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Cover Letter FAQ

by Alison Ringo

Cover letters: Like so much else in the job search and application process, their proper content, their style — really their use at all is subjective to say the least.

A cover letter is the highlight reel of your resume, in paragraph form. Many potential employers and headhunters find cover letters extraneous, but some request them out of habit, to gauge candidates’ interest, and for a variety of other reasons.

Regardless of the situation, here are a few things you can count on when it comes to writing cover letters for positions you really want.

If submission instructions request a cover letter, you must include one. An introductory email does not count, in this instance. If a job posting says “cover letter and resume,” it means cover letter. This isn’t a long-ish email.

It’s a letter, and it’s addressed in the proper business format, attached as its own document, as the first page of your resume document, or cut and pasted into the body of your email.

(When not specified in the instructions, attach it as its own document.)

Tailor the content to each company and position. This means highlighting relevant skills and job functions in your career history, not simply cutting and pasting the company’s address into the header.

If it’s interest in the company and position you want to get across, the only way to do that is to take the time and customize.

An application for a Senior Account Executive role should not include a cover letter discussing your drive to win a Client Services Manager role, e.g.

On a related note, if you know the hiring manager and others reviewing your submission are all women, do not use a salutation such as “Dear Sirs” (for instance).

Speaking of which, as to formality in general: that is a subjective, case-by-case decision. Very generally speaking, the larger the company, or if you’re looking into certain industries (finance, law, etc.), more formal is better. In 2012, “To Whom It May Concern” is often less mentally jarring than “Dear Sirs,” however.

Break out your Strunk & White, your AP Stylebook, etc. Cover letters partially serve to showcase your formal written communication skill set, which encompasses things such as grammar and spelling of course, but also whether you take the time to thoughtfully and succinctly direct your correspondence.

Think of a cover letter as a brief essay about yourself in relation to the position and company. In high school your essays included the intro, where you stated the thesis.

Next was the body, where you argued your thesis with supporting citations.

Finally, there was the conclusion, where you tied everything up to show that you had in fact proved your thesis.

Cover letters are the same, and require the same care in terms of not overusing a favorite adjective or verb, in terms of consistent style throughout (to use an Oxford comma or to not use an Oxford comma? Choose one.), and in terms of precisely and correctly employing your knowledge and creativity.

If these seem like painfully basic ideas, it’s because they are. It’s hard to get specific about cover letters since there are no hard and fast rules anymore.

But if you’re submitting one (and again, do if asked for one), go by the above as a bare minimum, and you’ll be off on the right foot.

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