before writing

If you find yourself struck by writer’s block at about the “Dear Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So” point, then you probably need to take a step back and put some more thought into your cover letter before diving into it.

Asking yourself the following five questions will help you build a foundation for your letter and will make the actual writing go much more smoothly.

  1. What does the prospective employer need? Which skills, knowledge and experience would be an asset in the job you are targeting?
  2. What are your objectives? Are you applying for a specific job, trying to get an interview or simply hoping to get someone to spend 10 or 15 minutes on the phone with you discussing opportunities in general?
  3. What are three to five qualities that you would bring to this employer or this job? If you’re responding to a job listing or classified, then those qualities should obviously be the job requirements mentioned in the advertisement.
    If you are not applying for a specific job opening, then think of which skills, knowledge and experience would typically be valued.
  4. How can you match your experience to the job? What are at least two specific accomplishments you can mention which give credence to the qualities you identified in question number 3?
  5. Why do you want to work for this particular organization or person? What do you know about them? What is it about their products or services, philosophy, mission, organizational culture, goals and needs that relates to your own
    backgrounds, values and objectives? When you’ve addressed these five issues, you are ready to put fingers to keyboard and start hammering out that letter.


Anatomy of a cover letter

The opening
This is where you tell employers who you are, why you’re writing and how you heard about the organization or the specific opening. The “who you are” part is a brief introduction of yourself. Just
mention the basic facts about you and your situation, choosing the ones that will be most relevant to the employer. The “why you are writing” part is where you mention which position you are applying for, or what your job objective
is if no specific opening has been advertised. Then be sure to tell them how you heard about the organization.

The sales pitch
The objective of this part of the letter is to list the reasons why the reader should see you as a viable candidate. It’s best to start with a statement that provides an overview of your qualifications,
then go into them more specifically, using the examples you identified before you started writing.

The flattery
It’s where you flatter the reader a bit by commenting on something positive about the organization and letting them know why you would want to work there.

The request for further action
The closing paragraph isn’t just about thanking the reader for taking the time to read your letter or for considering you as a candidate for a job. It’s also about where to go
from here, about opening the door to further contact. It’s where you suggest how to proceed, usually by saying that you will call or email the reader to follow up and see if a meeting can be arranged. The important thing is to
end the letter in an assertive, but courteous, way by taking the initiative to follow up.


What to do when you think you have finished

  • Proofread and spell-check your letter.
  • Get someone else to proofread and spell-check your letter.
  • Ask some from the Careers and Employment Unit to proofread and spell check

This has proved to be a difficult, yet very challenging and very rewarding process.