Depending on the type of job you are applying for, the cover letter may be one of the most important documents you create. They are annoying buggers because each one needs to be customized to the specific job you are applying for.
If you have the luxury of time in your job search, I recommend you submit a cover letter for every job you apply for (even if they don’t ask for one). Otherwise, submit a cover letter to have job application that ask for one and any job you are particularly excited about. If you see a job posting that appears to be a perfect fit for you to the point where you lose yourself in day dreams of how wonderful the job will be, submit a cover letter. This may be especially effective if they didn’t ask for one. It will help you stand out.
Before you start writing, you need to understand how a cover letter compliments your résumé. When I was taking career classes in college, résumés were described as something employers glanced at. They skim the document looking for specific key words (sometimes they even have computer programs that perform this skimming process for them). This is why the use of verbs in the bullet points are important. Unlike the résumé, cover letters may actually be read, especially if the company specifically asked for one. For that reason alone, you want to make sure the document flows well and uses correct grammar and spelling.
While a new and unique cover letter should be generated for each job application, there are ways to create templates for the different types of jobs you are applying for. I’ll get to that after I go through the creation of your initial cover letter.
Making sure you are left aligned, start by typing your name, address, phone number and email. Leave a line blank and type the date out in full (ex: November, 27, 2013). Leave another black line and type the name of the specific person receiving this letter. Certain job descriptions may include the name of the person who posted the job, but if not, do some digging. If nothing else, it shows you looked into the company. For more information on how to find the person you should be addressing your cover letter to, check out this helpful guide. Type out the name of the person you are sending the letter to, followed by their title and address. Leave another black line before you officially begin the letter with “Dear Mr/Ms. Job I. Want:” This is a business letter, so make sure you use a colon and not a comma.
That wasn’t so hard, was it (unless you had to track down that name. In which case, I promise the rest will be easier).
The body of your cover letter should be three – four paragraphs long. Five is too many. You want to keep this down to a single page. The first paragraph is easy. You want to include these key elements, which are listed below in no particular order.
- Name the position you are apply for.
- Name the company looking to fill the position.
- Name where you found the job listing (LinkedIn, Indeed, CareerBuilder, etc.)
- Call out three skills you have specifically related to this position.
- Emphasize your interest in the position.
- Make a statement that you will be an asset to the company (not maybe I might be if you hire me pretty please.)
Choose your skills in the first paragraph wisely, because they will come into play for the second paragraph. The second paragraph will be the largest in the cover letter and should tell stories of your experience. Don’t give too much away; you’re not writing a book. Keep it simple. What was the issue? What did you do about it? What was the end result? That’s all you need to tell the story. List at least two examples that best demonstrate the skills you claimed in the first paragraph. It’s even better if the story can show off more than one skill. Ideally, you should touch on each skill you mentioned in the first paragraph throughout the second.
The stories you use as examples of your skills should come directly from your résumé. If one of your bullet points has to do with interviewing city officials, mention the big story you wrote after interviewing a police chief, mayor or governor. Make sure to mention the name of the company you were working for at the time. The best case scenario is that you can tell two to three stories which each demonstrate a different skill and are from different companies. Straight out of college, this might be hard, so don’t worry too much about it. The most important thing is to choose examples that best reflect your skills. Second to that is diversifying the employers where you gained that experience.
Conclude the second paragraph with a statement that collects all of your experience into one statement of why you would be great at this position. Make sure to mention the name of the company again, even if you’ve already done so throughout this paragraph. This is a place where you, again, make a strong statement. Don’t let them question with something like “If hired…” You are the ideal candidate. You will be a huge asset upon hire. Write confidently, but not boastfully.
The final paragraph is a modified version of the first. You want to restate the name of the position you are applying for, the name of the company and your enthusiastic interest. Try and add a sentence describing something specific from the job description. If, for example, you were applying to a news reporter position to cover the courts beat, you might say “I am excited to engage the community in journalistic content about law and courts.” This shows that you were thinking about the specific requirements while writing the cover letter and acts as a way to check yourself. Do the skills you discussed and the examples you used show off how you will be successful at that goal?
The last sentences of the paragraph should welcome the employer to contact you with any additional questions. Make mention of future contact as if you assume you will get an interview. Just like the other statements, don’t write “if interviewed.” Instead, write “when interviewed.”
Leave two blank lines, followed by a professional closing. I like to say Sincerely (followed by a comma). After two more blank lines, type your name just as it appears on the first line.
Double check that the document is contained on one page. If it’s not, and you simply can’t bear to lose any precious words, play around with the font, text size and page margins. You want it to look clean and readable, though, so don’t try to cram too much. Read through the document and see if there are any points you can make using fewer words. If you have the opposite problem and your cover letter seems short (little more than half a page), play with the spaces at the top and bottom until the letter appears close to center on the page. It doesn’t have to be exact.
Cover Letter Templates
Save the cover letter you just made and take a moment to think about the type of job you created this for. The examples I’ve used here indicate this cover letter is going to some kind of news outlet. These same skills and examples are probably relevant to other news outlets. When applying to another job in news, this same cover letter can be used, so long as name of the position, name and address of the company, Name of the person being sent the letter and the sentence that calls out something specific from the job description are changed. To make it easier, consider highlighting the text that would change for a different position and save it in a template folder.
When you go to apply for another position, be sure change everything you highlighted and re-read the cover letter (on the off chance you missed something that is specific to another job). With most of the work already done, it will take far less time to send a cover letter to similar businesses. If you apply to a different type of business, such as a marketing agency, you will have to go through the whole process again. Don’t worry about making templates. Create cover letters as you need them. When you encounter a different job from ones you’ve applied to before, simply start from scratch and make a new cover letter.
Disclaimer: I am not a job or career expert. Most of the above is based off of my own experience and the advice I've given to friends and family. I write these posts because I noticed my advice made a difference for those that took it and I hope that you can too. If possible, I highly recommend taking some for of career preparation class. A lot of this information is based on what I learned through the Career Leadership Academy at the University of Iowa and it was a huge benefit to my job search after graduation.