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Importance of a Cover Letter

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Writing a Great Cover Letter

If there's one thing about the job search that people dread more than writing a resume, it's writing a cover letter. The reason the cover letter is so daunting is that it is both more personalized and more formal than a resume. Unlike a resume, where bullets and sentence fragments are acceptable, a cover letter should read like any other professional letter. It should be grammatically perfect, and it should contain no errors of fact.

To have any chance of standing out, the cover letter must be written for a particular position, or for one of several positions within one organization. That means that each cover letter you write needs to be specific to that reader. And it also needs to flow in a reasonable and comfortable manner.

Anxiety levels around writing a cover letter are only made worse by the writing habits that we have developed. If you have not been in the workforce for long, or if you have been employed in a setting where you did not need to communicate in writing with other individuals, your letter writing experience may be limited to holiday and greeting cards, or the thank you notes that your mother made you send your aunt in response to that scarf she sent you.

Even if you have been in the workforce for a while, it's quite likely that you write far more messages through e mail than via letter. The nature of e mail is so different from the formal business letter, and sometimes people forget that. The result is cryptic letters with no real flow.

Getting Started with Contact Info

The first step, and the easiest, is to put your contact information and the recipient's address at the top of the cover letter. If you have preprinted personal letterhead stationery, you do not need to include any other contact information on your letter.

Answer Three Important Questions

The anxiety of writing a cover letter does not have to be overwhelming. The key is to answer a few questions before you ever put your pen to paper (or your fingers to the keyboard):
  • Why you are writing?

  • What do you want to say?

  • What do you want the person reading the letter to do in response to having read it?
Why Are You Writing?

A cover letter, by definition, is a letter that accompanies and explains something else. In this case, it will accompany a resume. The "why" question, and how you answer it, will determine the content of the letter. For example, some people will write a cover letter and submit a resume in response to an advertisement in the help wanted section of the newspaper. In that case, a cover letter might begin:

Now, I won't tell you to "Stop right there!" but I will warn you that any letter will be more effective if it is addressed to an actual individual than if it is addressed as above. You may decide that it's much easier to send a generic cover letter than to ferret out contact names and personalize each letter. That's a fine decision, but you should understand that the response rate for this type of letter is likely to be lower than if it were addressed to Joan Doe, Director of Marketing.

So hopefully, the advertisement that you're responding to includes a contact person to whom you can address your letter. (Incidentally, some companies will list the name of a fictitious individual in their classified advertising. It allows them to funnel all the mail and telephone calls to the appropriate person without that individual being inundated with calls after the search has been completed.

Now, often you will be writing a cover letter for a reason other than simply responding to a help wanted advertisement. In fact, as you will see later, although you should not overlook any reputable job lead, there are far more productive uses for your time than reading want ads. Hopefully you will have plenty of opportunities to access what is referred to as "the hidden job market" a name given to the vast number of job openings (reportedly up to 85 percent of all openings) that never make their way into the want ads or the employment agencies. If you are writing a letter to a networking contact, the letter will carry much more weight than if you were addressing it to a stranger.

In either of these cases, you have an advantage over the "cold" letter the letter that is written without the benefit of having some third party known to both you and the employer. The fact is, when a letter comes in that makes reference to someone that the employer knows, in some small way, that letter comes from that third individual too. Certainly, in the case of Mrs. Cleary, she cannot afford to simply disregard the letter, because it is possible that the CEO will follow up and check on it. Even in the case of the letter written to Mr. Farber, he will want to accord you at least the same respect that he would give to Mr. Donaruma, as the letter writer is sure to tell Mr. Donaruma what the results of his inquiry were. How the letter writer was treated will certainly reflect on Mr. Farber.

What Do You Want to Say?

With the first paragraph of the cover letter, you will hopefully have captured the reader's attention sufficiently to keep him or her reading. Cover letters, like resumes, are more likely to be scanned than read word for word. The opening of the letter will dictate the extent to which your letter will actually be read. Assuming that your opening was strong, including a reference to a third party known to you and the reader, there's a good chance that he or she will read on.

The second part of the cover letter gives you an opportunity to succinctly sum up the reasons why you believe that your background warrants bringing you in for an interview. You can usually do this in one or sometimes two paragraphs. Those paragraphs should be crafted carefully; so as to keep the employer interested enough to keep reading rather than scanning. With that in mind, brevity, clarity, and organization will be very important.

Some Sample Second Sections

In these samples, you will see how you make the transition from the introduction to laying out your qualifications for the position.

As you will see from my enclosed resume, I have recently completed my Associate degree in Medical Technology. As part of that degree, I completed an eighteen month co op experience with CMD Medical Group, where I started as a records clerk and eventually completed rotations in phlebology and serology. This experience gave me training on the Cyclotron 4000, which I understand is used at your office as well.

Outside of my formal curriculum, but equally valuable, has been my volunteer experience with Hospice Greensboro. I was exposed to Hospice as they cared for my ailing aunt while I was in high school. 1 was so impressed with the service and dedication of their staff that I began volunteering eight to twenty hours a week, and I have done this for three years. In that time I have developed a clearer understanding of the human side of medical technology, and have learned to always treat each individual as a person first, and as a patient second.

In the illustration above, two paragraphs were used to make two different aspects of the writer's background stand out. Although there may be times when this approach seems appropriate, more often you will find that it is to your advantage to keep this section down to one paragraph. Once again, it's worth pointing out that the stronger the introductory section, the more likely that the reader will actually read your letter, regardless of whether you use one or two paragraphs for the second section. Otherwise, you run the risk that the reader will read the first paragraph and either stop reading or skip to the ending.

What Do You Want the Person Reading the Letter to Do in Response to Having Read It?

The third section of the cover letter should be a call for action. It should let the reader know what you want. You can take a passive or an assertive approach to this section, depending on a combination of the position for which you are applying and your comfort in following up with the employer.

An assertive approach: I will call you within ten days to confirm that you have received this letter and to see if you are interested in exploring in greater detail the possibility of my joining your firm. If you have any questions in the meantime, please contact me at 555 456 7234.

A passive approach: I sincerely believe that I would be an excellent fit for this position. I am confident that if you grant me an interview for this position, you will feel the same. I look forward to hearing from you, and to discussing my candidacy in greater detail.

There is rarely any reason to mention your disability when writing your cover letter. The one exception might be when the employer is specifically seeking people with disabilities for the position. In most other cases, the cover letter, like the resume, is not the preferred means of disclosing your disability. The cover letter is simply a means to address why you are sending a resume to the employer. Any discussion of your disability is best left for later on in the process.
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