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Cover letters - why you need them

Cover letters are an essential part of the communication between you and a prospective employer. While you have hopefully customized your resume to the employer, there is only so much you can do with a resume. Your resume can tell employers about you, but it doesn't tell employers what you know about them -- or more specifically, what you can do for them. So your cover letter acts as two things: a letter of introduction for your resume and a tool to show the company what you can do for them.

In the Internet article, "Will's Worksearch Tips on Writing a Persuasive Cover Letter," Gary Will writes, "A cover letter is an opportunity to tap into an individual employer's aspirations and anxieties. Your resume is about you, but employers don't really care about you. They care about what you can do for them the problems you can help them solve and the opportunities you can help them take advantage of."

Think of your cover letter as a business proposal, where you propose what you can offer the company through your employment.

One of the most important reasons to send a cover letter is that cover letters have a much greater chance of being read by a recruiter than a resume. If your resume arrives alone, it will get the mandatory 3 to 5 second scan. If it arrives with a cover letter, the recruiter may read the cover letter and, if the cover letter is good, put the resume aside to read more fully later. If you are very lucky and your cover letter highlights certain items in your resume that catch the reader's attention, the recruiter may read through the resume on the spot to find the mentioned terms.

Career Success: the Canadian Guide written by Shannon Whelan professes, "Cover letters are at least as important as your resume, and every resume should be accompanied by a cover letter. The letter is what catches the employer's eye, so it must be focused, well planned, and well written. Often employers read the letter first if it is poorly written it could eliminate you from the selection process before you get started."

Appearance

To ensure that your cover letter doesn't eliminate you, ensure that it has a professional appearance. Use proper business letter formatting, full block or modified (semi) block style, with some sort of letterhead, even if it's just your name and address in the top centre, the date next flush left, followed by the company name and address, the Attention to: next, and then the greeting all flush left.

The body of the letter should be in three or four short paragraphs with two to five sentences per paragraph and varied sentence length from long to short.

Finally you sign off with a salutation such as Sincerely, your name and lastly Enc. at the end indicating that you've enclosed something your resume of course.

The paper should be the best quality you can afford and at least 20 lb. white, off-white or pale grey with black or blue ink other colours of paper or ink aren't really safe since many organizations take a very conservative approach to correspondence and deviation may work against you. Use a laser printer if possible or a good quality ink jet printer.

Margins should be at least 1 inch on both sides and a 1 1/2 inch margin is better. Use 10 to 12-point font size and lines spacing of about 1 1/4 lines. The text should be in an easy to read
serif font (Times or Roman styles are good choices). Do not use italic or novelty fonts.

The letter should be a single page only. This is a must. Cover letters should NEVER be more than one page. If you can't get what you want to say on a single page then you are trying to say too much. And don't be tempted to use a smaller font or larger margins to fit it all in. If the text doesn't fit comfortably on one page, cut it down!

"The ultimate cover letter challenge, then, is to share valuable decision-making information in a very limited space," says Barbara Spencer Hawk in What Employers Really Want: The Insider's Guide to Getting a Job. It is difficult enough to get a recruiter to read anything you send in a two-page letter will most surely be considered too much trouble.

As with your resume, mistakes are unacceptable. Have your letter and resume proofed by at least one other person (preferably two) before you put them in the mail.

You may want to have some business cards printed with your name, degree and area of specialization, address, telephone numbers and email to clip to the top of the cover letter. This gives a very professional impression to the recruiter. If you're very lucky, the card will go into a business card file where the recruiter will run across it over and over again.

Content

Always know the name of the person you are sending the letter to not just the position (Human Resources Manager). This information is readily available through a number of sources, and a simple phone call should confirm this. Always use the formal address of Mr. or Ms.

You should let the reader know why you're writing fairly early in the letter, but most cover letters begin with, "Enclosed please find my resume." Wrong! Don't do this. Find another way to start the letter and you'll have a much better chance of it making past the trash bin on to the desk. Gary Will advises, "Write in a friendly, conversational tone, and avoid stiff businessese."

If you've done your research, then you know something about the company you are sending your resume to. Your cover letter gives you the chance to let them know that. In the letter you talk about them. You discuss their business based on the information you have and try to relate it to yourself or your skills. You say things such as, "I understand from your website that your organization is involved in." or "In your profile in Career Prospector
I read that you currently are working on" followed by, "which was my area of specialization at university" and the like - get the idea?

You can also expand certain areas of your resume for employers based on your knowledge of their needs. Since resumes should be balanced with no one item or area overwhelming all the other information, you can use the cover letter to highlight certain areas. For example, "As you can see from the skills section of my resume, I am proficient in" or "During my internship at ABC Corporation, I had the chance to work on a project similar to the one your company is now undertaking."

Avoid the clichs that are often found in cover letters including: well-organized, excellent oral and written communication skills or team player. Says Gary Will, "Unsubstantiated puffery adds nothing. The reader isn't going to think of you as one scintilla more competent just because you describe yourself that way. Effectively and efficiently are particularly weak and some people sprinkle them in their letters like confetti."

Instead of using these empty terms, Gary Will suggests somehow trying to show the recruiter what was so efficient or effective about what you've done. Try giving concrete details or figures.

David G. Jensen proposes in "Writing a Great Cover Letter," on the Bio Online Career Center website that "your letter must arouse the reader's interest. It must entice the reader to examine your resume."

Your last paragraph should contain closing comments. But instead of using an unsubstantiated promise to "be an asset to your company" or to insist that you'd enjoy working at the organization, try something more sincere such as, "I'd appreciate the opportunity to meet with you" or "discuss the possibility of employment with your firm."

You can end the letter in one of two ways: with an action statement (I will call you next week), or just say that you hope that they will call you. If you say you'll call them though, make sure you do. Even if it's just to leave a message on voice mail saying, "I'm just calling to see if you received my resume."

If the contact information at the top of the letter needs clarification - such as it being a temporary address or if you will be away from that address at certain times this is where you do that. Give the reader whatever information is needed to reach you easily.

Your final line should contain a thank you somewhere.

To sum up
Barbara Spencer Hawk describes the importance of cover letters in this way, "The cover letter is not only a vehicle for conveying specific information, it's an ideal way to illustrate your capacity to produce business-like written communications, which is one of the top five success traits. It's also your chance to demonstrate your ability to think like and relate to the employer. Since so many potentially qualified applicants fail to do this, employers
genuinely value those who do. Your cover letter is the first indication of your business savvy."

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