I’m no expert on writing a perfect cover letter. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m doing it right at all, when other times I’m amazed at the brilliance that is my cover letter (probably not that brilliant). I’ve done my research, I’ve gotten advice from my university’s career center, and I’ve had my dad read over my cover letter. As far as I can tell, it’s been effective. While I won’t claim to be an expert or have a brilliant cover letter, I can at least pass on what I’ve learned about writing a cover letter.
(Rule #1) KEEP A ‘STANDARD COVER LETTER’ DOCUMENT. In your computer’s document files (hopefully organized into work files, then a separate cover letter folder), save a standardized cover letter document. This should be a skeleton document with the basic points/paragraphs you want to have in all your cover letters, as well as all formatting done. This way, when you’re writing a cover letter for a new job, you can save a ton of time and mental anguish by having an pre-made document that you can modify for the specifics of the job, the company, and the type of employment. Of course you need to change things up; at the very least you have to change the date, the company name, and the job title. At the most, you’ll want to add in things you want to emphasize and take out things that might be unimportant.
(Rule #2) DO YOUR RESEARCH. Not just for the job to fill in the job title, but also for the industry you’re looking at. You don’t want to emphasize something that isn’t important. That space is important, use it well! Look through the job description for what the specific job entails and what the company values. Your cover letter should be like a cheat-sheet for your resume, pulling out what the employer wants to know and giving some additional details. Do a Google search for the industry and see what is valued, that way you can emphasize those qualities. Just like with the resume, make yourself stand out!
For some good help with formatting and ideas of what should go into your cover letter, check out About.com’s cover letter help pages.
(Rule #3) SAVING IS AS IMPORTANT AS CREATING. It’s happened to us all; we type up something mind-blowingly awesome, only to accidentally close out of Word and be left with nothing. Luckily, once you have your standard cover letter saved, you shouldn’t need to change a significant amount with each job, maybe a paragraph or set of skills here and there. Once you’ve typed up your modified cover letter, remember to SAVE AS, not save or you’ll lose your awesome standard document. The advice I always got on saving is to always save it with your name, the type of document, and the company/job. So if I applied to Georgia Tech, I’d save it as “FIRST AND LAST NAME Cover Letter Georgia Tech”. This helps employers to identify who the document pertains to and what it is (the company name is mostly for you to be able to find it in your ever-expanding cover letter document folder). This rule is the same for resumes as well. Unless the company you’re applying to has a specific way they want you to name your files, putting them in this format will make you look organized and professional, and help you know what’s what in your files.
Another aspect of saving the document is file format. Microsoft Word (for us PC users) automatically saves as a word document (.doc, .docx, etc). I’m not sure how Macs operate but I know it’s a standard document file. If you do have a Mac, consider that a lot of business use PC, so you might want to save your documents as a Word document if possible. Another alternative, which I prefer, is saving as a PDF in addition to your .doc. Not only does this help with formatting and viewing on the employer’s side, when the computer creates the PDF it pulls it up for a final viewing, which can help you correct mistakes.
As I’ve been told by many sources, many places don’t ask for a cover letter specifically. This doesn’t mean that you submitting just a resume can get you a job. Cover letters are a cheat-sheet for your resume, so you want to include it whenever possible. The best way to do this is to merge your cover letter and resume into one document and submit them together. It makes you look organized and professional to have both in the same document, and then you can ‘force’ the employer to read your cover letter. The easiest way I’ve found to do this merge is to open up both the resume and the cover letter documents in Word, then copy/paste your cover letter to the top of your resume (you want the cover letter to be the first thing the employer views!). It may take some work to get the formatting to match right, but once you do make sure you save your standard cover letter and resume documents accordingly. Make sure your cover letter stays on one page, your resume starts on page to and is only a page long as well. Then save this as a PDF (or Word document if that’s all the employer accepts, make sure to check on file formats when applying). This keeps your resume and cover letter together, looking clean and organized to the employer. Make sure to name the new document accordingly (“Name Cover Letter and Resume Job/Company”)
Good luck creating your cover letter. Make yourself undeniable!
For some additional advice on your cover letter, I’ve found some great articles from TechCareers.com. I got one of these via an email I get from the website (a great reason to sign up with several career finders– they send emails with not only job posting updates, but also advice on job hunting!). Like I said before, take all advice with a grain of salt, but make sure you actually let yourself hear (read, observe, etc) the advice and think it through. Here’s a list of the articles I found:
Four Strategies for Writing a Powerful Cover Letter
Your First Cover Letter: What to Say.
How to Write a Super Cover Letter
How to Overcome Obstacles in a Cover Letter
7 Cover Letter No-Nos