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How to Write an Effective Cover Letter

Your cover letter is the first thing a prospective employer sees, so it’s crucial that it grab his or her attention and never let go.

There are two schools of thought on a cover letter’s opening remark: one being that you should ask a rhetorical question or make a funny remark as an attention grabber. This isn’t a good idea for most people, however, because it can come off wrong. Only consider this approach if you’re applying for a very creative position. Otherwise, stick with the obvious. Describe what job you’re applying for and where you saw it advertised, if applicable. That way, there’s no guessing game for the person reading your letter.

In the next couple of paragraphs, highlight the points that make you perfect for this job. That could be your job history, your degrees or certifications, your skills, or a combination of those things. But if you’re applying for a teaching position, for example, the cover letter isn’t the place to note that you’re a certified welder—unless you’ll be teaching welding.

Your closing should make it clear that you are very interested in talking with the prospective employee further about how you can help his or her company. One mistake many job seekers make is forgetting the purpose of a cover letter and resume. It isn’t to secure the job; rather, its purpose is to secure an interview. So be sure to ask for an interview!

Other tips that will rev up your cover letter:

Address it to a specific person. If possible, research who is reviewing the resumes and making the hiring decision for the job you want. Sometimes that information will be in the ad, but if not, don’t be afraid to do a little detective work. It’s often as easy as calling the company and simply asking!
Don’t print off a one-size-fits-all cover letter. You must personalize your letter completely for the company and the job you’re seeking.

Focus on them. It’s tempting to describe in your cover letter what you want out of the job or the company: to advance your career, to enhance your skill set, or to secure a better title. But companies want to know what you can do for them. Structure your letter so that it lists the talents and experience that you bring to the table. There will be time later to talk about what you’ll be getting out of the deal.

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Let them know you’ve done your homework. Weave in at least one fact about the company somewhere in your letter. For example: “Though Company X had an impressive $5 million in sales during the last quarter, I believe my marketing skills could help Company X achieve even better results in the next quarter.”

Limit your words. Very few cover letters should run more than one page. Prospective employers are just like everybody else: they’re more likely to read a concise four-paragraph letter than a daunting eight-paragraph letter.
Don’t rehash the contents of your resume. Assuming your cover letter is put together well, the potential employer or hiring manager will get to your resume. At most, highlight the two or three most impressive aspects of your resume to give the employer a taste of what’s to come.

Aesthetics are important. Print off your cover letter on high-quality paper in white or off-white (make sure it matches your resume), and don’t staple or fold it.

Proof and proof again. Nothing turns off a potential employer or hiring manager like a cover letter with spelling or grammatical errors. You might think you’re in the clear if you use your computer’s spell check, but that doesn’t save you from mistakes such as confusing “affect” and “effect,” for example. After you’ve proofed your letter twice, ask a grammar geek friend to look it over too.

Don’t make them guess. At the bottom of your letter, include the number(s) where you can be reached if they need more information—or if they want to (hopefully!) schedule an interview. You’ll undoubtedly include your phone number on your resume, but you want to make it as easy as possible for the company to reach you.

See more cover letter writing tips.

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