Tips & Resources

First Impressions: Your Cover Letter

In “The Art of the Cover Letter,” readers learn the basics of writing a cover letter that conveys the job candidate’s professionalism. However, there’s more to mastering the knack of producing an effective cover letter, much of that influenced by the method of delivery. In today’s digital environment, job applicants most commonly send the cover letters via email to prospective employers.

Email or attachment?

The Muse answers the basic question of whether the cover letter should be attached to the email message or embedded within the body of the email message: “The short answer is: either. Not both, either.” Before you tear your hair out trying to figure out which is the best way for sending your cover letter, there’s good news. Whichever you decide really doesn’t matter, unless the prospective employer instructs otherwise. Failing to follow directions sends up a warning flag and usually merits dismissal from consideration.

If you elect to attach your cover letter as a separate document, consider using a PDF file. That format is normally safe to receive, although anything digital can and will eventually be hacked or corrupted. Attached cover letters follow the same format and conventions as any hard copy business letter. You’re just ending it in pixels instead of paper. For an attached cover letter, do not repeat your letter’s information in the email message. Keep it brief, direct, and polite. The Muse offers the following simple example of such a statement to alert the recipient:

I’ve learned that you are seeking a senior project manager with e-commerce experience and knowledge of Jira. That’s me. My attached resume and cover letter outline my qualifications for the role. Thank you very much for your consideration. I hope to hear from you soon!

If you decide to embed your cover letter within the body of the email message, advice on how to do so is easy to find. Some tips regarding cover letters span media, such as employment of correct grammar, using a professional format and tone, and keeping the content succinct. Hiring managers are busy people: they don’t want to read through a novel detailing your employment history or exploits, regardless of the entertainment value. As stated in that earlier article, don’t repeat the information contained in your résumé.

Cover letter by email: do this

Many of the same standard conventions apply to email letter as to old-fashioned business letters on paper, allowing for some updates attendant upon the ubiquitous technology and information available.

The subject line: When emailing a cover letter, use the subject line to its best advantage. According to Monster, the subject line should clearly and specifically reference the job for which you are applying. Unless otherwise instructed, don’t simply refer to the job number in the subject line.

The salutation: Do your very best to find out who will receive the letter and address that person by name, even if that means calling the company to ask the receptionist for the recipient’s name and title. Contrary to the analog days of yore, beginning a cover letter with “Dear sir,” “Dear sir or madam,” or even “To whom it may concern” no longer does the trick. Not performing that due diligence indicates laziness and a lack of caring. 

When a company deliberately hides the name of the recipient, address the recipient by his or her title, such as “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Editor.” When you do have a name, don’t assume a familiarity you do not have with the recipient. That means using the polite manners and addressing the recipient as “Dear Mr./Ms./Dr. [Last Name].” Should the recipient reply by addressing his or her response to you on a first name basis, then feel free to follow suit in your response.

The first paragraph. As any good storyteller will inform you, the first paragraph serves as the “hook.” Especially if your cover letter goes to a recruiter who will decide within seconds whether to review your application or dismiss it, you must engage the reader—your letter’s recipient—in the first paragraph. However, there’s no imperative for stiff, formal prose. Be conversational and friendly, although none of the experts recommend attempts at humor, use of slang or jargon, or any profanity whatsoever. The Balance advises, “… include information on why you are writing. Mention the position you are applying for and how you found the job posting. If you were referred by a contact, mention the person.”

The middle paragraphs. Whether one or five paragraphs follow the first, this content sandwiched between the first and the concluding paragraphs explains what you have to offer to the prospective employer. Use the conversational quality of prose to connect your skills and experience to the qualifications mentioned in the job description. Strong writing—meaning active voice—propels the narrative and helps retain the recipient’s interest.

The conclusion. In this final paragraph of the letter, mention whether you have attached your resume, how you will follow up, and thank the recipient for considering you for the position. That’s it.

Don’t forget to sign off with something along the lines of “Sincerely,” “Cordially,” “Yours truly,” or “Regards” and your signature below that. Your signature should include your full name, mailing address, telephone number, email address, and LinkedIn profile URL. Hint: If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, register for one. They’re free and make it easy for recruiters and hiring managers to find you.

Finally, in writing the letter, make sure to include keywords. Analyze the job description for certain character strings, otherwise known as words and phrases, that appear especially meaningful to the hiring entity. These are the keywords. Without disrupting the natural flow of the message narrative, incorporate them into your letter. These keywords or buzz words will help your application make the first cut, often determined by software algorithms and not human attention.

Avoid these mistakes

When applying online, you may be tempted to create a generic cover letter—a form letter—instead of customizing your boilerplate content for each position to which you apply. That’s a mistake. Every company is different and the jobs they advertise all have differences that pertain to each company’s interpretation of the duties and tasks attendant upon successful performance. For instance, a company advertising for an editor may expect any number of tasks beyond editing, to include curating content, managing writers, formatting documents, writing content, uploading content, scheduling topics, interviewing sources, double-checking referenced sources, and more.

Aol offers a concise list of errors to avoid. Chief among them: follow all instructions for application. Don’t focus exclusively on yourself. Because the cover letter is basically a low-key sales letter, focus on what you can do to benefit the company. Do not exaggerate your abilities—no one likes a braggart. Veering too far in the other direction just gives the hiring manager reasons why they shouldn’t consider you for the job. Be honest and find that happy middle ground.

The cover letter fulfills multiple purposes, not the least of which is to sell the applicant to the recruiter or hiring manager. However, a strong sales pitch strikes the wrong note, especially “if you act as if you are in charge of the process.”

Finally—and this cannot be overstated—proofread your letter for typos, grammar errors, and other “mechanical” flaws in the writing before sending the message. If possible, have the friendly, neighborhood, card-carrying member of the grammar police review your message to correct errors before it goes winging off into the ether. Some hiring managers and recruiters understand that applicants are merely human, but don’t take that chance.

Sample cover letters

Search on Google for sample cover letters and the results will overwhelm you. Special Counsel offers cover letter examples that take into account relocation, referrals from colleagues, or a short term of current employment. The Balance Careers provides a generic cover letter that serves up sample text easily adopted and adapted to your specific need. The same site also offers cover letter samples targeted toward specific types of jobs, from inquiries about whether a company is looking to hire to volunteer positions to requests for relocation.

Again, customize your cover letters. Use boilerplate content and templates as starting points to direct your writing. Although sending off cover letters, resumes, and job applications may make you think that you’re wasting time and that your documents disappear into a black hole for eternity, when one does hit a real person, that real person appreciates being addressed as an individual. You’re a distinct, unique human being and prefer to be treated as such, so treat the recipient of your cover letter with the same courtesy you want.