Covering Cover Letters
Does your resume need a cover letter? If you insist, what traits make for an effective, attention-getting one?
- By T. M. Kerrigan
- June 25, 2001
The following is an article on cover letters
containing advice and a sample of what a good
cover letter should contain. It addresses issues
as when a cover letter is appropriate, what is
appropriate content and what is important to consider
when composing a cover letter. I hope the reader
will find it interesting as I toiled long and
hard on it, putting years of experience to work.
Above is an example
of a terrible cover letter. It tells you nothing
you won't find out by reading my article, distracts
from my article and essentially wastes the time
you've allotted to read this piece. The first
question to ask when sending a cover letter should
be, "Is it necessary?"
requested by a posting, don't send a cover letter,
only an identifier for the job. Your reader's
attention should be focussed on your résumé, which
is what will get you a call for an interview.
Your qualifications for a job should be apparent
in your résumé, not your cover letter. If you
need to add a paragraph to a cover letter to explain
why you're applying for a particular job, I'd
suggest recasting your résumé instead.
If a prospective
employer requests a cover letter, consider their
motivation. They probably want to find out if
you can write, so pay attention to spelling and
grammar. They likely want to find out if you can
write a business letter, so pay attention to format.
They likely want to find out in advance that you
want the specific job they're offering, so make
your response specific to a person and to the
job. Write a business letter to that person, don't
simply attach a generic cover letter.
That said, what follows
is a generic cover letter form:
(double space or triple space)
Person's Name (If you don't
have a name, it's worth the additional trouble
of finding out the name.)
City, State Zip
(double space or triple space)
Dear Mr./Ms. Person's Name,
Think Haiku. Short and powerful.
The entire letter should be no more than six simple
sentences. No one has ever been hired from his
or her cover letter. Your reader will spend a
total of 40 seconds looking at your résumé and
cover letter. Where do you want your reader to
spend those seconds?
Your first sentence might explain
how your résumé and cover letter got to their
desk and why they should pay attention: "Your
president, Mr. Smith, suggested I send you my
résumé regarding opportunities at XYZ Co." "Pursuant
to our phone conversation, attached is my résumé."
If you have assets that
aren't obvious by reading your résumé you
might include them in a second paragraph: "In
addition to my skills and experience, I live five
minutes from your office." "XYZ Co. is an eco-friendly
company which has been a personal crusade of mine."
Remember that some of these assets may backfire.
The company may be moving or changing policies,
which would negate the previous examples. An avid
golfer may not be welcome in the IS group of Golfballs
International because putting on company time
and pilferage are already troublesome issues.
If you are responding to a
specific position with particular relevance to
experience you have, a sentence can direct them
to your résumé. "You'll note in addition to my
technical skills, I also have an understanding
of your industry due to my experience at XYZ Co."
Use as a highlight or pointer only. If more exposition
is required, redo your résumé.
Do not summarize your experience
here. Do not fully explain it either. Let your
reader know it's there. Remember that the only
purpose of this page is to get them to read the
résumé. The only purpose of the résumé is to get
them to call you in for a face-to-face hire. Then
you both can get details.
If you can write a cover letter
that gets them to call you, you don't need to
attach a résumé and it's not a cover letter, it's
If you have special conditions
regarding interviews or want certain times to
be interviewed, put them in your closing. Get
your reader looking at their appointment book.
"I will be in your city next Monday and Tuesday
for interviews." "I will need two days notice
for an interview."
Your last sentence should let
the reader know if they don't respond, you will:
"If I have not heard from you by Wednesday next
(month, day,) I shall contact you to confirm your
receipt of my résumé and get your response."
(space to balance page)
Your Name (and if not using stationery)
City, State, Zip
Enc.: résumé, A. Generic
I hope you will
note this cover letter is in a standard business
letter format. The language you use for your letter
should be in your voice, however, not business-ese.
I happen to use words like "pursuant" when I talk;
if you don't, don't use language like that.
Try reading your cover
letter out loudif you stumble on a sentence,
rewrite it the way you'd say it. Talk to your
reader as if they were in the room with you. That's
the goal you're trying to achieve.
Use a standard business
letter format even when e-mailing a potential
employer. When emailing or faxing your documents,
you should include some opening or receiving information
in your cover letter. "The attached is a WordPerfect
8.0 document. Should you have any trouble opening
or receiving it, please contact A. Generic at
555-555-1234 or firstname.lastname@example.org"
This last sentence should
be included with any attachment you send and may
be the only sentence you truly need. Providing
contact information insures the employer can contact
you if there's a problem, and it reasonably assures
them you haven't sent them a virus masquerading
as a résumé.
Some companies request
salary histories along with cover letters. I'd
suggest ignoring such requests, and if pressed,
ignoring such companies. A company asking for
salary history or references before even seeing
you is asking too much in my opinion.
Giving out such information
initially can eliminate you from consideration,
and if it doesn't, it will almost certainly undermine
your bargaining position later if the company
makes you an offer. If you've changed jobs for
the same salary three times, why would this company
offer you more money to come to them? Similarly,
a request for salary requirements is premature
before you know anything about the job. Would
you require the same amount for a 40-hour week
as an 80-hour week? Are benefits, bonuses, time
off, tuition assistance, and other perks so clearly
defined in the company's posting to give you a
complete understanding of compensation? If you
feel this has to be addressed, include a line
such as "I'd be happy to discuss my salary requirements
with you in an interview, where I would have the
opportunity to more fully understand the requirements
of the job."
I look forward to hear
from you soon on this article. Please send my
editor an e-mail at: email@example.com
to let us both know what you think.
Kerrigan & Company
I'm not giving you my address Or City, Or State
or Zip Code