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What a Resume Cover Letter Should Look Like

Just as the purpose of a resume is to get you an interview, the purpose of a cover letter is to stimulate interest in your resume.

Most Hiring Managers really do love to receive a good cover letter with a resume. In fact, in my opinion a good cover letter is just as important as a good resume. It can catch my interest and encourage me to read your resume more carefully than I otherwise might.

Remember: I may have received several dozen resumes and need to read them quickly. A well-written cover letter will make me slow down with that resume. And that’s what you want me to do with a resume that you may have spent hours writing.

As a Hiring Manager, here’s what a well-written cover letter does for me:

  • It convinces me that you have a genuine interest in my company and my opening.
  • It briefly outlines the most important parts of your resume (by most important, I mean most important for that specific job).
  • How it’s written gives me a good initial impression of you.
  • It convinces me you’re qualified for my position even before I read your resume.

Here’s the thing. If you don’t include a cover letter, I have to read your resume and then figure out if you’re qualified. And here’s the problem (for you!) with that: if I don’t see that you’re qualified in the first few sentences in your resume, I’ll probably just skim the rest and go on to the next resume.

Chances are, I’ll have too many resumes to review to have to plow through each one, looking for what’s applicable for my job opening.

Ah, but a good cover letter will tell me right away whether you’re qualified. If you are, you can bet I’ll carefully read your resume. Also, I’ve often found that good cover letters usually mean good resumes.

With all the excellent resume advice available on the Internet today, most good applicants will have a pretty good resume. It will highlight their experience and accomplishments and usually be well written.

They then fall into a common hole.

They create a generic cover letter and use it for each application they submit, believing that their resume speaks for itself.

Too bad!

The cover letters that actually get your resume read and can even get you an interview on their own are ones that:

  • Are addressed to the Hiring Manager by name if at all possible.
  • Have analyzed the job description in detail and clearly demonstrate how you are an excellent match.
  • Match your qualifications to keywords in the job posting.

Hiring Managers are pretty subjective when screening applicants. When we come across an excellent cover letter, it stands out and encourages us to carefully read the resume. This increases the chances that you’ll be added to the interview list.


Cover Letter Tips

  1. Address your cover letter to a specific person, by name if possible. The job posting may not include a name so you should do some research. At a minimum, try calling the company and ask the receptionist for a name to whom you can address your cover letter. If you’re able to get a name, keep the greeting professional, such as “Dear Mr. Jones,” not “Dear Steve”.
  2. If you don’t have a name, don’t use the generic “To Whom It May Concern.” Instead, use “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Human Resource Manager”.
  3. In today’s world, you’ll very seldom need to mail a paper cover letter. In the rare case where you do, make sure you sign it by hand. If you don’t, you’ll give the impression that you’re sending out a mass mailing.
  4. Use short paragraphs, lots of bullets, and Times New Roman 12 point font. This will greatly increase the readability of your cover letter.
  5. Don’t end your letter with worn-out phrases such as “Sincerely yours” or “Thank you for your consideration”. Put some snap into your closing and try something a bit more memorable such as “Best personal regards”, “With my best regards” or “Enthusiastically yours”.
  6. You must tailor your cover letter so that it specifically relates to each individual job to which you apply. Use specific keywords from the job posting and match them to your qualifications for that job. If you’re applying for positions at several different companies and each one has very similar requirements, you may be tempted to use the same cover letter with only minor modifications. There’s nothing wrong with this. But be certain to remove all references to another company each time you submit it. I occasionally get cover letters that still contain another company’s name in the narrative. I usually don’t finish reading these and the attached resume goes to the bottom of the stack.
  7. Use good quality paper. I recommend a 24-pound weight. Make sure your printer ink cartridges are good and the type isn’t smeared. You want your cover letter to look as professional as possible. You won’t often have to mail a paper copy, but you will need to bring copies to your interview and you want them to look as professional as possible.
  8. Make the length about a half-page, two-thirds of a page at the very most. The purpose of your cover letter is to get your resume read, not to restate it. Brevity shows you understand the value of the Hiring Manager’s time.
  9. Since your cover letter is brief, highlight one or two particularly significant abilities or accomplishments. Keeping the number of examples small will make your cover letter more memorable and may make the reader want to know more.
  10. Don’t use generic phrases to describe yourself, such as “proven leadership abilities”, “great interpersonal skills”, “team player”, “self-starter”. These are overused buzz words that tell the reader nothing. The only time you should use them is when you have specific accomplishments you can name to back them up.
  11. Never lie about your skills and experience, and that includes overstating them. If you don’t have a particular qualification or skill, don’t try to compensate by saying you do. You’ll almost always be eventually found out and marked as untrustworthy. Instead, focus on your strengths, even they don’t include every qualification for that job.
  12. There’s nothing wrong with using a bit of humor, so long as it’s in good taste and appropriate. I don’t often see this and enjoy it when I do. While your resume should never contain humor, your cover letter needs to grab the reader right away and some appropriate humor can make you stand out, so long as the overall tone of your cover letter is professional. This is tricky to pull off well, so only attempt it if you are very confident in your writing skills.
  13. Don’t use gimmicks. A Hiring Manager I know received a box once that contained two toy teeth. Also enclosed were a cover letter and note. The note said, “I’d give my eye teeth to get an interview with you.” Another Hiring Manager received a pair of dice with a note that said “Come on – roll the dice and take a chance with me.” These types of corny tactics seldom work and make you look unprofessional. The one area in which they may work is with sales positions. Hiring Managers for sales and marketing positions are looking for creativity and assertiveness. But even here your gimmick needs to be truly original and something they’re never seen before.
  14. Use a conversational writing style. Avoid using words you wouldn’t use in a normal conversation. Jargon specific to a particular type of job or industry is okay to use, as you expect the reader to be familiar with these. 
  15. Be sure to have someone else read your cover letter and check for punctuation, spelling, and grammatical errors. You don’t want the Hiring Manager to be the one who proofreads your cover letter!


Cover Letter Format

Rather than trying to give you a standard cover letter template to use, below are some general guidelines to follow. These will work well for any cover letter.

I like to see cover letters with three sections that logically make the – brief! – case that you’re a good candidate and I should read your resume carefully.

Section One

This is your introductory section and should be fairly brief. Name the job for which you’re applying, and say how you found the opening (e.g. newspaper, Internet, referral). The Hiring Manager may have many positions open and you want to specifically name the one for which you’re applying. Plus, by stating how you found out about the opening, it helps the Hiring Manager determine which job advertisement method is most effective. 


Section Two

The second section is the main section and is where you’ll pitch yourself. It should contain two or three paragraphs at the most – brevity is important in a cover letter. What you want to do is match your qualifications to the ones specifically mentioned in the job opening. Make sure you read the job opening again to identify the most important things it wants to see in candidates and make sure you reference these when listing your qualifications.

This is where a bulleted list works well, so long as you keep it to three or four bullets at the most. Remember: your cover letter is designed to get your resume read more carefully – not to copy it. The purpose of your cover letter is to make the Hiring Manager want read more about you.


Section Three

This section is your close. Make sure you specifically say you’d like an interview and that you will add value to their company. End it with your phone number and email address in your closing paragraph. 

You may have read other cover letter advice articles that recommend you end with a statement that you’ll follow up with a phone call in the next couple of weeks “to ask if you need to send additional information.” After all, doesn’t that show initiative?

So why don’t I advise you to do that?

Well, I’m going to now reveal a secret shared by most Hiring Managers I know:  we hate it when job applicants call us! And this is why:

  • I may not have received or read your cover letter and resume yet (some of our HR departments are slower than others) and I now have to explain that to you.
  • I did read your cover letter and resume and you weren’t competitive with other applicants. I sure don’t want to get an unexpected call and have to explain that to you.
  • If your cover letter and resume were good, you may be sure you’ll be contacted for an interview, whether or not you follow up with a phone call.
  • I may have received dozens of applications. Can you imagine what it would be like to now receive dozens of phone calls?

You may have also read stories about someone who only got an interview because they made a follow-up call to the Hiring Manager, who had forgotten to have HR call them.

I can tell you for sure that in 30 years of hiring people, I’ve never forgotten to have HR contact someone I thought was good enough to interview. This is why I recommend that you include your phone number and email address at the bottom of your cover letter so that I’ll have this information without having to refer to your resume.

 After reading all this, if you’re still hell-bent on calling the Hiring Manager, I’ll share with you a unique way to do it with minimal damage: call the person late at night, when you know everyone has gone home, and leave a voice mail message. Be sure to say upfront that you called after hours to avoid interrupting them during the day.

Now, this is a phone call that I don’t mind getting, as it shows that you respect my time.


A Sample Cover Letter

I’ve already said there isn’t a single cover letter template that works for everyone, so as an example I’m going to show you the cover letter I created and used in my own job search.

To start, I’ve given below the actual job posting for a job to which I applied (and ultimately got). I’ve highlighted in red the keywords I thought were important to address in my cover letter.

Under the job ad example, I show the actual cover letter I wrote as a result of this job posting (I changed the company name to a fictitious one).

The Job Posting

Business Systems Manager

Acme Corporation

Reports directly to the Chief Financial Officer.  Duties include development and support for maintaining all business systems, applications, and fiscal operations interfaces; plan, develop and implement operational process improvements to business systems, dependent subsystems, and interdepartmental interfaces; and to provide direct support to Logistics, Financial Operations, and other business functions within the organization.

BA degree in business, public administration, or a BA/BS degree in computer science or a related field of study that includes substantial course work in finance, accounting, business management, or other related technical fields.  Or, a BA degree in computer science or related technical field, with significant course work in business management, finance, accounting, purchasing, or materials management AND 7 years of direct management experience that includes responsibility for financial and business systems.

The cover letter I wrote for this job posting

The areas highlighted in red directly reference the stated job requirements.

Acme Corporation                                                      Job #1234-5678

123 Main Street

Anytown, CA 98109

January XX, 20XX

Dear Ms. Smith,

I’m responding to the opening on your website for a Business Systems Manager.

I believe my experience and qualifications are an excellent fit for the requirements stated in your job posting. I have over 15 years of business management experience, most notably in the areas of:

  • Developing and maintaining business processing systems
  • Financial and operational process analysis and improvement
  • Budget, planning, and expense analysis and improvement
  • Managing the teams that provide support to a broad range of other business operations throughout the corporation. 

I have a B.S. degree in Business.  I also have extensive experience in developing and managing financial and transaction processing systems, with measurable cost savings as a result, as detailed in my attached resume.

I would welcome the opportunity to interview and convince you I can add value to the operations and systems of the ABC Company.

With my best regards,

My Name

Home phone 123-456-7890   Cell phone  23-456-7890 email

As you can see, I referenced the major requirements for the job in the body of the cover letter. To keep the letter short, I didn’t mention specific accomplishments but did refer the reader to my resume for accomplishment details. It’s important to point this out to ensure the reader that I’m not simply making unsupported statements about my skills and experience. 

In my closing paragraph, I both ask for an interview as well as make the point that I can add value to the organization. I finished with my phone numbers and email address so that I can be contacted easily.

I used this cover letter format to apply for a variety of positions, modifying it for each one so that the qualifications I highlighted matched the job qualifications (the same as I did for my resume). It enabled me to find a new job in under four weeks after I lost my job of over 20 years due to a company merger.

This letter was effective in getting me interviews with several companies: a dot com startup, a major software company (I’m sure you know the one), a major city newspaper, one of the three large cellular phone companies, and a large public sector organization. It was fairly easy to change my qualifications so that they were the ones best suited for each job.

A final, but important, point to note is that this entire explanation presumes that you are well qualified for the jobs to which you apply. If you’re using a scatter gun approach to apply to as many jobs as possible, it’s difficult to customize each cover letter and resume to uniquely match each opening. This makes it unlikely you’ll get interviews.

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