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How to Format a Cover Letter

By Miriam Salpeter

Once job seekers compose a strong, targeted resume, the next important step is to write a cover letter to help enhance their chances to land an interview. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know exactly what to include in the cover letter, or if it should be excessively formal or focus on connecting personally with the reader. The best tips: be sure the cover letter addresses the hiring manager’s needs (as detailed in the job description) and doesn’t include any mistakes to cause the reader to question your ability to do the job—for example, if you say you are detail oriented, but have misspellings in your letter.

It’s important to craft a well-written note, but never rely on the cover letter alone to tell your story. Be sure to include all pertinent information in the resume, including why you are well-qualified, and any discrepancies, including short job stints, job hopping, etc. The cover letter supports your resume, but the resume needs to do all of the heavy lifting, since many hiring managers will only look at you cover letter if they believe your resume makes the cut.

Quint Careers reports, “Studies over the past several years suggest that somewhere between a third and half of hiring decision-makers do not read the letters.” Despite this statistic, hiring managers who expect a cover letter will penalize you for not including it, so your best bet is to write a strong letter to accompany your resume.

What should you include in your cover letter? It’s important to be clear about the job of interest, but it’s boring and a little old-fashioned to start a letter, “I’m writing to apply for the XYZ job, as advertised on ABC.” Start your letter with a “hook” to show a little personality and enthusiasm for the job. This could include a sentence or two to help demonstrate a connection between the organization and you. For example, if applying to Home Depot, “Every weekend when I was growing up, my dad and I donned orange aprons and planned out our Home Depot runs to get materials for our home improvement projects. As a life-long customer, it’s exciting to think about using my finance and accounting skills to work at Home Depot as a Finance Analyst.”

Your letter’s content should not simply repeat the information in your resume; use this as an opportunity to briefly share details an employer might want to know about you. Quint Careers’s research includes an employer “wish list” for cover letters. They want to know (succinctly):

  • How did you find this position? Did someone refer you (always include this information), or did you meet the hiring manager at an event?
  • Why are you applying? Why are you qualified?
  • What do you know about the company? If you’ve done research about the company or organization, demonstrate it in the cover letter.

Other important aspects to incorporate:

  • Strong writing skills; your cover letter is a de facto writing sample.
  • Easy-to-read formatting, including bullet points and white space, and keep it to one page. When you apply by email, your cover letter is the body of the email with your resume attached.
  • Details from the job description; make a direct connection between your skills and their needs.
  • Tailored content; make sure the letter does not seem generic or as if it was written for any audience.

Format your cover letter with the following information:

  • An introduction, including the “hook” or story mentioned above and the name of the job you’re applying for.
  • Several paragraphs outlining your qualifications. Consider pulling out three main points (umbrella topics) from the job description and use each one as the basis of a paragraph describing your qualifications. Make a point to indicate anything unique or special about you that would help make you most qualified for the job.
  • A concluding paragraph indicating when you plan to follow up and suggesting your availability. For example, if you are an out-of-town candidate, you may add, “I will be in the Boston area early next month, and hope to have an opportunity to meet you then. I will be in touch the week of ___________ to follow up if I don’t hear from you sooner.”

A strong cover letter may make the difference. Don’t underestimate this important job-search step.

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