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How to Write an Effective Cover Letter

Monday July 1, 2002
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Every job you apply for is a little different, right? So should you be redoing your resume each time to match the particular job's requirements? Hardly. In fact, your resume should remain relatively static during your job search unless you have new information or credentials to add. Your cover letter, on the other hand, is your opportunity to customize your job-application process. It's also a good place to let a little bit of your personality show through and start the "sales" process.
Always include a cover letter when sending a resume, even if you're faxing or e-mailing it. The only exception would be if you were applying to an ad that explicitly says, "Do not send cover letter." Otherwise, it serves as a personal introduction.
The Format
Your cover letter should be word-processed in one of several acceptable business letter formats. If you're not sure what one should look like, go to the library or bookstore and check out some sample cover letters in any resume-writing or job-finding book.
Word-process your one-page cover letter on good-quality stationery - ideally the same stock your resume is printed on. If you don't have letterhead stationery of your own, type your name and address (centered) at the top of the sheet.
Date the letter and then type the addressee's name and title, if you have it, as well as the company name and address, along the left-hand margin, below the date and before the greeting.
The Opening
If you have a person's name, write your greeting using "Dear Mr. Reynolds" or "Dear Ms. Reynolds." If you can't tell the gender of the person by their name, you can use, "Dear Chris Reynolds." Be sure you have spelled the person's name correctly. If you don't have a name, use something like "Dear Human Resource Manager" or "Dear Nurse Recruiter." Avoid "To whom it may concern" because it's so impersonal. If absolutely necessary, you can use the generic "Dear Madam/Sir." Be sure to use both pronouns so as not to offend anyone.
Use an opening statement that tells why you're writing. If you're applying for a known job opening, state the position you're applying for and mention how you heard about it. If you read about the job from a classified ad, mention the name and date of the publication or website where you saw it. If you heard about the job by word of mouth, mention who referred you. Say something complimentary about the employer, if possible, such as "County Hospital has a great reputation for nursing care, and I'd like to be a part of your winning team."
The Body
In the body of the letter, briefly state your qualifications for the job. Don't repeat everything that is on your resume. Rather, highlight your strong points and summarize those skills and attributes that relate to the job. This is where you sell yourself. You can expound on things in your resume by saying, "I am particularly adept at public speaking and writing and have a passion for both." You can also mention any relevant experience, including volunteer work or courses taken, that aren't mentioned in your resume.
Remember, this is an introduction to your resume - keep your comments brief and concise.
The Closing
Use a closing paragraph with an upbeat tone. For example, "I look forward to hearing from you so we can discuss our mutual interests further." Mention how and when to reach you. Give as much contact information as possible, including your phone number, e-mail address, and beeper and cell phone numbers, if applicable.
End the letter with a complimentary closing, such as "Sincerely" or "Yours Truly." Then type your name several spaces below that and sign your full name in the space between.
Just as with a resume, be sure to have one or two other people look it over to be sure it's free of spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. Don't rely solely on your word processing program's spell check function to correct errors. Years ago, I was sending out cover letter after cover letter and getting no response. I realized one day, to my horror, that I was consistently misspelling "sincerely" in my closing.
For serious consideration, your cover letter must be picture perfect, not too wordy, and written in an upbeat tone. A well-written and well-executed cover letter will go a long way toward making a great first impression and helping you land that coveted interview.