Exposing Cover Letter Myths
Your cover letter is a first impression to potential employers. If you expect to be a successful job seeker, you’ll want to know how to attract positive attention with your cover letter, while avoiding common mistakes.
Believing the myths that follow can kill your cover letter before it has a chance to sell your skills.
It’s okay to send your resume without a cover letter
False! Unless you like to send your resume into other people’s trashcans, make sure that a cover letter accompanies your resume.
Your cover letter summarizes your resume
False! Your cover letter should put your resume in context — it should draw attention to your strengths and present nonresume material that can make the difference between you and you’re your next closest competitor when the interviewing decision is made.
A cover letter merely introduces your resume
False! Your cover letter is much more than a routing slip for your resume. Your letter is also ultimately a silent force, enticing the reader to scour your resume. Some employers believe cover letters are more important than resumes when choosing candidates to interview. If your cover letter doesn’t flesh out the person presented in your resume, you may never get to meet the reader.
You can routinely use a generic greeting — “Dear Employer”
False! Research your target organization until you have the name and gender of the person who will review your resume. Double-check for correct spelling and proper job titles. When you can’t uncover the correct name and must rely on a generic greeting, Dear Employer is as good as anything. Don’t assume gender and use Gentlemen for your salutation.
Keep your cover letter really, really short — like a paragraph
False! The length of your cover letter depends not upon absolute rules of measurement, but upon the amount of content you have to convey. When the letter escorts a resume, it should be one page in length, with one to six paragraphs; when your letter substitutes for a resume, two to three pages is the max.
A handwritten cover letter is best — it’s personal
False! Employers may assume you are way behind the times if you don’t use a computer’s word processor, or they may be unable to read your penmanship. If an employer wants a sample of your handwriting, the employer will request one. Your only handwriting should be your signature at the end, written in black or blue ink.
Resumes and networking are infinitely more important than cover letters in a job search
False! You need the tools of marketing materials — cover letters and resumes — in your quest for job leads, which include recruitment advertising response, networking, and direct application among the most productive techniques. No one component is provably more important than the others.
Anyone can find a job — if your cover letter isn’t working, the letter is at fault
False! Your marketing materials — a cover letter or resume — can become an easy focus for your anxieties about a job search; therefore blaming the marketing materials is convenient. Consequently, job seekers often think if they can only whip their marketing materials into perfect shape, the other parts of the search will turn out favorably. The truth is, all parts of your search must be up and running.
Your cover letter gets you a job
False! To succeed in your job search, you need a strategy for finding job leads and a first rate resume supported by a red hot cover letter. In addition, you need marketable skills, appropriate personal qualities, interviewing strengths, and the right references. It’s the total package that determines who wins the job.
The cover letter is your chance to talk about your personal life and feelings
False! Your resume talks about you; your cover letter talks about your intended employer — and how your employer can benefit from the splendid assets you offer. Describe special benefits that set you above other applicants.
Include salary history and expectations in your cover letter
False! Save the salary discussion for the interview. You can be eliminated at this stage if your salary history is considered too high, too low, or too static. Don’t get into it. If an ad requests such information, write that your salary is negotiable and that you’d be happy to discuss the issue during an interview.
After you send a letter, the employer carries the ball
False! No matter how terrific you are, most employers have no time for hunting you down unless they need you right this very second. If you don’t get an acknowledgment (probably an automated reply) that your cover note or letter arrived, call or e-mail to confirm.
Sending your letter by courier is an attention-getter
False! Unless time is of the essence, save your money. Anyone who cares how your letter arrives usually doesn’t have the power to hire you. Mail usually filters through office staffers before reaching hiring managers. Even a courier envelope that costs you a meal is likely to be opened by nonhiring hands. E-mail and faxes may get the hiring manager’s attention, because they often route straight to your target.
When mailing, use a standard business envelope
False! Now that your documents face a good chance of being scanned and stored by job computers, inserting your letter and resume flat and unfolded into a 10″ x 13″ envelope is safer. Creases from folding may damage your document’s text in scanning systems. By using a larger envelope, you have a huge edge over thousands of other job seekers who don’t know that their marketing materials should arrive scanner-ready.
Paper quality always has a great effect on your image
False! And True! Both humans and computers read cover letters and resumes. For a finger-friendly read, paper quality counts.
For a computer-friendly read, the quality of paper doesn’t matter at all — the finest paper becomes just another pretty electronic face. Your cover letter and resume paper should match and should be white or off-white smooth paper, sized 8.5″ x 11″. Avoid glossy or coarse textures that can cause scanners to misread. Don’t use colored paper — especially blue, green, or gray, which may scan in as shades of gray that obscure your letter’s text.
Writing Cover Letters
What is a cover letter?
To be considered for almost any position, you will need to write a letter of application. Such a letter introduces you, explains your purpose for writing, highlights a few of your experiences or skills, and requests an opportunity to meet personally with the potential employer.
Precisely because this letter is your introduction to an employer and because first impressions count, you should take great care to write an impressive and effective letter. Remember that the letter not only tells of your accomplishments but also reveals how effectively you can communicate.
The appropriate content, format, and tone for application letters vary according to the position and the personality of the applicant. Thus you will want to ask several people (if possible) who have had experience in obtaining jobs or in hiring in your field to critique a draft of your letter and to offer suggestions for revision.
Despite the differences in what constitutes a good application letter, the suggestions on these pages apply generally.
What to include in a cover letter
Try to limit your letter to a single page. Be succinct.
Assess the employer's needs and your skills. Then try to match them in the letter in a way that will appeal to the employer's self-interest.
As much as possible, tailor your letter to each job opportunity. Demonstrate, if possible, some knowledge of the organization to which you are applying.
Write in a style that is mature but clear; avoid long and intricate sentences and paragraphs; avoid jargon. Use action verbs and the active voice; convey confidence, optimism, and enthusiasm coupled with respect and professionalism.
Show some personality, but avoid hard-sell, gimmicky, or unorthodox letters. Start fast; attract interest immediately. For more information see Business Letter Format.
Arrange the points in a logical sequence; organize each paragraph around a main point.
How to organize a cover letter
Below is one possible way to arrange the content of your cover letter.
State why you are writing.
Establish a point of contact (advertisement in a specific place for a specific position; a particular person's suggestion that you write): give some brief idea of who you are (a Senior engineering student at UW; a recent Ph.D. in History).
Highlight a few of the most salient points from your enclosed resume.
Arouse your reader's curiosity by mentioning points that are likely to be important for the position you are seeking.
Show how your education and experience suit the requirements of the position, and, by elaborating on a few points from your resume, explain what you could contribute to the organization.
(Your letter should complement, not restate, your resume.)
Stress action. Politely request an interview at the employer's convenience.
Indicate what supplementary material is being sent under separate cover and offer to provide additional information (a portfolio, a writing sample, a sample publication, a dossier, an audition tape), and explain how it can be obtained.
Thank the reader for his/her consideration and indicate that you are looking forward to hearing from him/her.
Questions to guide your writing
Who is my audience?
What is my objective?
What are the objectives and needs of my audience?
How can I best express my objective in relationship to my audience's objectives and needs?
What specific benefits can I offer to my audience and how can I best express them?
What opening sentence and paragraph will grab the attention of my audience in a positive manner and invite them to read further?
How can I maintain and heighten the interest and desire of the reader throughout the letter?
What evidence can I present of my value to my audience?
If a resume is enclosed with the letter, how can I best make the letter advertise the resume?
What closing sentence or paragraph will best assure the reader of my capabilities and persuade him or her to contact me for further information?
Is the letter my best professional effort?
Have I spent sufficient time drafting, revising, and proofreading the letter?
*From Ronald L. Kraunich, William J. Bauis. High Impact Resumes & Letters. Virginia Beach, VA: Impact Publications, 1982.
How to format a cover letter
Type each letter individually, or use a word processor.
Use good quality bond paper.
Whenever possible, address each employer by name and title.
Each letter should be grammatically correct, properly punctuated, and perfectly spelled. It also should be immaculately clean and free of errors. Proofread carefully!
Use conventional business correspondence form. If you are not certain of how to do this, ask for help at the Writing Center.
For further information on cover letters contact the Career Advising and Planning Services and take a look at our workshp on Writing Resumes and Cover Letters (NB: this course not offered during the summer).